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The University of Linux

No degree? No problem. Free software companies value aptitude and community involvement, and apprenticeships offer a leg up

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The free software world is about doing and making, not ticking boxes, so it’s possible to get started in your FOSS career without a degree in computer science. IT is still a new field, sucking in people from other disciplines as it grows. But as large firms’ HR departments often insist on a certificated three years of studying, is it still viable to just jump into a job with a free software firm, even with no degree?

If systems administration is a pragmatic, wing-and-a-prayer sort of discipline, it’s natural that those of a practical bent – who can keep calm under pressure, dive into a problem at different levels of detail, think laterally and learn vary quickly from man pages and Google – should positively thrive managing servers running an ever-changing roster of critical services. Given the continual growth of young hosting companies, open-minded employers – based not just in the capital – are also a given.

Long-term readers of LUD will have noticed a number of articles on free software luminaries who started out in the arts, as well as many from other scientific disciplines. Despite the best efforts of universities and parts of industry to present computer programming as a science, the real world will not play ball. Coders soon find by experience that when given a new brief, it is impossible to set out, with any accuracy, how long it will take to come up with a solution. Indeed, it’s often hard to picture what the solution really should be.

The only way forward is to dive in and code a little, and see what starts to take shape. Recognition of the problem is now seen in the slow death of waterfall programming, and the spread of Agile into even some of the largest and most conservative corporations. Again, this points to a demand for creative people who can show results, have imagination and are unafraid to explore and experiment. It is a common complaint that imagination and experimentation are not encouraged by much of the education system.

Makers

21st Century careers are vastly different from those of the 19th Century, which still shape our education system. Flexible skills are needed, and the creativity and imagination to make astounding new things, and to think your way out of problems created by old ways of doing things. Little wonder there’s such an overlap between free software and the makers at fab labs and hackerspaces. Natural, too, that many should want to make their own career and education.

Launching your career without getting a degree might go against most of what young people have been told by their teachers. Leaving the safety blanket of education is a big step, and most recruitment ads that don’t demand a degree do want years of experience, a classic catch-22 for newcomers. Fortunately for young people, there is another formal way into the workplace: the modern apprenticeship. Anyone aged 16 or over and not in full-time education can apply for an apprenticeship. From the UK government website:

Apprenticeships are work-based programmes that combine practical training with study. They take between one and four years to complete depending on the level of apprenticeship.

An apprentice:

• works alongside experienced staff
• gains job-specific skills
• earns a wage
• studies – usually one day a week – towards a related qualification

Recently, IT apprenticeships have been hailed as the only way to bridge the skills gap, and new players are coming in, such as CISCO – about to start hundreds of apprentice network engineers. But for careers entirely with GNU/Linux and free software, the UK’s small FOSS businesses are already working with the scheme.

We spoke to Ruth Cheesley, director of Virya Technologies, who is now training up her second Open Source Apprentice: “When I first took on an apprentice, I was the only person in the business. I was running round doing [all the] fairly easy stuff like setting up sites, and having to spend a lot of money on outsourcing.”

Cheesley spoke to her business mentor and discussed options for expansion, including an apprentice they could “train how we want.” The first apprentice, Chris Smith, was soon working on Joomla design, sales, installation, working with the database and file permissions. Smith stayed on after completing his apprenticeship year and now takes an “active lead” in commercial projects, and is busy with “templates, adapting extensions, even writing extensions.” Virya Technologies is “completely standardised on Kubuntu and an open source stack, using Inkscape, GIMP and Git for change management.” Apprentices are “given the right support,” but get to manage their own day.

“It isn’t slow-paced. We warn the apprentice that they’ll hit the ground running,” says Cheesley. LUD notes that in Buddhism, the term Virya refers to a practitioner’s energy or exertion, and has also been translated as persistence, effort or diligence. Cheesley was advised by her business mentor to treat apprentice selection “as an interview for the highest paid position in your business.” 20 applicants, many of whom hadn’t filled in the form correctly or bothered to find out what Joomla was, were whittled down to three – all with “experience of web technology; HTML/CSS; tinkered with new stuff; inquisitive mind… not necessarily JavaScript and CSS technical skills, but skills to learn from available resources.”

