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CIOs seek special skills in Linux admins

With the demand for Linux admins on the rise, CIOs are having trouble finding the right candidates with the right Linux skills and personality to manage open source environments.

BOSTON -- The demand for Linux administrators is on the rise, but CIOs have trouble finding IT pros with all of the qualities needed to run an open source environment.

When Virgin America Airlines’ CIO Ravi Simhambhatla took the stage at LinuxCon 2010 this month to discuss his company’s move from commercial software to open source, he said hiring the right IT staff was a critical part of making the transition. But finding administrators with the appropriate Linux skills and attitude to support an open source environment is more challenging than it sounds.

Nigel Fortlage, CIO with GHY International, a major Canadian and U.S. customs brokerage firm, runs two-thirds of his servers on open source software and operating systems, and agreed that finding the right candidate is tricky.

He qualifies Linux administrators based on an interview and a written test, which was developed by one of his current administrators. That helps screen candidates for technical Linux skills and personality traits such as open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, passion, intelligence, and problem-solving skills.

But the pool of high-caliber “tinkerers” with all those traits is quite shallow. In fact, last time Fortlage searched for a Linux admin, he received about 100 resumes, and only about 30 of those respondents attempted the written exam, which included questions such as “Write a short PHP script that would display all known information about the PHP installation,” and “In Apache, what is the default directory for users to place their web documents?”

“Of those who took the test, only about five people scored something reasonable, where we knew they weren’t just Googling the answers,” Fortlage said. “It’s pretty obvious when someone understands the questions and what we are looking for, and when they don’t.”

He has to be picky with candidates because while someone with 60% to 70% of the right attributes makes an environment work, those with even more of those good qualities do even better work.

Demand for Linux skills on the rise
The demand for well-versed Linux administrators is growing faster than for Windows, according to the IT jobs website Dice. There were 8,056 postings seeking Linux administrators in August, up 38% from August 2009. While there were more listings for Windows administrators in all (10,777), the demand hasn’t grown as much, up 32% from 2009, according to Dice.

Linux administrators should have a 'sense of humor and dubious personal hygiene.'

Chuck Goolsbee, a Seattle-based data center technician

The most common skill listed in Linux job postings is Java/ JE222, followed by SQL and C++, C, C# programming language skills, according to Dice.

Other much sought-after open source technical skills in order of popularity include knowledge of Perl, Ajax and PHP programming languages, Apache web server, MySQL databases, Python programming, Tomcat application server, and Ruby on Rails.

CIOs also want candidates that can conduct unbiased research and apply it in an open source environment.

Colin Dean, a programmer and open source user, agreed that research skills are critically important.

“Anyone with a little bit of technical aptitude can spend a few hours researching and quickly become the resident expert on something -- but using it effectively requires [verbal] queries and the ability to adapt queries as more knowledge about the situation becomes available or discovered,” Dean said.

And the best Linux administrators “can recognize and eliminate big-brand BS” and say no to software packages full of stuff the organization doesn’t need, Simhambhatla said. A quality that goes hand-in-hand with that, he said, is an “incessant drive to keep costs low without compromising core business needs.”

In general, open source administrators should have a “sense of humor and dubious personal hygiene,” said Chuck Goolsbee, a Seattle-based data center technician for a large social networking site.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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