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Does Open Source Experience Help in Today’s Job Market?

Everyone is saying recessions benefit open source. Is the same true for job seekers?

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I’m old enough to remember a couple of recessions. I can recall when my dad was laid off in 1982 and struggled to find work as a welder for nearly a year. I largely missed the recession of the early 90s since I was in college but was smack dab in the middle of the 2000-2001 Internet bubble. Still, none of these seem to compare to what we’re seeing now: More than 6 million US workers are drawing unemployment benefits, 600,000 laid off last month alone. Tech wasn’t necessarily at the heart of this crisis but it’s feeling it’s share of the pain with layoffs at Novell, Sun, IBM, Microsoft and a slew of others.

It goes without saying that being laid off is a horrible experience. But if you’re new to really bad job markets or are just now trying to enter the work force it’s doubly shocking. Probably the best thing that you can know is that you’re not alone. Quite a few people have gone through or are going through a similar situation and it’s good to know that even though it’s dark — and possibly getting darker1 — these cycles do happen and we will come out of it.

There’s a lot of chatter going around that open source excels in recession environments. I’m a little on the fence about that claim — I remember watching Red Hat’s stock price following their IPO and the 2001 stock crash; it was a good 2+ years before it recovered. Things may be vastly different today then they were in 2001 — and I hope they are — but what I’m interested in talking about today is whether open source benefits anyone looking for a job right now. In theory, if open source companies grow in a recession, they should also be hiring.

I suppose I could whip up a list of ways to beef up your resume with open source, but I’m not all that good at that sort of thing (hopefully something like that will appear in the comments). Rather, I thought I’d share my own tale of recession, jobs, and how open source figured in.

In 2000-2001, when the Internet bubble started to collapse, not only were companies laying people off in droves but a huge number of companies were simply disappearing overnight. As quickly as everything had been built, it came crashing down doubly fast, and the result was, for the most part, employment chaos. I was working as a software developer at the time and in the span of a year I changed jobs three times, moving to a new position generally just before the previous company failed.2 I was actually pretty fortunate and able to find work until about late-2001 when I was laid off the day before Thanksgiving (Happy Holidays!). I spent the next year more or less freelancing and not being paid until I landed a job… writing Active Server Pages (ASP).

This was a pretty low point in my career. Writing ASP isn’t exactly a ton of fun but when you pair it with the most boring work in the world (Intranets that never launch! Meetings — so many meetings, a management ban on COM objects, &c.), it starts to grate on you. I used to invent excuses to go play with the HP3000 just for a change of pace. It was a paycheck, but something had to change.

Eventually, I decided that open source would be the best outlet for my frustrations and tried to spend as much time with it as I could. I started by talking the head sys admin into allowing my Linux laptop onto the network (the only Linux machine box on a network of something like 750 machines). I introduced the guy in the cubicle next to mine to Cygwin, and the two hit it off instantly. Somehow convinced management that we needed a Linux server just to run cron jobs since *.bat files were prone to error (still not sure how I managed this one). And generally threw myself at Python.

I learned the language (it “fits your brain“) and wrote it every chance I could. I made some (very small) contributions to open source projects, wrote Python documentation and started a short-lived magazine. Eventually, I caught the attention of the crew at linuxdlsazine and by late-2002 I was running a PHP conference for the company. I’ve been hanging around ever since.

So, that’s my (extremely linear and abbreviated) tale, from nearly 10 years ago. It leaves out a lot of the long nights spent hunched over a laptop, the bone-shaking worry about the crumbling job market, and downright luck that I fell into the position that I did. But it was a path that followed a trail of open source crumbs. And, in the end, it worked for me.

Now, I’d like to hear what you think. Is open source the best path to a job in today’s market? And, if so, how should someone go about it? Are you out of work and looking for advice? Drop a note in the comments; maybe someone can help.

1 Probably. Maybe. There are optimists among us.

2 On one memorable Tuesday morning, I got an IM from a friend still working at the job I had left a week before saying they couldn’t print anything over the network. “Why?” I asked. Because the printers were too busy printing everyone’s checks. The company was evicted from the building later that day.

Bryan Richard is a writer and software developer, avid runner, pretty good cook, and has a habit of buying more books than he can read. He's also the VP of Editorial and Infrastructure for linuxdlsazine. Want to get in touch? Send him an email.

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