Where the Jobs Are

by Connie Winkler

The Linux skills set used to be a sure ticket to a top system administrator or developer job, paying as much as $100,000, and ome desperate Silicon Valley firms went as far as adding bonus cash or cars. "Even two years ago, when people were scarce, putting L-i-n-u-x on your resume along with your other skills meant you were going to get the job", said Jeff Markham, metro market manager with RHI Consulting in San Francisco.

While today it's still true that Linux/UNIX administrators may find jobs faster than Microsoft NT/2000/XP administrators--one mid-2002 study found a proportionally stronger demand for UNIX skills--the job climate has changed dramatically with the technology meltdown.

An informal survey of employers, employment recruiters, contracting firms, universities and Linux pros shows that job hunters now find: stiffer requirements, a tighter market, leveled salaries, new job responsibilities and new thinking on certification. They're more likely to find jobs in the Midwest than in the traditional technology hotbeds of Silicon Valley, North Carolina's Triangle and the Pacific Northwest. And, recent graduates and older workers (in this case, that's over 39) may have the most difficult time.

"It was quite a shock to me; I'd never been laid off in my life", recalls Linux whiz Paul M. Ferris, who's gone through two layoffs during this downturn. When the first axe fell in May 2001, he was working for a dot-com/publisher from his home in Canton, Ohio. Calling himself a good job-interviewee (he does a lot of public speaking), Ferris then found a corporate system administration job, only to be let go again in January 2002.

But, Ferris' story ends well. Through a fellow member of a Linux user group he started in Northern Ohio, he found a "really cool Linux job" he now can't talk about. Ferris isn't alone in urging Linux professionals to network through Linux groups; the looseness and cooperation of the Open Source/Linux community is ideal for spreading job news (see Sidebar).

Help Wanted?

By contrast, Tony Plastino, whose job was eliminated as senior networking and systems security administrator at a Seattle music subscription service firm in mid-2002, is still looking. While his resume with a strong background in security and Linux systems has been on job boards for several months, and he submits resumes to listed jobs, he's only gotten several e-mail responses and no phone calls. "I feel lucky if I get an automated response", tells Plastino, 43.

Plastino is now looking at jobs in system administration and security engineering beyond Seattle, even internationally. "Obviously if I move to Dayton, Ohio, it's going to be hard to stay at the $100,000 I've been averaging the last five years, but given cost-of-living adjustments, I'd like to try." Ferris' and Plastino's experiences were mirrored by other job hunters, who generally reported that knowing Linux helps but doesn't guarantee a job.

New Reality

Today jobs are more likely to be with user organizations, as opposed to vendors, and outside the technology centers. Also, job hunters face a tighter employment mindset, and employers find more highly-qualified candidates, with multiple skills.

"Every job has its own set of skills, and thus its own little niche, so there's a limited quantity of people available", tells Alice Elliott, vice president of human resources for IPInfusion in San Jose. "But, we're finding about four times as many people are available." Interestingly, the fact that this networking startup with about 60 employees is a potential IPO, is now a mixed blessing, Elliott tells: "Many people in a down economy look for a bigger company and more security, although I think we have a more compelling story to tell." Others, including Blake Herring, who's looking for Linux application development consulting in Olympia, Washington, report finding a greater recognition of quality. "Recently I've seen people get hired who had never touched the product they were working on but had solid programming skills", tells Herring, who's worked at both Boeing and Microsoft. "With ROI (return on investment) on IT so huge right now, companies want to see work experience--specific projects", said Markham, noting that up until the end of 1999 any Linux experience counted, even working with buddies in college. "Our applicants have got to have on their resumes that they a) either saved a company a lot of money, or b) made a company better, faster or stronger", adds Markham at RHI, the IT contracting/ consulting arm of Robert Half employment.

Long gone are the spiraling salaries. "Up until about two years ago, everything upticked about 15% a year", said Elliott at IPInfusion. "By the time the salary surveys came out, we'd add 15%." She's even observed some slight salary decreases for software engineers at all levels, although Markham at RHI argues that prior to the internet boom, today's salaries would be judged normal.

Drawing on salaries in what he calls "Red Hat" country surrounding Raleigh, Craig Stone, CEO of HireNetworks, finds that employers can now hire Java and C++ programmers with three years experience for $40,000 (previously the no-experience salary). Entry-level employees end up in $30,000 jobs that may involve tasks other than programming, such as manning help desks. Indeed, Stone finds some employers offering lower salaries, which his company counsels against as the underpaid employees will leave when the economy improves. And, contract workers (especially in the tech regions) report that if they had been doing quality assurance testing at $25 hour, it's now $15.

