Robin Miller's formula for a successful open source career |

Robin Miller's formula for a successful open source career

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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."

About the author

Bryan Behrenshausen
Bryan Behrenshausen - Bryan edits and manages 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.