Does the distro matter?

I got a phone call yesterday from a recruiter wondering if I would be interested in a Linux administrator position. The first question she asked was did I have any experience with Oracle RAC and I could hear her eyes glaze over as I answered her with a brief description of what I have done with RAC. After shaking herself back to life, she asked if I had any experience with Unbreakable Linux.

Unbreakable is the Oracle distribution and while I have heard of it, I had to admit I had never worked with it as a distribution but I asked what they were looking for specifically. Experience with Unbreakable. Yes, but what sort of experience. I have used Red Hat for years, it's just Linux. This discussion when back and forth like that for a few minutes but clearly fifteen years of Linux experience was not good enough for a job that was looking for distribution specific experience. We parted with me promising to send her my resume and that was that.

But it got me thinking. A few weeks ago, I asked, Is there a best distro?. The question this phone call raised was, does it matter which distribution you are running? For the moment, let us put aside which has a better desktop and focus on the server. Is there really a difference between distributions when it comes to what you run on a server? Is there anything so specific within a distribution that it matters whether you are experienced with Debian or Red Hat? I will admit that in all my years of working in the Windows world, no one has asked me if I have experience with Datacenter instead of Standard. Why, in the Linux world should it matter if I have experience with CentOS instead of Unbreakable?

Are there differences? Of course. Most notably is in the package manager, and where the init scripts live. At a previous company, we used Mandriva as our underlying distribution, but there was no reason we could not have used something else, and in fact, we moved to CentOS with little problem because it was not about the distribution. We compiled our applications, the distribution provided the libraries. We had custom installation locations, custom security settings, and custom scripts, all pretty much automated. It was not an issue of where the distribution put the web files, but were the right libraries available.

I could have taken the opportunity to explain to this recruiter the similarities between the distributions but I do not think it would have made much of a difference. She was reading off a list of requirements and if there was not a one-to-one correlation of the buzz words, then I did not fit the bill. And at the end of the day, I am not 100% sure I want to work for a company that seems to be so hung up on a particular distribution, rather than the critical skills needed to manage an infrastructure.


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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Very interesting article, but some things need to be considered.

Anonymous's picture

Im 47 now and semi-retired, but I have one claim to fame and that is I was NEVER rejected for ANY job I have ever applied for in my working career. I dont know if it was due to good luck or good research, or having good interview craft skills.

But at each stage of an interview, it's up to the applicant to use their own smarts and asses the situation, if you know you're talking to a non-technical HR person, you adject you're answers to suit. You dont have to be brutially honest, if you know linux very well, and they ask you if you have experience with unbreakable linux, you say "ofcourse I have".

The object of this interview is ONLY to get you to the next stage, and to give you a heads up on what to expect at the next stage, there is no point discussing technical issues with the HR person, they dont know what you're talking about,

The HR department is to weed out to totally incompetant, that is all. Keep you're technical knowledge to the next stages of the process, that would be with someone who actually needs you're skills, and knows exactly what skills he needs.

If you cant become an expert in a particular distro, or technology in the 1 to 2 weeks before you start, you should not be applying for the position in the first place.

But you must treat each stage of the interview process for exactly what it is.

When I applied for a job as an electronics engineer for Ericsson Communications, the first stage and main interview took an entire day, no technology was even talked about, they know what you can do from youre resume.

I have appitude tests, IQ tests, and general interviews and a 3 hour factory walkaround. (I got the job, but did not take the position).

Philips, I went for my interview, and I found it was not an interview at all, they just said, "ok, you got the job, start monday". I took that job, with Philips TDS.

University of New South Wales, was an interview with 3 electronics engineers and all the questions were purly technical, (you know you got the job, when as you walk out the door, you overhear one of them say "WOW" to the others).

Department of Defense, Navy, 1 week of exams, math, english, psycology interviews, medicals, and "the board" of 8 senior staff basically grilling you.

But if you know what you're doing, are sure of you're skills, all you have to do is show that in an appropriate way to the interviewers.

You do not have to be dishonest, and if you are it will bite you, but if you dont have specific knowledge of Unbreakable Linux, but know Linux very well, say you do, as you know you do. Even if they dont.

Yes, recruiters are morons!

Anonymous's picture

I was once interviewing for an assembly level serial driver.
I had already written the identical driver for one company.
I had:
* The exact RTOS
* The exact chip
* The exact stop bits, etc.
Then I was asked: "What was the baud rate?"
I replied: "19.2kb"
The reply: "Nope - we need 9600." He pronounced it "Nine thousand six hundred."

