Robin Miller's formula for a successful open source career

No readers like this yet.
Event report

For an audience composed primarily of open source programmers, developers, and system administrators gathered at SouthEast LinuxFest, Robin Miller's message might be tough to swallow.

"You cannot be a 'Linux sysadmin' in today's world," he said. "Not if you want to maximize your income and job satisfaction."

It's an odd statement to hear in a presentation entitled "Using Linux to Boost Your IT Career," which Miller, the former Slashdot editor known affectionately as "roblimo," delivered June 9, the second day of the conference in Charlotte, NC.

Many Linux users are passionate purists who wish to work only on open source projects with open source tools, Miller argued, but their refusal to accommodate users or clients with other software preferences can keep them unemployed.

"The versatile sysadmin never sneers at someone else's operating system preference," Miller said. "There is no room for operating system or licensing bigotry in the grown-up business world."

Nevertheless, Miller noted that demand for Linux system administrators is on the rise—not just in the United States, but globally. So understanding Linux is key to a successful and lucrative career in information technology, a field notoriously difficult to define.

"What is an IT career?" Miller asked. "Is it programming? Yes. Is it fixing someone else's computer? Yes."

The most successful applicants, however, can demonstrate knowledge not only of Linux but also of other platforms and architectures companies might already have in place. Yet Miller noted that experience with open source software provides distinct advantages for job seekers.

Open source projects allow programmers to gain valuable experience on real-world, mission-critical projects even as they're searching for full-time employment.

"Degrees are good," Miller said. "Provable experience is better."

And working with open source code means many IT professionals can actually include this code in their portfolios—something they couldn't do with their work on proprietary products and projects.

But writing code isn't the only task IT workers perform today. In fact, it might not even be the primary one. Miller reminded his audience that working with computing hardware remains "the heart of IT."

"You must be able to diagnose and repair basic hardware problems," he said. "It's that simple."

Miller encourages anyone interested in an IT career to build at least two computers, just to understand how one might address the hardware problems that inevitably occur in every organization.

"Often," he said, "you're going to hear: this PC won't boot. Please fix it. You're dealing with people who aren't technically hip."

While he said that four-year college degrees are still "the best ticket to a job," Miller also insisted that well-regarded industry certifications can also benefit IT workers who want to stay abreast of industry trends.

And finally, Miller said, IT workers must be aware of the missions and basic operations of the companies for which they work. This ensures that IT professionals are not only conversant in terms their employers understand, but also able to offer solutions to problems tailored for the specific needs and goals of their organizations.

"What is your company doing with the computers and software it buys?" Miller said.

Thorough knowledge of a company's business is the first variable in Miller's equation for success in IT:

Knowledge of the business aspects of your company + strong technical skills = career gold and happiness

"And I can think of no better way to end a talk," Miller concluded, "than on the subject of happiness."

Bryan Behrenshausen
Bryan formerly managed the Open Organization section of, which features stories about the ways open values and principles are changing how we think about organizational culture and design. He's worked on since 2011. Find him online as semioticrobotic.


One hidden advantage of being a Linux and Open Source "expert" is keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the community. In comparison, Windows, Mac and the Unix flavors move at a glacial pace. Innovation happens in the community constantly, and a Linux sysadmin needs to be incredibly flexible and able to put aside time to try something new.

Ironically, one of the most annoying part of our jobs as Linux people, is the efforts we put into interoperability, is our greatest strength. A Linux sysadmin is expected to make it work, a Windows sysadmin can say, Microsoft doesn't support it. That gives our people immense power, and why innovative companies build on Linux.

Deploying open technologies can be an antidote to excessive buck passing. I like it.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.