Linux and Microsoft: Taking a Pragmatic Approach

by Tom Adelstein

Would it surprise you to discover that Linux administrative and support employees have created barriers to entry for others with similar talents? What if I told you that a difficult job climate has emerged because of your Linux buddies? Would you believe it?

Get a grip because that's something with which you may have to deal if you attempt to change jobs or enter the market. Recruiters tell me that "Linux guys" take job offers from predominantly Microsoft shops, go through training and within an average of three months leave their employers hanging. That means having Linux credentials could work against you. Technologists with Linux on their resumes might find something akin to age or gender discrimination when they start applying for work.

That's a shame, because plenty of excellent technologists suffer from the antics of a few. I personally don't care what platform on which someone employs me to work. I'll optimize Active Directory and safeguard an Exchange Server when asked. If that's what the company uses, then that's what I'll give them.

I also know plenty of people with the same feelings. In fact, one of the more ardent Linux trained system administrators I know works in an all Microsoft shop. He also gets a fair share of assignments doing technical reviews for Linux books in spite of his day job.

I also know the leader of one of the larger Linux User Groups in the US who spends his days working in a Microsoft shop. He doesn't go off in a rage if someone won't listen to one of his proposed solutions using Linux instead of Microsoft. I like him because he's a diplomat and doesn't endanger others.

I know you don't want to hear this but the warnings from publications like "Information Week" about this issue fall closer to home than you may want to admit. Aside from creating barriers to entry for job candidates, IT managers have started shunning Linux and Open Source solutions because of the people issues. So, Linux and open source adoption may suffer as well.

While the mention of Linux is starting to make the hair rise on the necks of many recruiters and IT managers, Open Solaris fanatics have similar problems. In its attempt to retake their market from Red Hat, Sun has spawned a new breed of crazy people too. Hiring managers in turn have started losing their objectivity toward Sun. I'm starting to see migrations from Sun to Microsoft I never thought possible.

What's the Problem?

The lack of a pragmatic approach to the job market and clear thinking lies at the core of this issue. Windows fanatics appear to get away with their pranks because Microsoft dominates the market. That makes them invisible to managers already enamored with Microsoft's usability. The same managers will turn a blind eye to the technical advantages of Linux, for example, because of an unwitting perception of Linux fanatics who color the water for everyone.

Define a Pragmatic Approach

In ordinary use, pragmatism refers to behavior, which sets aside an ideal to achieve some specific current or urgent need. If you ever studied Maslow's scale of needs, then you understand the approach. Advocating free software, while an admirable endeavor, doesn't usually pay the bills, feed the kids or get you to work in a new automobile. In the common sense survival hierarchy, fanatic ideals fall way short of the basics required of people meeting their primary responsibilities.

Throughout history, vocal minorities have brought about societal change. But what about the rest of the people? While the masses may benefit from the sacrifices of a few brave men and/or women in the long run, those same masses are often quite busily engaged in seeing that their children have something to eat and a roof other their heads.

Fanatics in the IT Industry

For some reason, it doesn't seem logical to me that an operating system should generate religious fervor. History shows us otherwise. It shows us that people using different computer systems for some reason engage in irrational behavior toward each other as if a holy war actually existed.

Regardless of the history it still makes no sense to me. When someone I'm paid to support needs me to fix their email account what difference does it make if they use Outlook or Evolution? In business process engineering terms, where's the value add from a preference for Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris or Windows? The client wants his or her email to work; it's a closed issue.

Fanatics are characterized by excessive enthusiasm for and intense devotion to a cause or idea and are often motivated irrationally. And while quite eloquent at times, fanatics in the IT industry are unnecessary when you think about the other issues on this planet such as starvation, HIV, war mongering, etc. at this time.

In other words, while you may have the means to wreak havoc on the commercial market, your reforms may not benefit mankind as a whole. In fact, the masses probably could care less about your arguments and positions about free versus proprietary software regardless of which side of the fence you're on.

