Musing about Generation M and valuing IT skills in an opensource world

The kernel for this post was an innocuous article in the BBC online, headlined Computer knowledge “undervalued”. I read it some time ago, and for some reason it felt like I’d just sat on a saddle with a burr under it. Slowly I realised that there was no saddle, but that the burr remained. A big burr.  And I thought to myself, oops. Double oops. Treble oops with cream on top. Why did I think that? Come for a ride with me.

Imagine there was an enterprise. Any enterprise. Now imagine that that particular enterprise had a bunch of people with “computer skills”. Imagine further that the specific “computer skills” these people had were, shall we say, “proprietary” skills.

With me so far? Okay. Now let’s imagine a bunch of consultants coming along and helping said enterprise “value” these “proprietary” skills, and in some convoluted manner “placing” this “value” “on the balance sheet”. [Why would this happen? Because it’s the sort of d^*mfool thing consultants do.]

Oops. Now, with just a tiny bit of legerdemain, the enterprise’s cost of converting from a proprietary world to an opensource world has just gone stratospheric.

More worryingly, at one fell swoop, the opensource and web-savvy skills of Generation M have been made to disappear. [To be precise, the potential value of their skills has been decimated].

You’re right, it couldn’t possibly happen. No enterprise would be crass enough to do that. [RageBoy, you listening?]

And how do we avoid this thing that couldn’t possibly happen? Simple. We must value opensource skills substantially higher than proprietary skills.

Something to think about. When it comes to valuing computer skills, opensource beats proprietary every time. More optionality, less lock-in, more future-proofing and insurance against obsolescence, lower switching costs, easier retraining, the list goes on.

So. Let’s be careful out there. 

6 thoughts on “Musing about Generation M and valuing IT skills in an opensource world”

  1. Joel Spolsky wrote, “Smart companies try to commoditize their products’ complements.”

    Software and the skill to use it are complements. The lower the total cost to get the software and the right to use it, the more the skill is worth.

  2. To cite one example this is why I’m wary of any Linux vendor’s distribution-specific training and certification. Why bother when we have the largely vendor agnostic (I.e. based around both the Debian and Red Hat ways of package management etc) Linux Professional Institute certification track?

    One major vendor – which also happens to be vendor of one of the only two Linux distros you can practically use in the Enterprise due to h/w and s/w support matrices the others don’t have (the old boy network prevails, but this is another story) – used to base their certification on an LPI foundation, but now you must follow their entirely proprietary track. I suspect this change came about after small Linux company was acquired by big old school vendor with a long established training portfolio.

    The builders of business models just can’t help themselves leveraging lock-in opportunities. It’s a dirty habit they need to kick!

    IMHO vendor training tends to be wildly overpriced and here is an opportunity to break away from it. Plus LPI is favoured amongst colleges and Linux user groups etc, for obvious reasons. Yet the Enterprise still seems to like the shiny certs from the big names.

  3. It often strikes me that there’s a chasm between traditional enterprise decision-makers (the architects, strategists, procurement people and so on) and people who still get their hands dirty (virtually-speaking) actually implementing stuff.

    At XPDay recently there was a session looking at the way teams make choices on tools and frameworks. The interesting thing to me wasn’t the choices people made in the exercise, or even the rationale behind the decisions, but the fact that by far the majority of the options considered by each team were free open-source products. Of course there’s an echo-chamber effect here – I probably wouldn’t go to the type of conference where everyone was discussing proprietary solutions – but this definitely coincides with the approach of people I work with, and contrasts with the approach taken by much of “the enterprise”.

    I suspect this is because hands-on people wait until they have a specific need, then look to see what’s available and try out possibilities (and if those possibilities are freely downloadable, that evaluation becomes infinitely more straightforward), whereas strategists tend to look for much broader one-size-fits-all solutions, and ask vendors to tender for the contract. Even if there’s an open-source tool that would do the job, it’s rarely backed up by a sales organisation (after all, if you’re giving something away for free, why put effort into selling it?).

    So it’s not just consultants we need to worry about – the more we look at software development as an activity to be outsourced and devalued, the more we rely on decisions being made by people whose only view of the value of software products comes from vendors’ salesmen and glossy brochures.

  4. I think it spurious to claim that open source technology is any way more valuable, or intrinsically better, than proprietary technology. My position is that our company employs Microsoft skills to solve customer problems; they don’t particularly care what the technology is so long as it helps them. I am in South Africa and have hardly ever found a medium-small size business that has adopted open source; Microsoft technology works for them at a price they can accept against the price of the solution we deliver.
    It may be that the initial open source software cost is very small, but over a 3-5 year period the more significant cost is in implementation and support – and no one has claimed that open source has a lower cost in that area.
    When it comes to availability of skills, it doesn’t matter what technology they come from, the resource pool is very limited, and its really difficult to find good people.

  5. Simon, open source is about Free as in Freedom and not Free as in Gratis. You suggest that the pool of talent asssociated with a given proprietary technology is at least as deep and wide as the pool of talent associated with open source. This may have been true two decades ago, may even have been true a decade ago, but it is definitely not true today.

    I agree with you, it is difficult to find good people; I also agree with you, TCO is more important than licence costs. Where I disagree with you is in your assertion that “it doesn’t matter what technology they come from, the resource pool is very limited”. It does matter. The pool sizes aren’t the same, the switching costs aren’t the same, the future options aren’t the same, the TCO isn’t the same.

Let me know what you think

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