Open Source and Career Advancement

amcpherson's picture

In the past I have done media interviews with reporters who question if open source is good for a developers career. Basically they have the outdated notion that open source is for hobbyists and time off from “real jobs.” In reality, open source developers are much in demand. The kernel developers I know certainly have no shortage of job opportunities. Why?

Open source (especially platform software like Linux) is used in more and more companies, in more and more uses. Check out the Linux Kernel Development paper to see a long list. Because it’s open source you have a multitude of companies tied to the product and its success. In the Linux world, the platform is used by companies in the desktop, server and embedded markets. A member of the Linux community is not tied into one company since his or her skills or transferable to all of the companies who use Linux. This is in contrast to jobs in the proprietary worlds. If you’re a Zune developer, you certainly have transferable software development skills to another similar project. (Languages are languages after all.) Yet the value of your specialized knowledge and experience is of much more use to Microsoft than anyone else. That means you, as a worker, have less leverage and are more at the mercy of internal project politics specific to that company. (Unfortunately it shouldn’t work this way, but we all know that companies are generally not quick to reward good employees unless someone else may take them.)

Open source projects are not immune to politics, don’t get me wrong, but there is one key difference: transparency. Because your work is in the open, it’s the best way to market your skills. Esther Shindler, editor at CIO Magazine, has a great article on this topic. She says:

Sometimes, there isn’t much you can do to kick-start your career. Not everyone can be lucky enough to get involved in a high-profile project at work, or to develop a talent in a technology that’s suddenly in-demand. But it surprises me when IT professionals who aim to move up the career ladders don’t take advantage of one resource that’s a win-win solution all around: get involved in an open source project.

This is particularly important to women in IT, who can feel that it’s hard to get noticed in their companies (see The Executive Woman’s Guide to Self-Promotion for general guidelines on how to counter that problem). But it really applies to anyone who wants to gain experience and visibility in the IT department, even if you don’t care about becoming a rock star.

As a participant in an open source project, everything is in your control. You pick the project that you think is the most valuable, or in which you can develop the skills you need but can’t justify on your résumé. In the universe of open source, you’re judged only by what you contribute. Corporate politics aren’t an issue. If your code is useful, or your technical documentation is appreciated, or you’re just a welcoming voice on the community IRC channel, you have a good chance of being invited to become a committer.

I think there is a shortage of great open source developers. Women, especially, should see this as a great opportunity for their career and get involved with Linux or other open source.