What happens when a non-coder tries to learn Linux

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I wanted to learn Linux, so here's my account of what I did to achieve that goal.

To give you some idea of what it means to me to learn more about Linux: When I was at OSCON 2014 this year, I met an edX developer named David. During our discussion about the new direction edX is taking with their open source project Open edX, he told me about the Intro to Linux course. I mentally signed myself up immediately. To "get an education" in Linux has been a goal of mine for a while, as my career continues to grow in the software technology sector. And, as I point out in my post on Medium about my professional history, I don't have a programming background. My expertise is in a human language (English), not in a computer language (insert your favorite one here).

And, not in Linux... but, not for long.

I signed up to take the edX course, Introduction to Linux, a few weeks ago and it's been interesting. I'm almost halfway through an 18 chapter course teaching me "what Linux all about." And, I'm doing it because Linux is important to me now—as it became one day for everyone who loves Linux, no matter the reason for arriving at its penguin-y gates. My reason for arriving here is that who I am has led me to a job supporting principles I believe in. The rest is all part of that.

Note: I'm taking the honors version for free; you can also pay a small fee to get a "Verified Certificate of Achievement" for proof that you've completed the course that you can show to employers or educators, helping you get a job (or a promotion) or into a program. Through the "honors" version, I take the course at my own pace.

Now, let's get down to business. Here's how the course works and some highlights from Chapters 1 - 6.

How it works

  1. Create an account and sign up for the Introduction to Linux course. The course ID is: LFS101x.
  2. The course is comprised of videos and written materials by, your host, The Linux Foundation.
  3. All you need is a computer and an Internet connection from which to watch and read. (To get more out of the course, you can install Linux on your computer.)
  4. The course has "Try-It-Yourself activities" and "Labs" for the Linux distributions covered in the course.
  5. Each chapter ends with a few multiple-choice questions.
  6. To give feedback on topics within the chapters, you can leave feedback in the Discussion forum.

Welcome message from Linus Torvalds for the edX course

Highlights from Chapters 1 - 6

The Linux Foundation has created all of the content for the course, including the videos, written text, activities, and labs. It's clear to me that their content team has made an effort to space out the videos between the written material in a way that gives you a break from endless reading. Also, each video is only approximately 30 seconds to 2 minutes long. They avoid getting into the weeds too much at once, giving you chunks of knowledge, letting you test it out, then moving on to another topic. Each chapter points out that as the course progresses, you will go into further depth with each topic.

The course uses these Linux distributions to teach the course

  1. Ubuntu (Debian Family Systems)
  2. openSUSE (SUSE Family Systems)
  3. CentOS (Fedora Family Systems)

The reasoning

"Because there are literally hundreds of distributions, we couldn't possibly cover them all in this course. Instead we have decided to focus on the three major distribution families, and we've chosen one specific distribution from within each family to use for all illustrations, examples, and exercises. This is not meant to suggest that we endorse these specific distributions; they were simply chosen because they are fairly widely used and are broadly representative of their respective family."

Names and trees

The names open source developers come up with can be, well, odd. As a newbie, you're thinking, "What?! How do I pronounce that much less remember that?" But, once you become familiar with the terms, you're like, "Oh, but of course you call the graphical interface a 'goo-ey'!" Typical welcome to the club type stuff. I smiled to learn that the "GUI" was not scary and totally normal! It's just interacting with your computer through icons and screens! And, while learning about the heirarchy of package management systems, I find that yum is even more loveable as the "Yellowdog Updater, Modified" (side note: creator Seth Vidal lived up the street from me). And, as I read through the why and how of command line operations in Chapter 6, I learned about important terms like, SSH, bash, and sudo.

In my conversations with fellow technologists, the other factor I find lacking is my understanding of how things fit together. Never having taken a programming course, it was so cool just to learn about the installation of a desktop environment and the boot process. Then, I finally got to work with files and directories using the command prompt! I had begun to wish I had Linux installed on one of my computers around Chapter 4, but I knew I was missing out big time by Chapter 6.