Virya Technologies has found the apprenticeship scheme “instrumental in expansion” and now has two new apprentices: Andrew Matthew on the Joomla side, and Chelsie Abbott in marketing and PR. In total the firm now has eight employees, only two of whom hold university degrees.

Virya Technologies isn’t the only open source company to see the value in apprenticeships. Not only does TDM Open Source Software Services have apprentices, but they’ve spun off a sister company – TDM Wyre Academy – to manage apprenticeships across the Midlands.

Moodle

Wyre Academy recruits, screens, helps to train, and certifies apprentices – it currently has 90 placed at 80 firms across the West Midlands. A handful of these specialise totally in free and open source software, such as web and mobile software developer Pale Purple. TDM Open Source Software Services itself – and its apprentices – works with “Moodle, Mahara, Totara, Magento, Joomla!, WordPress, Alfresco and vtiger etc. They also use open source programming languages such as PHP and Ruby,” Wyre Academy’s Kerry Carpenter tells LUD. And, “at least 90 per cent of our apprentices are using open source for some aspect of their role within their organisations.”

“TDM Wyre Academy deliver the apprenticeship programmes using open source technology,” adds Carpenter. “We have developed Totara LMS for Apprenticeships which is an integration of Totara LMS (the enterprise version of Moodle) and Mahara ePortfolio, with additional functionality for assessment and evidencing of competencies and monitoring progress. Our assessors use Android tablets in assessment visits rather than relying on old-fashioned paper- based processes.”

TDM’s Thomas Bell, who trains and assesses the apprentices for LPI and other certification, has spoken of the apprentices’ “passion for Linux”, and how even the 16 to 18-year-olds “have been fiddling and contributing in the open source community for years.”

As we go to press (coincidentally, during National Apprenticeship Week), Carpenter informs us: “We currently have eight vacancies on our site itapprenticeships.org (that was developed by an apprentice using WordPress).”

Aptitude

Pale Purple Ltd is a Midlands-based developer of web and mobile apps working entirely with open source software. Director David Goodwin is used to taking on students for an industrial placement year, but had dismissed the idea of an apprentice when approached by the Wyre Academy as “we didn’t think they’d find someone suitable.” However, needing a new member of staff, the firm asked Wyre if it had someone with some coding aptitude.

Wyre presented two candidates for a “fairly techie” interview and one, William Redman, “got out his laptop and started writing some Perl.” Pale Purple employed him as “he had the knowledge, but not the experience on paper – we haven’t had to sit down and teach him.”

Apprenticeship in Redman’s case has meant “real-world experience: doing the job instead of just learning how to do it,” as he has constructed sites in HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, and started building mobile apps.

Clearly the UK government’s apprenticeship scheme, given the right employer (who gives responsibility and support), and the right apprentice (enthusiastic for learning and doing), is a promising way into a free software career. It’s also a boost for small companies looking to expand, as Virya Technologies ably demonstrated with its subsequent rapid growth.

The apprentices we have mentioned were taken on by free software companies because of their interest and aptitude. Tim Dobson (see ‘Ignore the careers teacher’ boxout on page 57) worked on websites in his own time, discovering how to do things that the school couldn’t teach. Dobson got involved in the local free software community and even founded a youth group to get young people more involved in FOSS. Mike Little (see ‘Start your own project’ boxout) founded an open source project that thrived because it was so easy to get involved with.

Meritocracy

Is there a common pattern here? The free software community is a meritocracy: show us the code; the bug fixes and reports; the answers given on forums; useful blog posts; meetings organised. Involvement, enthusiasm and what you do and make are what matters. Dive in and build your own career if you are confident; get involved with the community and look for mentors if you are not so sure; or, for those needing support from a more formal entry, try an apprenticeship.

We’re not suggesting all university courses are a waste of time – but we are suggesting that while many employers only interview candidates with degrees, free software remains a very open field. Furthermore, starting your career without a degree doesn’t preclude going back to college later in life, when you may benefit from a broader perspective and a more settled lifestyle. Meanwhile you can dip into the many massively open online courses (MOOCs) available via the web (see boxout), to sample what you’re missing.

Conclusion? Get involved in doing, making, sharing and collaborating. Free software might be a multibillion-pound industry (especially for HP and IBM), but it also remains a community – one built on merit and achievement, and well aware that its future depends upon welcoming anyone who has something to contribute.

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