The Harsh Reality
I have had my consulting business for over well over 20 years. While I have a regular "day job" that I totally enjoy, I keep the business going because I get to work with so many interesting people. Many of my clients are non-technical people who hire me to take care of their computing needs. Others are companies that have in-house technical people who need assistance with a specific project. I particularly enjoy the latter consulting gigs because I learn so much about the culture of the company I'm working for; including its approach to technology. It's extremely rare for me not to learn something at a consulting job.
Another perk of working so closely with the tech staff is the opportunity to hear the gripes the staff has about the corporate culture. While the occasional interpersonal problem is discussed, most of the complaints I hear are related to job satisfaction. I'm not talking about salary or benefit issues, because my perception is that most people are satisfied with their compensation package. What I'm talking about are three recurring themes concerning employee career growth: 1) that the company has little or no budget for training; 2) that the company has little or no available hardware for experimentation; and 3) that the company allots little or no "on-the-clock" time for education.
I guess that I have a unique view toward these complaints, owing to the fact that I grew up in a family business and have a corporation to this day. So I see things from the "company" perspective. On the other hand, I also have my day job and am employed by a company, thus I can see things from an employee perspective.
Let me take the company standpoint first and give you a dose of harsh reality. Speaking as "the company," I can tell you that you have been hired for your particular skill set to do a particular job. I'm willing to provide whatever training you may need to effectively do your job, and if you turn out to be a really good employee, I may even have other ideas for your growth within the company and thus offer you additional training. As for paying for your education for things not directly related to your current or potential future job within the company...well, there isn't a great incentive for me to do that. Sure, I can use education and training as a recruitment or retention incentive, but I'm unlikely to do that unless your current job is so esoteric that I'm concerned about replacing you. Why not? Because I'm not overly eager to spend a ton of money on your education only to have you leave for greener pastures elsewhere.
That was rather harsh, wasn't it? But I guarantee that if you spend time talking with managers, you'll find that it isn't too far off the mark. The company exists to make a profit, and frankly, employees are what an old-timer office manager I knew called "animated overhead." Finding the compensation package that allows the company to recruit and retain staff can be a challenge, and the laws of supply and demand is as applicable to employees as it is to the products you produce.
Now, let's be equally harsh from the employee standpoint. Speaking as an employee, I can say that while I do enjoy my job, I do not do it just because I like it. I have expenses and a family to provide for. Furthermore, if God had meant humans to be out of bed at the time I have to be at work, then the humans would not have had to invent alarm clocks. I'd rather be sleeping. If you, Mr. Company, aren't planning on providing me with working conditions and compensation that I find satisfactory, I will be out of here as soon as I can find another company that will.
Have you ever heard yourself say (or at least think) this? There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking out for your own interests. But in my opinion, and having straddled the employee/company fence, I can tell you that it is your responsibility to ensure that you can move on at will. And to that end, it is your responsibility to keep your skills sharp and to ensure that you have the skills that are in current demand. I had an interesting discussion today with one of my employees, who put it succinctly: Do you want to have a job or a career? A job can be wiped out rather quickly: Companies come and go, as do computing platforms. If all you want is a 9-to-5 job, and at the end of the day, you do nothing to enhance your skills, then you roll the dice that each new day sees you employed. On the other hand, we are all involved in a dynamic field that I don't see dying anytime soon, so if you keep yourself current and educated, you should have no trouble moving on should circumstances dictate that to happen.
So what the hell does this all have to do with open source? Let's revisit the themes I mentioned earlier in this column and see.
"The company has little or no budget for training." That was number one in the list, but when pressed, people who make that claim will usually confess that it should be amended to read "The company has little or no budget for training me in things I find interesting but aren't applicable to my job." My answer: Pay for it yourself. True, those nice and expensive conferences that you enjoy on the company's dime may not be within your budget, but I dare say that the Internet can be a resource to locate conferences that are free or low-cost. I already mentioned the Ohio Linuxfest (the free one-day conference) in an earlier column, and there are others like this. Do some research and find ones that are in your area, and then avail yourself of them. There are bargains to be had if you're willing to look around.
If you want a more formal resource for training and education, let me put in a plug for The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). I've been a member off and on for over 20 years. For a mere $99 per year, you get a couple of excellent magazines and an email newsletter, which gives a wider view of the computing field than more specialized newsletters do (including this one). Of particular interest is the benefit mentioned on the "myACM" page: "Free and unlimited access to 1,100 online books from Safari® and Books24x7® and 2,200 online courses from SkillSoft®." ACM membership offers so many benefits for so little money that I can't imagine not having it. Be sure to check it out.
"The company has little or no available hardware for experimentation." Early in my consulting career, I built a network in my home that consisted of six fully loaded personal computers. Back then, the cost of PC and network hardware wasn't inexpensive, so I had an incredible investment. It was worth it, though, because it gave me a "lab" in which I could experiment with the various operating systems and network protocols. The lab allowed me to work out solutions to problems that clients were bringing to me before I ever stepped foot on their premises. All in all, I never regretted the expenditure.
So how many computers do I have at home now for the same purpose? One. My laptop. In an earlier article, I mentioned virtualization and VMware's free VMserver product. I use VMserver to forge a virtual network of machines that allow me to do the same experimentation but without the cost of the hardware. Not only that, but the virtual lab is portable, so I can work with it no matter my location. One nice feature of VMserver is the ability to create virtual network interfaces so that the virtual machines running on one machine can talk between themselves (much like IBM does on the iSeries with the LPARs). This makes experimenting with network concepts a real possibility, without ever putting a single packet onto the wire of the "real" network that my laptop is plugged into.
Of course, you can simultaneously load all of the instances of Linux or BSD that you have memory for, for free. For the cost of some RAM (which is dirt cheap) and, if desired, a couple of Windows licenses, you can experiment to your heart's content. You don't need any additional hardware.
As for software, most companies are now offering "personal" versions of their commercial software so you can download and install it on your virtual machines, for your hacking pleasure. With VMserver's snapshot facility, it's easy to revert back when you screw something up.
"The company allots little or no "on-the-clock" time for education." If you are so busy at work that you have no time for education, I can't do much to help. I'd suggest break times and perhaps lunch, but most of us (myself included) need that time to vegetate and catch our breath. On the other hand, how much time do you waste each night watching TV? With the current writer's strike, there's nothing but reruns on. Pick one of your least-liked programs and instead of wasting that time, devote it to a little study.
Think you couldn't make time? One of my college buddies is a physician, specializing in anesthesiology. He manages a multi-million dollar investment portfolio for an investment firm. He also teaches science courses at a university. He's an accomplished programmer (he used to do consulting) and has written software to pick stocks. The guy has a wife and five children, yet he always seems to be able to find time in his schedule for learning. He is a master of time management; I wish I had his skills. My point is this: If he can find time to learn, so can you and I.
The Home Stretch
I have no doubt that this column has been the least technical of all my technical columns. But this is a topic that, for me, has been brewing for some time. As I take stock of my current situation and think about the home stretch for retirement, I have to ensure that I'm prepared for what the short term has to offer.
Over my career, I have been to four IBM iSeries conferences (roughly one every five years), and I can't help but notice the declining attendance at each subsequent event. This speaks volumes to me about the state of the iSeries job market. Should your company decide to do the unthinkable (kick the iSeries out the door), will you have the skills that can keep you employed, if not at your current company but at another? Make sure that you do. Add this to your list of new year's resolutions: "I will take the time to learn new skills and keep myself current in the wonderful world of IT."
Have a great holiday season!