So, stay tuned for my next adventure as a newbie to Linux when I report back after my first install.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


The rather silly assumption is that you have to take a class to learn it. I have a commercial arts undergrad degree; I switched from XP to Linux more than a decade ago. Caldera, then Mandrake, then Mepis/Debain, now Xubuntu. Never looked back, Never took a class.

Lance, that's great that you learned Linux too. The point isn't HOW you learn it, but that you learn it because it's something you want to do. This course is just the path that I took, and it's proving to be a great option.

In reply to by Lance Haverkamp (not verified)

I'm taking the course as well- about halfway through it also. I completely agree with you. Heck I've been using Linux for 3 years now, and I've loved it, but I signed up for the class to fill any holes I have in my own skillset.

Taking the class is also good for people just wanting a taste of Linux before making the plunge. Either way- Linux and OpenSource is the way of the future so seeing "mainstreaming" like this is wonderful.

In reply to by Jen Wike Huger

M.C. I think that's a really good point. I'm not a non-coder looking to be a coder necessarily, though we'll see. The course is a great way to get a good idea of what Linux is all about.

In reply to by M.C. (not verified)

Nor do you have to "learn" Linux, if all you are doing with Linux is the same things as you did with Windows, running applications. There is intrinsically no difference... as someone else is fond of pointing out "you click on an icon on the screen, and things happen".

Unfortunately, by it's very title, if not it's content, this article makes it seem as if Linux based operating systems are degrees of magnitude different from, and degrees of magnitude more difficult than Windows, or Mac to use. Which means I would never point anyone considering switching to a Linux based operating system to this article.

On the other hand I'm very pleased to see that Jen is sufficiently interested in Linux to put in the time and effort to gain an in depth insight into the inner workings of Linux.

In reply to by Lance Haverkamp (not verified)

Learning fundamentals is always useful, as is reading. Linux is like any computing project - you'll learn the most by getting stuck in but hitting the books or taking courses is always useful. Enjoy!

In reply to by Lance Haverkamp (not verified)

How lacking are we in intelligence that we need a class to learn a new operating system. We should all comb out of the womb pistons firing on all cylinders.

In reply to by Lance Haverkamp (not verified)

It's also pretty silly to think you need to be a coder or programmer to use Linux. Linux is an operating system, like Windows, Mac, etc., not a programming environment. This would be like saying "I learned to drive even though I'm not a mechanic". So what!

In reply to by Lance Haverkamp (not verified)

While I realize that Ubuntu gets a lot of press, why not just install Debian?

Ah, silly question. Never mind.

Actually, quite an insightful question. When the course was first announced, it was going to be Debian (which made me quite happy as my favorite distro - except for all the blackness - is #!..I get hand-me-ups when they're too old/slow/etc for my kids). This was followed by an announcement that while Debian would be used, the material in the course would be fully compatible with Ubuntu & Mint. When the course went live, I was surprised to see that Debian was replaced by Ubuntu.

The other choice made by LxF was to use Gnome. I'd always gone with the adage "Fedora for Gnome, Suse for KDE" so I started with CentOS (they were using 6.5, not 7). Well, it didn't take long to realize that FfG/SfK was trumped by Fedora for desktops, CentOS for servers, so I switched to Fedora. Although this was going fine, I saw that LxF's advanced courses were sticking with the Ubuntu/Suse/CentOS Gnome spread so I figured I'd give Suse/Gnome a try. So far, I've been thrilled with the results, though I wouldn't have ever done this if not for this course, as I'm comfortable with apt-get & yum, but really never learned yast/zypper, etc.

So, even though one can agree with some of the sentiment voiced here in the discussion, I can honestly say that I'm really enjoying this experience.


In reply to by Bob Robertson (not verified)

I have been taking the course as well. I have been an on and off Linux desktop user over the last 5 years or so. The course has been great for me. Enough new tidbits of knowledge to continue to string me along.

Dan thanks for sharing. I think when you care about something you can always learn more abut it. I find that by going back to the "intro" or basics of learning around whatever it is, I often find something I missed OR am reminded of an idea that leads me down a whole new learning path.

