How to make a career move from proprietary to open source technology

Learn a few tips for moving into a new technical culture.
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I started my journey as a software engineer at Northern Telecom, where I developed proprietary software for carrier-grade telephone switches. Although I learned Pascal while in college, at Northern Telecom I was trained in a proprietary programming language based on C. I also used a proprietary operating system and a proprietary version-control software.

I enjoyed working in the proprietary environment and had opportunities to do some interesting work. Then I had a turning point in my career that made me think about things. It happened at a career fair. I was invited to speak at a STEM career panel at a local middle school. I shared with the students my day-to-day responsibilities as a software engineer, and one of the students asked me a question: "Is this really what you always wanted to do in life? Do you enjoy and love what you are doing?"

Whenever my manager asked me this question, I would safely answer, "Yes, of course, I do!" But I had never been asked this by an innocent 6th grader who is interested in STEM. My response to the student was the same: "Of course I do!"

The truth was I did enjoy my career, but that student had me thinking… I had to reassess where I was in my career. I thought about the proprietary environment. I was an expert in my specialty, but that was one of the downsides: I was only modifying my area of code. Was I learning about different types of technology in a closed system? Was my skillset still marketable? Was I going through the motions? Is this what I really want to continue to do?

I thought all of those things, and I wondered: Was the challenge and creativity still there?

Life went on, and I had major life changes. I left Nortel Networks and took a career break to focus on my family.

When I was ready to re-enter the workforce, that 6th-grader's questions lingered in my mind. Is this want I've always wanted to do? I applied for several jobs that appeared to be a good match, but the feedback I received from recruiters was that they were looking for people with five or more years of Java and Python skills. It seemed that the skills and knowledge I had acquired over the course of my 15-year career at Nortel were no longer in demand or in use.


My first challenge was figuring out how to leverage the skills I gained while working at a proprietary company. I noticed there had been a huge shift in IT from proprietary to open source. I decided to learn and teach myself Python because it was the most in-demand language. Once I started to learn Python, I realized I needed a project to gain experience and make myself more marketable.

The next challenge was figuring out how to gain project experience with my new knowledge of Python. Former colleagues and my husband directed me toward open source software. When I googled "open source project," I discovered there were hundreds of open source projects, ranging from very small (one contributor) ones, to communities of less than 50 people, to huge projects with hundreds of contributors all over the world.

I did a keyword search in GitHub of technical terms that fit my skillset and found several projects that matched. I decided to leverage my interests and networking background to make my first contribution to OpenStack. I also discovered the Outreachy program, which offers three-month paid internships to people who are under-represented in tech.

Lessons learned

One of the first things I learned is that I could contribute in many different ways. I could contribute to documentation and user design. I could also contribute by writing test cases. These are skillsets I developed over my career, and I didn't need five years of experience to contribute. All I needed was the commitment and drive to make a contribution.

After my first contribution to OpenStack was merged into the release, I was accepted into the Outreachy program. One of the best things about Outreachy is the mentor I was assigned to help me navigate the open source world.

Here are three other valuable lessons I learned that might help others who are interested in breaking into the open source world:

Be persistent. Be persistent in finding the right open source projects. Look for projects that match your core skillset. Also, look for ones that have a code of conduct and that are welcoming to newcomers—especially those with a getting started guide for newcomers. Be persistent in engaging in the community.

Be patient. Adjusting to open source takes time. Engaging in the community takes time. Giving thoughtful and meaningful feedback takes time, and reading and considering feedback you receive takes time.

Participate in the community. You don't have to have permission to work on a certain technology or a certain area. You can decide what you would like to work on and dive in. 

Petra Sargent will present You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: Moving From Proprietary to Open Source at the 20th annual OSCON event, July 16-19 in Portland, Oregon.

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Petra Sargent is a technical writer for the Developers Tools Group at Red Hat and is passionate about creating quality technical documentation. She has over 17 years experience in proprietary software development where she served in many different roles.


Great post Petra! It's cool to hear about your career story and how you successfully transformed your skillset and career into open source. Also it sounds like sometimes we need a sixth grader to ask us an honest (maybe hard) question about our life sometimes! Maybe all adults should get yearly "life reviews" by kids. :-)

Great article, Petra. Well done!

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