That was the end of the interview. He got up and walked out!
I tried to explain the baud rate was a single byte setting
at port initialization.

"No. No." and he walks away..... what dummies!

I think some people are

Anonymous's picture

I think some people are looking at this wrong. It is not necessarily the recruiter's job to know the differences/similarities between the different flavors of Linux. The recruiter was given a checklist from a hiring company and they were trying to match that checklist as closely as possible. The problem wasn't with the recruiter but with the hiring company. The HR department of the hiring company isn't necessarily to blame either. They were also given a checklist from the hiring department (in this case it was IT) which they then passed on. The problem as I see it is with the person who created that checklist to begin with - the hiring department's manager. Sometimes you just get a non-technical manager (or maybe just an inept one) who isn't all that skilled in the area they are managing.

Buzz words

Ben's picture

I've noticed a similar move in all areas of the world - starting during the 1980's especially.

The best interviews are ones conducted by someone who understands the field. Once I went to interview at the BBC - question 'are you familiar with Klystrons?'.

I was honest - I'd never seen one, but I could surely work it out quickly enough. The interviewer was intrigued 'really?' - I got a pencil and paper and asked him to sketch the schematic - and give me an idea of the bias for each electrode, and basically worked it out in five minutes. It's very similar to a magnetron...

I didn't get the job - the paperwork goes to London, and it's a matter of matching school ties above anything else. For me, the interviews (5 stages of interviewing) were fine, but the recommendations were ignored at the end of the day - not enough matching buzzwords.

Life's a bitch, then you die ;)

Server Distros Do Matter

MeanassPenguin's picture

After working in the industry for the last 10 or so years, I would have to say that, yes, the distro you choose for deployment matters quite a bit. The truly big problems lie in the wake of security updates, community backing and upgrade paths. I've found that if any of those three components are lacking then you're going to end up spending more time than should be necessary troubleshooting or manually upgrading to fix a problem. I would have to say that Redhat (RHEL or even CentOS) are at the top of the list. They do a fairly good job of providing backports to stable versions with security updates. Debian generally does this well but in the past, has certain unforgivable incidents in the security department for me to easily forgive and forget enough to start installing on servers again. SuSE made some interesting choices with their enterprise OS which made upgrades either impossible or highly problematic. So, barring the desktop arena from this discussion, I think I'll continue choosing RHEL/CentOS as the server of choice for the foreseeable future.

I don't think you quite

Anonymous's picture

I don't think you quite understood the context of the question. Sure distros matter from that level, but when it comes to jobs / employment, linux is linux is linux. 99% of the tasks that you carry out are distro-agnostic.
But getting potential non-technical recruitment staff at companies to understand that is like trying to push water up hill.

>>> I could have taken the

Captain Tux's picture

>>> I could have taken the opportunity to explain to this recruiter the similarities between the distributions but I do not think it would have made
much of a difference.

The general sentiment with the replies here is that you missed an opportunity here and I agree... in fact, I would've taken her to school on this. I concede that it wouldn't had mattered, but what puzzles me is that you you take the time to type up this note, but not explain the point to the recruiter, whom most needed to hear it.

And seriously, who's really worked on Unbreakable? One-tenth percent of the "one who percent who use Linux?!"

Like they say on ESPN............. C'mon, man!

Missing the real reason for these questions

TheFu's picture

Often HR is trying to prove that nobody already in the country is qualified for a specific position so they can legally sponsor an H1B Visa applicant and pay much less in salary.

HR is trained by Legal on how and what questions to ask for the desired outcome - documentation that nobody meets the requirements.

Then there's the problem of being interviewed by people who aren't qualified to interview you. As you work longer and longer in technology, the people who know more than you become fewer and fewer. I've been interviewed by business-types (after my resume passed the HR IT buzzword checker), who were unable to ask a single technical question. Basically, they would read a few words on the resume and ask me to tell them about it. After dazzling them them with multiple answers, it was clear that an offer was coming.

What most HR departments and companies fail to recognize is they are being interviewed too. I have plenty of opportunities. I don't need to work at a place where I'm uneasy about the way HR behaves or where my management doesn't allow enough freedom to "do what is right."

A few companies understand the interview goes both directions.

Name Droppin'

Duane Dier's picture

There's an even more general question, which could apply to OOP languages, specific hardware platforms, etc..

