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Torvalds, OS experts: What it takes to make a career in open source

What are the traits needed for a career in open source software development? The answers given by Linus Torvalds and other open source experts may surprise you.

If Hummers and stock options are your career goals, then being an open source engineer may not be your calling. Then again, a job in open source software (OSS) development can provide meaningful work and a good living, said OS community leaders, including Linux creator Linus Torvalds, during a session at the Open Source Development Labs' first Enterprise Linux Summit in Burlingame, Calif., today. In the well-attended panel discussion about the impact of Linux on the enterprise, they outlined the traits and goals that typify a successful open source developer.

"I don't think you should look at this as a career path. It's a learning experience," said Torvalds, responding to a request for advice about career paths in open source.

Torvalds is Linux kernel maintainer for OSDL. He was joined in the panel discussion by Mitchell Kapor, founder and chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation, which is creating Chandler, an OS personal information manager; Brian Behlendorf, founder and CTO of CollabNet and founder of the Apache Project; Andrew Morton, OSDL's 2.6 Linux kernel maintainer; and moderator Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL, a non-profit organization which promotes the development and usage of Linux in the enterprise.

Torvalds said that choosing to be an open source software engineer is a calling, rather than a career choice. "If you're getting into open source because it's a career path, you're doing something wrong," he said. "You have to have an interest and a career path in and of itself is not a motivation. You need to have a motivation for the (OS) project, because your career path means nothing to the project."

Kapor described the traits and goals that make a job prospect the right choice for his non-profit OS project. For example, some software engineers who apply want to join a get-rich-quick startup, getting their stock options and being in a sure thing, something like the next Google. That person is probably not a good fit in a non-profit open source project, Kapor said.

"On the other hand, we have a significant number of people (who apply) who have a collection of worthless lottery tickets…I mean stock options," Kapor said. These people want to work where they're appreciated and their "code will never be taken out and shot a week before shipment by a deranged venture capitalist."

Open source projects do create jobs for people who want to work in a community of peers and do work that makes a meaningful difference and can be used by the world, Kapor said.

Open source developers have to be good communicators who can make sound decisions based on input from many people, said Behlendorf. "Corporations have a greater tolerance for the kind of person who doesn't communicate very well, but is able to take a specification and translate it into code."

In the OS community, however, a good developer is one who can communicate well, fostering collaboration with peers and users, Behlendorf said. Solutions have to be created that take into consideration users' feedback, he said. Also, the software developer has to know how to defend himself when challenged. "There's not as much room for prima donnas and insecurities that make it difficult to be productive," he added.

You don't have to take a vow of poverty to be an open source developer, the panelists said. While great riches can't be promised, Kapor said, open source software developers can get jobs make enough money to be able to afford the "absurd prices of real estate in the San Francisco Bay Area" and take care of their kids' education.

In the long-run, Cohen believes that business usong OSS will see its value and pay well for software that solves their problems. Open source development will lead to the creation of software companies that will be profitable and pay their engineers well. "It's all about value," he said, and open source development adds value in total cost of ownership, return on investment, jobs and economic development.

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