In reply to by Dan Orth (not verified)

Jen, I take no umbrage with how one learns Linux (I did it by the seat-of-my-pants beginning with Redhat Linux 4.1 [no, not RHEL 4.1, Redhat Linux 4.1] and, believe me, it was a challenge). But, I think that being a non-coder has nothing to do with it. I'm a non-coder.

Hi Jen,

I enjoyed reading this inspirational story-part-one. It's always somewhat hard to know the familiarity of a term, 'Linux' in this case, when used to the uninitiated, esp. when it has been a household name to yourself for so very long. Did you know there were Linux'ers even before it gained a mascot Penguin?

Me, personally: Linux from an enlightened day in 1991; Linux from two floppies: a boot-floppy and a root-floppy; doing stuff, from the CLI, in the background was so magic that I never looked back at DOS from that moment on (I heard that was replaced later with Windows, but I never cared). So, considering things, nefore long I'll celebrate my Silver Linux Jubilee!

I don't want to welcome you to this world, because you were there all along (it's somehow in you DNA, you see), just want to say: great to have your company!

bjd from Holland

BJD, thanks so much for sharing and for your welcome!

In reply to by Bauke Jan Douma (not verified)

Hi Jen,
I'm an aging Professor who has been using Linux for around a decade. I'm actually taking the course for credit (which is really my way of making sure that I actually stick with it, which I hope I do). I think that it's still self-paced, but I guess I'd better check..
Thanks for sharing,

My first reaction was - oh dear, a course is a bit formal. But, after further consideration I guess that any road you find that takes you to GNU/Linux is a good road to be on.
I started with Linux 12 years ago - I don't code, or program, I just becamse very bored and disillusioned with the proprietary 'for profit' way and being a bit of an old hippy, looked for a cleaner alternative.
You might want to have a look, if you haven't already, at some of Eben Moglen's talks online (youtube if nowhere else) - he makes a compelling case for libre software. It was his rhetoric that got me to finally let go of silly proprietary encumbered distros and opt for one of the FSF's recommended versions - Trisquel Linux.

Hope you have a good journey. This road always seems to lead where least expected.

This is a pretty good article and I wish you well with future additions to it. Unfortunately it implies several times that there is a connection between Linux and programming, between being a Linux user and being a coder. Please correct this error. It will only confirm incorrect assumptions by others considering Linux.

Thank you


I agree. As a Linux user for over a decade now (only OS I use), saying or implying you need to be a coder to learn Linux is erroneous and misleading.

I cut my teeth on Mandrake and then went of to Gentoo and now use Arch Linux as my daily driver, and I am not a coder. Passionate about learning and curious by nature, but a long ways of from being a coder.

In reply to by arjaybe (not verified)

I don't believe that the title and text of the article are intentionally making a connection between Linux and coding. I think Jen is taking aim at the (still) widespread and erroneous belief that Linux is the domain of the techie and the coder, making it too difficult for the average computer user to use.

In reply to by arjaybe (not verified)

I started to use Linux since 2008. And I took nearly one year, to kick windows out my life. Lot of troubles, lot of headache, lot of painful experiences. No course, only myself and google.

I still love Linux, it's open, and sometime more productive and cooler. Hope them can make Linux as easy as OS X.

Please remember that while OS X is not Linux per-say it is based on BSD, a Unix that has been port to X86.
I consider OS X one of the proofs that Linux can be very successful as a desktop OS

In reply to by Alamo (not verified)

Jen wrote an article to generate traffic. If she doesn't know the difference between a OS and programming language, she shouldn't be writing articles on the subject.

Hi Steve,

There is still a widespread belief that Linux is the domain of coders. By showing non-coders that isn't true, we help break down barriers that keep them from trying alternative operating systems.

In reply to by Steve Spence (not verified)

Actually Jen, I don't think this article does that (break down barriers that keep them from trying alternative operating systems).The impression this article gives is that you need to take a special course in order to be able to use Linux based operating systems.

To be fair, it's not specifically the article itself. It's the manner in which the title sets up the article. Of course there are statements made within the article that do reinforce the impression created by the title, that if you are not a coder Linux based operating systems are dificult or obscure.