Predictably, resumes from recent grads are flooding the internet job boards as Joel Cline found after receiving 300 for a system administrator (up to $70,000) for Cline Communications, his small ISP and web-hosting firm in Richland, in southwestern Washington State. "It's really easy to find people, to the point that you get inundated in applications, especially from new graduates", tells Cline. Likewise, university placement personnel, including at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, find that students are having a hard time finding jobs.

This surfeit of graduates also impacts older workers: "Employers are looking for 24-year-olds with ten years of Java experience--nevermind that Java didn't exist ten years ago", comments Ferris on the absurdity of and bias toward 20-year-olds. "Age discrimination is rampant in the IT world. I feel a lot of the time I wasn't even getting a second look because I'm older", reports Ferris, who's 39. Others agree. (Further annoying to many, on both sides of the issue, is employers hiring (or not) foreign H1-B visa workers; but, that's another complex story.)

So what helps in getting a Linux job these days? Certification? Authoring widely downloadable software? The experts are divided, although they find that having developed popular software helps land a job, but only if the firm knows Linux.

On certification, though, eager potential employees are acting. The international Linux Professional Institute (LPI) reports that the number of takers of the two currently available Linux certification exams is up from about 1,000 to as many as 1,200 a month worldwide, tells Evan Leibovitch, current chairman of LPI in Toronto. " Absolutely it helps", he says, noting that some of the increase has come from Asia, including South Korea, Japan and China.

"If you are competing with another person for a job and you have the certification and someone else doesn't, to some employers that's a leg up", the Linux entrepreneur adds. "It indicates someone has made an investment in their career." Also, the growing credence of LPI certification means the employers have known benchmarks as they move into a Linux environment. The series of exams cost $100 each and LPI remains a nonprofit organization, separate from training/education programs.

Recruiter Michael Kendall of Kendall Placement Group in St. Louis is not convinced, although he's also looking at existing certification programs, say, for Microsoft or Cisco systems: "I'm seeing a decrease in demand for certification. We've gotten an overkill in the last couple of years, and it didn't add much value to corporations."

Consultant Reg Charney in California adds that certification is still new, but he likens it to how the Microsoft Certified Engineer mushroomed: "As the demand for Linux grows, there will be greater need to bring on people faster with greater knowledge--more than can be gained from just sitting in front of a PC--so then certification will be more valuable."

Brightening Prospects

By the second half of 2002, the job picture was brightening, according to the recruiters and observers, who say they spot early signs before any individual or single company. In North Carolina a survey by HireNetworks of the top 15 IT skills being recruited for found a higher demand for UNIX experts than for Microsoft systems administrators. "We didn't break the survey down into the different flavors of UNIX, but, in general, the demand is greater for UNIX", reports Stone at HireNetworks. IT specialists are faring better than IT generalists--who had ruled in the past--with Oracle, Java, Visual Basic and ASP remaining the IT skills most cited in the regional study.

Although the tech recovery is faster outside Silcon Valley, even there Charney, a veteran employment observer, sees improvement, especially in the demand for older technologies, such as C and C++ (in contrast to the formerly hot Java and internet-related languages). Many of the C/C++ jobs are developing embedded systems for devices from wireless to medical equipment. Charney's Menlo Park consulting firm, Charney & Day, charts job statistics for the newsletter of the Association of C and C++ Users (ACCU) based on numbers of jobs listed on web employment boards and correlated with advertising pages in both PC Magazine and Linux Journal. The ad pages are a leading indicator on spending and, thus, hiring.

In terms of job responsibilities, the consultants and recruiters find that Linux jobs on the IT/user side are less about operating systems administration, and more about applications such as e-mail, web development and front-end data extraction applications to legacy systems. "There's good demand for Linux/Perl scripters who make connections into Linux systems for extracting data", said Kendall, who's looking for such programmer/analysts. He guesses this is a cheaper solution than costly and painful browser-based applications; now companies want just a front end or browser-enabled view of the legacy system.

"With Linux in general we're seeing a pretty big resurgence in demand from clients who weren't open-source clients", reports Kendall, adding that Linux is no longer perceived as solely for ISPs and small installations. His theory is that companies are fed up with recent Microsoft license increases and are being strongly marketed to by open systems (read non-Microsoft) hardware manufacturers. "It's becoming accepted and encouraged to look at open enterprise technology that's not completely Microsoft-dominated."

Connie Winkler writes about the management of technology from Seattle, and before Linux, wrote two books on high technology jobs. She's the former executive editor of PC Magazine, and New York Bureau Chief of Computerworld.

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