Open source: Career-maker, or wipeout?

Is a career focused solely on open source sustainable? Experts predict a wave of opportunities for IT pros with all-open-source résumés — in five years or so.

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Credit: Stephen Sauer

These days, you might get passed up for plum jobs in enterprise IT if you have a predominantly open-source résumé. But in five years, even the most traditional organizations are likely to be looking at open source as a career-maker, says executive recruiter David Patterson.

"While we see more and better-paying opportunities in non-open source today, the future is clearly open source," says Patterson, president and senior practice leader at The Kineta Group, a boutique search firm that places SAP specialists at large businesses such as Kohler, Tractor Supply Co. and BMW.

Open source is permeating IT. There are open-source analytics tools, databases, programming languages, storage systems and more. In September, SAP announced Hana Vora, an in-memory query engine that will use the open-source Apache Spark execution framework to deliver interactive analytics on Apache's Hadoop open-source platform. In October, Microsoft said that it was hiring open-source experts to help support Linux and open-source software on its Azure cloud platform. And in July, IBM unveiled a new code repository that "aims to foster collaborative development of enterprise open-source software."

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David Patterson, The Kineta Group

With open source moving further into the mainstream, Patterson is confident that there will be a wave of opportunities for developers who have open-source expertise. He's so confident, in fact, that he has already started banking candidates with heavy open-source backgrounds into his firm's database of 75,000 profiles.

Bill Taylor, senior technical recruiter at Mondo, a digital marketing and technology sourcing firm, says that although experience in proprietary programs is still necessary for most of today's senior- and executive-level developer positions, he too has seen signs of a shift toward open source.

Some companies are actively seeking open-source developers, Taylor says, noting that "if a company has a certain need for open source, they will bring an open-source expert in to lead a team." Others, he adds, are starting to accept open-source skills as alternatives to experience in traditional IT systems. For example, knowledge of Hadoop may be accepted in lieu of expertise in a proprietary analytics platform.

Although Taylor sees a lot of résumés from people with open-source skills, including expertise in MySQL, Ruby on Rails, Python, Linux and Java, he says these job seekers tend to be looking for low- to mid-level jobs, not managers' positions. For that to change, and he says it will, employers must put greater emphasis on open source as a critical part of overall IT.

Polyglots wanted

At SaaS startup Contraqer, which delivers an automated procurement platform, founder and CEO Dwight Gibbs says open source already can be a career-maker.

"A great developer is a great developer — the language is just syntax. I'm looking for polyglots who know at least three programming languages. I don't care if they are all open source," says Gibbs, who is himself a developer and has hired developers throughout his more than 20-year career. "A career-breaker would be to only know one language."

He adds that open source is evolving so quickly, with new languages such as Clojure and OCaml, that knowing just one or two could limit a developer's career path. "What I really want is someone who is intellectually curious and open-minded," he says. "I want developers who can identify the right tool for the right job and not be stuck in a single mindset." For instance, if someone is highly skilled in Microsoft's .Net framework but doesn't want to learn new things, then he or she wouldn't be a fit for Contraqer.

As much as he champions open source and the open-source community, Gibbs isn't an open-source zealot. "If a proprietary approach would get the job done faster, I'm willing to use it. If I can buy a proprietary library that saves me two weeks of development time, then I will. And if a developer on a project is twice as productive in a proprietary language, then we're going to pay for the license to use that language. The cost is in the developer — not in the tools," he says.

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Dwight Gibbs, Contraqer

As Gibbs has staffed his new venture, the developer, architect and programmer résumés he's seen have had a mix of proprietary and open-source experience. "I don't think anyone is primarily open source coming out of college right now because [computer science departments] still use a lot of Microsoft and Oracle," he says. Instead, open source seems to be something both the college graduates and experienced developers experiment with in their spare time.

But that is changing, according to Stephen Jacobs, professor and associate director at Rochester Institute of Technology's MAGIC (Media, Art, Games, Interactivity and Creativity) Center.

In 2014, RIT established a minor degree focused on free and open-source software (FOSS) and free culture. Students in the program "develop a deep understanding of the processes, practices, technologies, and financial, legal and societal impacts of the FOSS and free culture movements," according to the degree's online description.

"Students of the open-source movement are passionate and values-based. If an application doesn't do what it [should], they want to be able to change it," Jacobs says. For many organizations, open source is simply the most pragmatic way to do business. He points to UNICEF Innovation, which builds innovative systems that support the U.N. agency's mission of improving children's lives around the world.

In its core set of principles, UNICEF Innovation requires the use of open standards, open data, open source and open innovation. "All of their innovations have to be customized for different countries, languages and cultures. If a program is locked down, they can't adapt it," Jacobs says.