This of course isn't the case. Linux based operating systems are intrinsically no different from Windows or Mac... they enable the use of other software, that people find useful.

Unfortunately, while attempting to "sell" a really great introductory course into the technical aspects of an operating system (in this case Linux based OSs) you've managed to create the impression that if one is not a coder one will find Linux based OSs obscure or difficult.

This is why I would never offer this article to someone who might consider moving to a Linux based OS, like Ubuntu or Mint or even Zoin or Peach. I'm quite sure they would instantly have second thoughts.

In reply to by Jen Wike Huger

We all meet other people's perspectives with our own--but this article is only meant to be one person's experience of learning about Linux. As stated in the title. My intention, or agenda, is to recount my experience--nothing more, nothing less. If the article does not prove useful for you, that's OK.

In reply to by tracyanne (not verified)

quote:: but this article is only meant to be one person's experience of learning about Linux. As stated in the title. My intention, or agenda, is to recount my experience ::quote

Yes Jen, I understood that right from the start, and I'm pleased to see that you are interested enough to try to understand the technical aspects of Linux.

I merely wanted to let you know that it is unfortunate that your article, from the perspective of a non techie, was not a useful example of how easy it is to switch to Linux based OSs. I've done that.

Perhaps you can be prevailed upon to write an article from that perspective, once you actually switch to a Linux based OS.

In reply to by Jen Wike Huger

The article is not about how to switch to Linux. It's about learning about Linux. I will be writing about installing Linux when I do that.

In reply to by tracyanne (not verified)


I'm looking forward to hear about your progress through this course and your impressions of the various distributions as you learn more. Most Linux users were trained as technologists of some sort, but it's nice to see one more humanities graduate (me - BA English Lit, MEd, MDiv) walking with the Penguin!

Hi Jim, Yes! What distro do you use? Any tips for humanities folks?

In reply to by Jim Moore (not verified)

Fedora, mostly for historical reasons. I started out w/ Slackware in the mid-90s, got turned on to Redhat by one of my sysadmin heroes and stuck w/ it through the transition to Fedora. I've worked fairly extensively with SUSE-based distros and some Ubuntu.

Tips? Depends on what you want to do. As an end-user I have some favorite apps, but what works best for you may be completely different. As for system administration (I'm a network admin. now), if you work well w/ language and are a decent typist, UNIX'ish OSes are your friend. Someone with a good language background can get some serious work done in a hurry on the CLI. With basic knowledge of your favorite shell, 'man [command]' to find out what the standard UNIX commands can do, googling, and some time to play around you can gain a lot of useful system admin. skills fairly quickly.

In reply to by Jen Wike Huger

I've been interested in installing Fedora on my Chromebook. We'll see. Thanks for the tips!

In reply to by Jim Moore (not verified)

I've been on various distros for so long, I've forgotten what I didn't know. I think this article series will be useful for me to reference when talking to clients and non-coder, even non-Linux (-gasp-) sysadmins.

Kudos to you, Jen! Since I do have a strong "techie" background, it's good to see things from the perspective of a "non-techie" (or non-coder). Sometimes, being a techie can make one forget about about what the techie jargon, concepts can look like to the average non-techie user. I think you or a non-techie should write more articles about your experiences with Linux so that we can learn what may or may not need to be improved in Linux, especially for a non-techie user. It's only through authentic, "constructive" feedback that a product can be sufficiently improved, whether it's an operating system, an application, a piece of hardware or a class.

Great initiative, Jen. Best of luck - I think you'll like it!

Great to know your story of learning linux without being a programmer! I like the ease of the installation with multiple ways. I adore that I have all the apps installed, the ones that I would have to install by my own in Windows. For example, I did not have to install mtorrent, winrar. The most significant issue, is that these programs for opening a pdf and related tasks are way better that the ones of microsoft office. Learn more at https://intellipaat.com/linux-admin-training/

Hi Jen,

Thanks for writing this article for Linux newbies such as myself! I look forward to also taking the free course asap & will plan to use Crouton on my Chromebook as well.

Hopefully your enjoying your journey of learning how to use Linux on your Chromebook!


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