Potential for a Failed Experiment

While I do not personally believe Linux will go away, I said the same thing about Netware once. When IBM controlled 90% of the PC hardware market, no one believed they would ever lose that business completely. But they have. If Linux fanatics continue to muddy the waters for recruiters and hiring managers, the grand experiment could fail like others before it.

The Linux project demonstrated to the world that a global collaboration of computer engineers and technologists could create a highly functional operating system for free. The concept of collaboration and community has since spread into other industries and has given a lift to countries otherwise bereft of computer resources.

So regardless of the success or failure of the Linux operating system, we have gained from its rich heritage. That in itself could wind up as the legacy of Linux. Who really knows? Are Local Area networks the historical legacy of Netware or a computer in every home the legacy of the IBM PC Company? The possibility exists.

Time for Ordinary Pragmatism in the Job Market

I began this little essay asking a question. Would it surprise you to discover that Linux administrative and support employees had started creating barriers to entry for others with similar talents? It surprises me because I had not realized the degree to which Linux fanatics had infected the market for jobs. But, they have infected the market and you should feel concern if you chose a Linux career path.

As for me, I consider myself a technologist. I'm dazzled by Linux. Does that mean I'll demand that people only use Linux and shun other operating systems or development environments? No. The only people I'm shunning these days simply don't know how to keep their mouths shut and their obsessive opinions to themselves.


2006-07-05 12:21:53
Are there no responses because you deleted them? Like you did to mine in your other blog posting? Could be you're carrying that shunning a bit far.
2006-07-05 12:34:31
No deletions.
M. David Peterson
2006-07-06 10:36:46
This is one of the best reports I have seen in a LONG time.

Very nice, Tom! Thanks for this information. It's always nice to see folks who have put the proper time and effort into researching topics such as this. It makes things so much more believable and understandable when such obvious detailed research, and honest answer to some tough questions has been made.

2006-07-06 10:41:45
David, you're welcome. I appreciate your observation also.
2006-07-06 12:35:12
anecdotes != data.

I have never seen a successful private or public-sector organization make technology decisions based on whether a particular vendor has an "obsessive" base of users. I would argue instead that Linux has suffered due to its lack of well-understood support options and significant vendor (hardware, OS and app) effort.

For its part, Sun continues to compete with its own aftermarketed products due to overselling high-capacity systems during the dot-com boom (I'm not the only one who signed off on seven million dollars worth of Sun equipment on a single line -- please don't ask what that hardware costs now) and has been misaligned with a market focused on inexpensive server farms rather than robust central systems.

More critically, your argument has a prima facie flaw. You say (and let us accept) that *nix admins spend an average of three months at Microsoft-centric employers before leaving. Let us assume that these employees are acting rationally and would not prefer to be unemployed and starving to working on a Windows server cluster; thus, we can assume that *nix admins are able to find more satisfying (and perhaps more renumerative) work outside of Microsoft shops with relative ease. This directly contradicts your assertion of a "difficult job climate" for *nix admins, and suggests that the reason Microsoft shops have trouble retaining *nix admins is because the admins are underemployed. An analogous situation would be a fast-food restaurant finding that it can't retain college graduates as fry cooks.

To repeat: if we accept the premises of your argument, your conclusion cannot follow because there is, implicit in the argument, evidence for a strong jobs market for *nix admins (unless the jobs market is only strong for *nix admins who currently work for Microsoft shops, which seems dubious).

I think it is more likely that you are reporting on special cases within the broader economy. There may be some limited and anecdotal validity to your observations, but it certainly doesn't address the tech jobs economy as a whole. Let's just agree that aggressive evangelists for any technology -- Apple, anyone? -- can cause blowback for the associated marketing department.

2006-07-06 12:38:59
Alexander Hanff
2006-08-04 18:18:53
I have for many years, tried to make Linux biggots understand that without their "lusers" they would not have a job. They fail to understand that if everyone was a technical expert there would be little need for support staff and less need for system administrators, therefore they should always try and treat their "clients" with the respect they deserve.

I work in both Linux and Microsoft, but I have never let it get in the way of doing my job and doing it in a professional manner. Afterall, the people who provide me with the work which pays my salary, may not be technologists, but then, I am not an accountant, or a biochemist, or an engineer etc. People have different skills and treating them as "lusers" because they are not experts in technology makes about as much sense as telling your boss he is a moron.