If you are very familiar with a similar X and a specific name is dropped, and you definitely know enough about X to know that you are basically the kind of person they are looking for, is it ethical to just say, "yes" when that name is dropped? ...when you can tell that the interviewer doesn't know the subtleties like you do?

I'm reminded of a line from Ghostbusters:

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then... DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!

Your response

Anonymous's picture

Oh that Oracle distro based on RHEL? Yes, I know all of that very well. Get me an in-person interview and I will take care of the rest. HR people don't know (they got close enough "if" you know your Red Hat based Linux,) but you do...

Can you drive a Toyota ?

Sassinak's picture

Maybe distros are almost like car companies. Maybe DE's are like choosing standard or automatic. Any way it seems to me that if you can drive a Ford, chances are you can drive a Toyota. And even if you drive automatic, after a while you should be able to easily learn manual. Anyway you look at it, it's still a steel vehicule riding on wheels and powered by a motor. If you're a good mechanic, not just a driver, you can fix any one with the right tools and documentation.

Best answer here

Tachyon_1's picture

This really gets to the heart of the issue. Great answer.

This is one reason why I've had a long-standing hate for HR depts. They've gone from being a great tool to a worthless PITA that provide no real benefit to the company or it's employees.
I've been in those recruiter 'interviews' and am often distracted by the fact the the whole time I'm thinking "Who are you to interview me, you think a hard drive is the I-90 tollway to Chicago"

The point is well made that demanding experience is like demanding that your drivers have experience driving Toyota's or your janitors be Windex certified. It's asinine.

It's all idiocracy.



Tachyon_1's picture

Oops, the board stripped out my comment due to the brackets.

This line...

The point is well made that demanding experience is like demanding that your drivers have experience driving Toyota's or your janitors be Windex certified. It's asinine.

Should read

The point is well made that demanding experience in (insert distro here) is like demanding that your drivers have experience driving Toyota's or your janitors be Windex certified. It's asinine.


mwallette's picture

Slightly off-topic, but I was once in a job interview where I mentioned that I had several years experience using an AS/400 mainframe. The HR lady asked if "that was an IBM or a Mac." I paused for a second as awareness of how little she understood sank in, then deadpanned, "It's an IBM." "Oh," she replied, "we use Macs here."

I was not disappointed not to land that particular job.

Back on-topic, in the day-to-day operations, Linux is Linux is Linux. There will be differences, and some of them can bite you in the backside (BTDT), but for the most part, a competent *Nix admin with access to Google can get around in any distribution (or the *bsd's, as someone else already mentioned). I have used Slack, Gentoo, FreeBSD, CentOS, RHEL, Debian and Ubuntu over the years, and while I have my preferences (Gentoo for servers and Ubuntu for laptops/netbooks), I *can* use any of them, if need be.

Linux is GNU

Treah's picture

The real thing to remember here is that Linux is a kernel and nothing more. Everything else that makes up a running system is GNU software and some custom scripts. This is why BSD LINUX and even MACOSX are pretty much the same system with different kernels. ( NOTE: MacOSX is the exception here since apple does some funkey stuff with there systems) I think that people sometimes forget that the GNU community not the kernel devs contribute the most to our lovable distributions.

gotta be kidding me...

king of intolerance's picture

> The real thing to remember here is that Linux is a kernel and nothing more.

That has nothing whatsoever to do with familiarity with various distros, especially as it relates to getting past technologically-challenged HR types. I don't think the befuddled HR types would give a rat's tail about GNU. If you brought that prattle up to me in a job interview, I'd thank you for your time and laugh at you as you walked out of my office.

Recruiters are morons

Grishnakh's picture

Recruiters/HR people are nothing more than an obstacle between employees and employers, and they should simply be eliminated as W. Edwards Deming recommended. It's a very rare company where the HR department actually facilitates hiring and doesn't needlessly get in the way with idiocy like this.

Face it, the reason anyone works in HR is because they have no real job skills to do anything productive.

Absolutely agree. This is an

Anonymous's picture

Absolutely agree. This is an IT question not a Linux distro question. Recruiters with little knowledge of technology will pick a less capable candidate who is an exact match rather finding out a bit more about what is really required from the company and aiming for better candidate with similar not but not exactly the same experience. This is particularly true in a slack labour market.

So the answer is

anonymous's picture

So the answer to dumb questions from recruiting agencies is always "Yes, Sure, I've used that version of Linux for 8 years". If they're too thick to know the difference and YOU know the difference is only skin deep. i.e. You have the skills whether you've seen it before or not, then lie through your teeth if you're interested enough in the position. It just isn't worth arguing the point with a monkey that can't understand. At least then you will get to interview with a technical person where you can show that your knowledge is adequate.

if you know one....