The open-source mindset is gaining a foothold across industries, he says, citing the federal government's Data.gov open-source project; the U.S. military's Mil-OSS working group, which promotes collaboration between civilians and the military on open-source projects; Tesla Motors, which has shared its battery patents; and gold mining company Goldcorp, which not only uses Linux, but also made its maps publicly available in a contest in which outside geologists could win cash prizes for helping it find gold.

"Five, 10 years ago, you'd be painting yourself into a corner by focusing solely on open source. And while it's still too early to say open source has won, there are fewer and fewer organizations that don't want anything to do with open source," Jacobs says. In fact, open-source devotees can find open-source projects to work on at most companies. And as open source rises, so too will opportunities for higher-ranking jobs, including titles such as director of open source, Jacobs says.

Milena Berry, CEO and co-founder of job match company PowerToFly, agrees that open source is gaining ground. "Overwhelmingly the international market is looking for new stacks and new technology, and all open source," she says.

Because some popular open-source technologies have been developed recently, it may be hard to find job candidates who have much experience with them. But, the U.S. education system is embracing open source, so the country could soon gain a competitive advantage, says Berry, whose company offers a platform to connect employers with women in technology in 143 countries.

Like Gibbs, she says developers should be able to move easily between programming languages. "It's not a good sign if you get stuck in one stack or another," she says. "If you only have .Net, you'll be very hard to hire."

Familiarity with multiple systems shows creativity and an ability to problem-solve. "We are living in the age where creativity and problem-solving will distinguish us from the machines," Berry says.

Go all-in

One emphatic open-source proponent applauds developers who even today are trying to establish themselves as open-source only. "Being wholly open source or predominantly open source is definitely a good career move," says Alan Clark, chairman of the board for the OpenStack Foundation and a member of the Linux Foundation's board of directors.

Clark, who has been part of the open-source community for nearly 20 years, says open-source projects used to be full of hobbyists with little funding. "Now that companies are getting serious about open source, all these new projects are very well funded," he says.

And businesses are finding ways for their employees to participate in open source projects without jeopardizing corporate secrets. They establish review boards that determine if open-sourcing a particular project would put intellectual property at risk. If it wouldn't, the developer is free to contribute to open-source efforts. If it would, Clark says, "companies can have developers sign agreements specifying they won't work on similar areas in open source."

Thanks to such workarounds, Clark says developers can build their open-source skills and simultaneously rise through the IT ranks.

A competitive edge

Even companies that don't directly contribute to open source have started to incorporate its modern development practices, including collaboration, code development and agile development models. Knowing how open-source code is created gives job candidates a competitive edge, Clark says.

To get started in or advance an open-source career, developers must contribute code, bug fixes or other input to the open-source community.

"Everyone comes out of college with the same classes, programming languages and projects. But open source lets you distinguish yourself by saying, 'I've been playing around with software-defined networking, and here's my code,'" he says.

Clark recommends creating an account on GitHub.com and offering to fix bugs. "The beauty of open source is you don't have to do a lot to start having an impact," he says.

Hiring managers are starting to look for GitHub accounts on résumés. "Without having to take your word about your knowledge of coding, [prospective employers] can go look at your work and ask more pointed questions such as 'Why did you code your patch this way?'" Clark says.

Developers may even find that open-source skills prove valuable in industries where proprietary tools would seem to be preferred. In financial services, for example, trading applications are typically proprietary, but the servers may be open source. Developers could optimize their programs by knowing the details of Linux's code. "I've known kernel engineers who have made their transactions a millisecond faster because of their open-source knowledge, which is direct money," Clark says.

Stephen Jacobs, Rochester Institute of Technology

Stephen Jacobs, Rochester Institute of Technology

Participating in open-source communities also helps developers network with industry experts, gain credibility and get scouted. Companies looking for expertise in a certain language or application can scan a developer's project list on GitHub.

"Recruiters throw out 950 out of 1,000 résumés," but a GitHub account could keep yours out of the trash can, Jacobs says. That shows not only a commitment to open source, but also an understanding of the licensing process and an ability to collaborate, he says.

Mondo's Taylor agrees, saying that .Net developers who focus on C Sharp programming on the job can differentiate themselves by working on open source on their own time.

Gibbs asks potential hires whose work experience has been in proprietary languages and applications what they play with at night and on weekends. "I want to see that you're passionate and that you've explored even the most esoteric aspects of open source," he says.

At PowerToFly, newcomers are encouraged to go to boot camps on various open-source stacks or to participate in hackathons. "Developers should be able to say, 'I have this problem and I know which stack will solve it,'" Berry says.

Jacobs suggest newbies join OpenHatch, an open-source community that posts project needs — including bug fixes, patches and upgrades — and rates required expertise from beginner to expert. He also recommends joining local user groups dedicated to certain languages and platforms.

Exposure to the open-source community will open doors, according to Clark. "People prefer to do open source because it gives them the freedom to create. You're not limited by a product; you're only limited by your own capabilities," he says. "So is open source a career-maker? My emphatic answer is yes!"

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