Talking to students at Northern Arizona State ACM

JD Wrote, on Thursday October 16th I flew down to Flagstaff Arizona to give a talk to the local ACM. It was a long talk, including questions lasting about 2 hours and 20 minutes. The talk encompassed Open Source including general governance models and licensing, PostgreSQL including .Org, .US and .EU (with spurious mentions of others such as JPUG) and the Job Market. The talk was attended by about 30 students and at least 2 professors. There were two primary items that struck me about the students. One was the general ignorance about Open Source. The other was the overall tension about the Job Market.

I opened the talk with general questions about the type of Open Source that they had dabbled with. We had one student who had submitted a patch to Wordpress and another who was a developer with/on FLTK. Unfortunately that was about it. Of course the students all had used Linux (although it was by far the minority of Operating system use in the room) and they all knew or used Open Office and FireFox. At least Open Source consumption is rampant.

On the other hand, almost none of them had contributed to Open Source. Not with code, documentation or even advocacy. This was striking to me as I thought by speaking to an ACM group (essentially a group of CS geeks) that I would be walking into a bastion of Open Source. I was doubly surprised when the primary language that the students dabbled in was Java. It makes sense that they used Java quite a bit as t is the language in their curriculum. I mistakenly felt, "Hey, they use Java because they have to, not because the want to.". The students there truly appreciate Java. The downside of this is that the students are learning a single paradigm. I am sure all of them will make astute and qualified Java developers but the limitations they are placing on themselves will likely make them lousy overall hackers. I hope that I at least opened their eyes a little bit about the opportunities that are afforded them by joining a community. As a point of accountability it is blatantly obvious that the FOSS community (at least at this Uni) is not performing their educating and advocacy role up to par.

I spent a good portion of my time speaking with the students about the Job Market. One of the first points I made was, "ignore the press the job market is fine". Yes I think we can all agree that the job market for some is in trouble, but for Open Source we are gang busters. I can barely service the amount of business that is coming through my door over at CMD let alone the popularity of many of the consultants I know. Of the specific points I made were:

  1. Design your resume around the opportunity. This helps avoid the you are over qualified problem and also shows discipline in your expertise.
  2. Your cover letter sells you. I impressed upon the students to take a business communications course (they were not pleased).
  3. Know your platform. Java isn't a platform, its a language. Be competent in the whole stack.
  4. Don't kill yourself. You belong to you, your family and your community. No job is worth 16-20 hours a day.

In all, I truly appreciated my time at NAU and I hope to come back next year. I will be posting my talk and video of the talk shortly.