Anonymous's picture

I'd agree...
Package manager's aside, one distro is not THAT much different from the next one. Any distro hopper worth his salt can fly around any linux box he can get ahold of. I can wrap a present 20 different ways, but the present is still the same. Once you're familiar with the inner working of any distro, it takes little to no time at all to grasp the intricacies of any other distro that's thrown at you. Once you've got a handle on say, Gentoo, moving to Slackware or Debian is cake. Hell...I'd even throw in *bsd's into that list too.

If I were hiring someone for a linux environment, the distro would be the one of the last things I'd ask about. First question being "You're not going to try and pull the Geek Squad card are you?"

Seems like the real problem

AlanM's picture

Seems like the real problem here is a lack of communication between HR and IT. I wouldn't expect HR to know the difference between two Linux distros; what I'd expect is that IT would hand them a sensible list of requirements that were non-specific enough not to eliminate candidates who might just be real assets to the company.

This seems to be a common failing in hiring in IT, where HR is given a laundry list of skills of which 1 candidate in 1000 actually has more than half. It's not like we aren't constantly learning new technologies on the job.

Non-uniform resource availability

Anonymous's picture

I work in environmental modeling, where we will want to "build once/run anywhere" with a number of our modeling programs. We greatly prefer static executables for that reason. (Not to mention the number of times we've had
something break when a ".so" was "upgraded").

For whatever reason, the Powers That Be ® put a variety of different versions of different releases across the servers we have.

It makes it difficult to develop on RHEL or CENTOS, which have the attitude that static libraries are evil.You can't even get a "libX11.a" on them without building it yourself from source.

For us the situation is the opposite: ".so"s are evil, making Mandriva much more attractive for development.

Another example: building the latest GRASS from scratch under SuSE took our sysadmin three days. It took me two hours on Mandriva.

FWIW -- one sample-point.

Unbreakable = RHEL

Catherine Devlin's picture

That's especially silly, since Oracle bends over backward to make sure that customers know that OUL is bit-for-bit absolutely identical to RHEL.

Even if they were a little different, an IT professional who could only apply experience gained on precisely the same system would be an absolutely worthless employee. Brain flexibility is really the only thing any of us are good for, and if we couldn't flex with changing systems, we'd be useless anyway.

I get frustrated thinking about HR departments and recruiters who plunge on in complete ignorance of facts like this, but in a sense, it's better this way. When a company gets hiring completely wrong, it's probably not the only thing it does completely wrong; it's probably a bad place to work.

Distro's don't matter....

Anonymous's picture

Bingo... this comment hits the nail on the head. HR doesn't know that Unbreakable and RHEL are the same. When I deal with a recruiter who asks questions like this, instead of giving them a technical explanation that RHEL and Unbreakable are the same(well, there's like 2 .conf files that are different)... I simply say "yes" instead of going into detail. Save the details for the technical interview. Blah your way through the Recruiters/HR until you get to talk to someone who is technically competent.

While the distro doesn't matter, specific experience certainly helps as much as the ability to adapt to your specific environment. RHEL and Unbreakable are the same from an OS perspective, but having dealt with both extensively I can tell you that from a licensing and especially an oracle support perspective, they are very different.

Linux is Linux

Jason's picture

People may hate me for this but it is true a Linux is a Linux. Aside from a few small details like you have pointed out. There should be no reason a person with proper training and experience like yours could not easily transfer there knowledge to any Linux they come across. Why? Because no matter what distribution you have trained, work, and/or played on the base knowledge of any GNU/Linux is the same. That doesn't just apply to servers but also to desktops as well. So, no matter what distro version or even desktop environment you use you can go to be able to at least do the basic functions.

Very true.

venomfang's picture

I've been using linux for about 10 years now (desktop & server environments). I agree with you, there is very little that I haven't been able to figure out between the distros. Started out using redhat 5 (not rhel), mandrake, fedora, centOS. In this past year I have started working with Ubunut and I am looking into archlinux and gentoo.

As for HR, I really think IT departments should be doing the first contact with a possible recruit or new employee. HR departments always seem to use a a check list. Honestly I had one call me up and I could swear she was reading from a stack of queue cards. I asked her how many more questions she had after about a dozen and she said another page; told her that if they wanted me to come in for an interview or send in my resume, but I refused to spend any more time on the phone if I could not find out what type of system environment they had.