Tom Adelstein
2006-08-05 05:40:42
alexander, you do let it get in the way of your job because it's on your mind.

2006-08-15 12:01:20
I was pretty glad to see this article getting play on some of the hot link sites.

Personally I'd be pretty happy to see the OSS community start tossing out more of the sharp-toothed zealot subcrowd it has fostered; those guys aren't doing anyone any favors.

Value is in the eye of the beholder - and value is what most people want. I don't choose a product out of hatred for some other product's purveyors - I choose the product because I think it will give me value. I'm glad when someone can show me something that will give me more value, and I am completely turned off when someone spews their hatred on me.

Sell the value. Not the hate.

Mike D
2006-11-02 02:10:14
I think there is a fundamental flaw in the way a lot of admins (and the general operations folk) perceive the way the IT world works. Your view works perfectly with the thought that you're supporting userspace applications like mail, LDAP/AD, and file shares. Linux has a lot of barriers to entry in this arena, and rightfully so -- I've seen many a person come into an organization, make some sort of conversion, and no one else can fix it once they've left. I've done it myself, while taking transfers within my company. I painstakingly documented things, made sure the appropriate support contracts were in place, and educated the replacements, but in the end they just didn't care enough to learn something new.

That however, is neither here nor there in my stance on how people view the sector. My organization for instance includes the aforementioned IS people supporting MS products and services internally, but that is such a small fraction of our IT infrastructure that it's nearly negligible. The billions we have invested in *NIX (be it solaris, linux or whatever) makes our internal IT budget look like nothing.

It's sort of a stretch, but you sometimes have to look at it like "Did you use linux today". Did you use an ATM? Did you watch a digital cable channel? Did you search for something on Google?

I guess what it comes down to is that Sysadmins work in engineering operations too!

James Kyle
2007-03-24 10:34:37
Hey Tom,

I've certainly seen the type of attitudes you describe in your article. However, I think you may have made the classic mistake of taking studies that show a) perceptions of one group: recruiters and b) trends in another group: linux IT and imposed a causal relation that isn't inherent in either study, namely that it is a result of linux fanatics blind to other solutions pushing their preferred platform where it may not be appropriate.

Here's another take on how the same situation could arise:

I've found that management type inherently lean toward Windows. This seems to have a inverse correlation to their technological savvy as well. Linux employees in primarily Windows shops often leaving early. Why did a windows shop hire a linux IT guy if they didn't want to entertain open source solutions to their problems? You must be selective on a resume, you don't want it to turn out to be an autobiography. The very reason we choose to fill our resumes with linux and open source related experience over our windows experience is because we want to work within those solutions. This isn't to say that blinders should be worn, just this week I recommended a windows solution over an open source or hand rolled one because it was cheap, quick, and effective....other options didn't compare. However, if you asked me my recommendations on setting up a web server of course I'm going to recommend Apache over IIS....this shouldn't come as a surprise. Look at my resume, it's why you hired me.

So, why do these guys leave early? Maybe they're hired in primarily windows shops under the pretense of bringing in a flavor of linux and open source only to find out that what this really means is taking care of a 10 year old linux mailserver in the back closet and being retrained (or further trained) in managing IIS. Yeah, I'd say about 3mths of that is about the time I'd hit the door too. . . it's just long enough to get some responses from a new job search.

From the recruiter's point of view, this employee is unreliable, volatile, etc. He asks the department and will probably get comments like "that guy always pushed open source solutions....doesn't he know we're a microsoft shop." Let's face it, for every haughty "*nix guy" there's a "microsoft shill" whose never used a terminal, passed his MSDN, and wouldn't be caught dead using "you get what you pay for, communist, virulant" open source software. From the token nix guys point of view, they were trying shoe horn him into a work environment he wasn't hired for in the first place.

Is the above scenario "the cause" behind the perceptions and trends noted in the survey? Maybe, maybe not. However, it's every bit as likely as those proposed in the article.