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How learning Linux jumpstarted my career

Choosing an alternative to Windows 98 and learning Linux -- back in the 90s -- led Jack Wallen to his current career. How did you get started with Linux?

I've always been curious. That curiosity has led me down many paths. Back in the mid-1990s, that curiosity would intersect with a bit of technology -- Linux -- that would change the course of my career.

I was teaching at a small Indianapolis university, which required I have access to a computer. I decided to burn up a credit card for a Pentium 75 PC running Windows 98. After weeks of blue screens, lockups and failed updates, I decided there had to be something better, something more reliable. A quick perusal of various bulletin boards led me to a rumor of an alternative: Linux.

At that time, downloading an ISO image wasn't an option (especially for a live distribution). Instead, you had two choices: find a local PC store that sold some version of Linux or purchase from a now defunct website called Cheapbytes. During a trip to CompUSA one day, I ran into two different flavors of Linux: Caldera OpenLinux 1.0 and Red Hat Linux 4.2.

This was well before Red Hat morphed itself into the enterprise company you know today, and spun off Fedora as a community edition.

I'd never partitioned a hard drive. I'd never even attempted an operating system installation. But in the end, I wound up with a functioning Linux platform.

I chose Caldera Open Linux because of the logo, and the screenshots on the box seemed familiar enough that the OS would be immediately usable.

After dropping $59.99, I took the software home, inserted the disk and struggled through the installation.

I'd never partitioned a hard drive. I'd never even attempted an operating system installation. But in the end, I wound up with a functioning Linux platform. I had no idea what I was doing and had no idea what open source was at the time, but I'd triumphed over Windows.

My first struggle was getting the platform online. After much digging, I discovered my PC had a winmodem that wasn't supported, so back I went to CompUSA to purchase a US Robotics 36.6 external modem. Once that was up and running, I was finally rocking Linux, getting online and learning as much as I could. I even befriended a guru who walked me through the process of installing AfterStep, a window manager for the Unix X Window System, and making use of all its transparency goodness.

I felt such a sense of accomplishment learning Linux that I knew, right away, there was no turning back. Linux brought a power to my fingertips that Windows couldn't possibly match. I could do things I never could with Windows, as well as do all the things I could in Windows.

Looking back, it amazes me that I was learning Linux as quickly as I was. Why? Because back then, there was no Ubuntu Software Center. If you wanted to install an application, you did it from source with the likes of ./configure ; make ; make install. Otherwise, you were hard-pressed to add any additional software. But even without more software, the number of apps installed on those early distributions was staggering. Everything from engineering to science to math, to browsing with Netscape Navigator, was there.

Now, even the act of installing Linux is almost as simple as installing an application. And when you do install a distribution, you wind up with only what you need. Fortunately, if you want more, thousands of software titles are little more than a click away.

I continued down that path for a number of years, until I found myself at the University of Louisville's Computer Information Systems department. I happened to stumble onto a Linux User Group and immediately joined. During one meeting I mentioned that I succeeded in getting Diablo running with WINE and everyone went crazy. A headhunter from an upcoming website was present and recruited me to help build a new Linux community. And thus, by a series of happy accidents, my career morphed into the world of tech writing and I haven't looked back.

My introduction to Linux, and all that came from it, was thanks to an insatiable curiosity and an inordinate frustration brought on by Windows. What was yours?

About Author:
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer and avid promoter/user of the Linux OS. His current favorite flavor of Linux is Bodhi Linux (a melding of Ubuntu and Enlightenment). Wallen maintains his sanity by riding his mountain bike and writing about zombies, various killers, super heroes and just about everything else he can manipulate between the folds of reality.

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What lead you to Linux? What are your Linux experiences?
Well many of my experiences are the same as your up to the point Linux jump started your career.

I used Mandrake and had the same problem with the Winmodem and figured out how to make it work.

I still love Linux and use it daily but when I go to job interviews it turns them off. I try to explain to them how it has made me a better technician in all facets of IT falls on deaf ears.

If I was able to move this would not be a problem. So this is the cards I'm working with and Windows rules here and IT jobs in my region are; Work for the State, Work for the Military or work for a Multinational Company.

Well the State has problems, worked there for 3 years and if I told you the stories no one would believe it.

The Military bases you don't know if you have a job from one week to the next.

The Multinational Company treats its employees bad and as a result has a high turnover.

I run a home based virtual Lab with Linux and Windows but Linux will always be my favorite.

I don't know what the future hold for my IT career at this point and I may have to leave it altogether and that would be okay. The only thing that has really hurt me in my career has been the inability to move and now when I go for an interview I believe my age hurts me also. I'm 54 now and at 50 I noticed a difference of treatment in interviews as opposed to the initial phone interview.

Well whatever the future holds it'll be fine. Just maybe not in IT.


I recently developed an insatiable appetite to learn Linux considering I'm above age of the average computer user.

This is just another obstacle I'd like to conquer. Any assistance or ideas would be appreciated and I'd like to join the group.


What lead you to Linux? - Reminds me of an old chestnut 'You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead'
Please! Led would be preferable
Rightly said, I have been working on Unix shell programming but due to limited career growth, I was struck in my job. But with the help of MyTechLogy career initiative for IT Professioanls, I could find skills that are in demand around Unix & Shell programming. Learning Linux and getting RHEL certification helped me broaden my skills and increased my chances of employment.