Open Source Software as a career.

I’ve never written about what I do in the open source world, mainly because I’m still learning to program, and thus have been unable to contribute much in the way of direct code.  It is said (in The Dilbert Principle) by Scott Adams, that only the people of whom their skillset is not sufficiently developed to help a project become managers.  Currently, therefore, my prospects my lie in management.

That’s not entirely true.  Although I’m not a programmer (yet.. I hope to learn enough to earn the title) I do spend alot of time doing Linux sys administration.  If I were not working with other people, it would be a very difficult and time consuming task.  My role is to get things installed and configured, and any shell programs that need writing to automate the process I pass along to another programmer in the company with varied levels of instruction for what I want to be written.  It’s not the most exciting of work, but at least I’m doing some work that can be paid for by a client rather than taken out of the ‘development’ budget of our organisation.

Instead of harking back to how I got into open source in the first place, I’ll begin with how I got employment.  I had applied for a marketing internship at Bentley Motors, based in Crewe where I was at University.  Despite applying way back in October, and getting irrelgular emails saying (you’ve made it past the nth stage of selection) I managed to fail at what would probably be the least practical stage – two weeks before the internship started.  Having managed to get very excited at the opportunity, and after conning myself into thinking it was my right to get the internship, I was left in the lurch.  With only two weeks before any other internships started, the chances of me finding another were massively slim.  I though therefore, as I was not in dire need of the cash, that I’d spend the summer contributing to the marketing efforts of OpenOffice.org and promoting Open Source in general.

I also sent some emails out to the ODF (OpenDocumentFellowship) and OOo lists in order to see if anyone had need of some marketing help.  Unfortunately I had a few replies, but the people who were able to offer me employment were in impractical locations.

I set up the domain www.whatisfloss.co.uk and set about creating a one-stop-shop that people with little/no interest in open source could be sent to in order to get a general overview of the benefits of FLOSS.  My first draft of the site was content rich, but due to my ignorance I had created it using dreamweaver.  It’s nice to get flamed by people telling you how hypocritical you are for using proprietary software to create a FLOSS site.

Anyway, that was really an eye opener, and I tried quite a few FLOSS desktop applications to re-create the site.  It was only when I discovered the wonderful abbreviation ‘CMS’ that my love for all things open source was re-kindled.  I started with joomla, then progressed to drupal with a few others in between, and was suitably impressed.  This was all in the space of two weeks.

Approximately half was through the second week an email turned up in my inbox.  It was a simple email congratulating me for my work on www.whatisfloss.co.uk – saying that the essence of the site was exactly what this man’s company were trying to promote.  He also used the phrase ‘I hope that we can work together in the future to fulfill our mutual aims.’  Cor blimey gov – this was a fantastic email.  I did some research on the company and found it was based in Manchester, 30 miles from Crewe.  I decided to respond with a slightly cheeky email, along the lines of ‘you said you’d like to work with me in the future – is there any chance you’d like to work with me now and employ me as an intern?’

It was a bit of a gamble I felt, but a necessary one.  I met up with him, and a partner at a meeting room in Manchester, and discussed what it was to be an intern.  My take was the following:

“An internship is the chance for a person to gain experience in industry who has had little or no previous experience.  A reduction in the pay comparable to a person employed permanently in the same role may be implemented as a balance to the worth of the experience in the long term.”

I found this to be a very acceptable means of communicating what an internship was worth to me.  Although taken on to do the marketing, I worked two days a week on ‘linux admin’.  It was also the first time that I’d seen other computers running linux than my own – and was quite surreal the first time I saw it.  As the summer progressed the marketing work dried up and my linux admin work grew.  I was building an open source office server to compete with the MS Exchange server.  At the end of the internship there was a couple of weeks more work in order to get the prototype up and running for ourselves, but that was done (by me getting a part time contract through my final year at University) and the server was complete.  Fully documented instructions on our private wiki).  Despite doing two server installs, the company has thus far been too busy to automate the installation process, but once that is complete we should be able to release code.  (We’ve already contributed certain things back to the horde project – bug fixes as well as fresh code.)

Posted Sunday, August 26th, 2007 under ICT.