Zen and the Art of the Six-Figure Linux Job

Tuesday Sep 30th 2008 by James Maguire
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An expert in the Linux job market talks about earning a lucrative payday. Plus: the effect of H-1B visas on Linux salaries.

Also See: See the 2009 IT Salary Guide

You’ve heard the stereotypes and the misconceptions. Since Linux is free software, the developers who create it are paid next to nothing, right?

Wrong. Brent Marinaccio, the director of open source recruiting firm Hot Linux Jobs, has an insider’s view. The Savannah, Georgia-based job placement firm, founded in 2000, works exclusively with companies seeking open source experts.

He fields calls from employers looking for expertise in, for instance, the Linux kernel, general Linux user software, PHP, and (more recently) Ruby on Rails. Hot Linux Jobs usually handles 50 job openings at one time, he says.

“Most of the positions that we work on are going to [pay] at least high five-figure and up to the $150k base type area,” Marinaccio says. Companies pay Hot Linux Jobs a fee to find open source experts, so the openings tend to be mid- and senior-level posts. (Of course most entry-level open source jobs pay nowhere near these salaries. Companies often recruit at universities for their lower paying jobs, he says.)

These upper-level Linux jobs are not only lucrative but becoming more so.

“If you went back two years, and using the Linux kernel engineer as an example, for a lot of the positions the low end of the range might be $100k, and at the high end of the range companies had a hard time breaking the $120k barrier – maybe they’d get up to $125k,” Marinaccio says.

“Now you see the low end of the range is generally $120k. The upper range can push up to that $140k, $150k area,” he says. “You have probably seen, on average, at least a 10 to 15 percent increase over the last two years, in some cases higher.”

Linux salaries have been pushed higher by the law of supply and demand, he says. “And that’s helping us as, perhaps, this market does soften a little bit.”

“There is still a heavy supply shortage for the demand that is out there in a lot of these specific areas.”

The Zen of Earning a Major Linux Salary

Given the handsome salaries, a budding Linux developer might wonder: what’s the best strategy to land a six-figure gig? Specifically, what’s the best paying open source sector: PHP? The Linux kernel? Ruby?

But Marinaccio, despite his intimate knowledge of what employers are looking for, advises job seeker to focus not on the external market but on their own preferences and aptitudes. Sounding much like an ancient Zen master, he recommends looking within.

Brent Marinaccio, Hot Linux Jobs
Brent Marinaccio

“First and foremost you have to do what you like to do,” he says. As in any profession, you have to care about Linux to be good at it. No matter which open source sector you choose, “if you're good at it, you’re going to do fairly well [financially].” He recommends asking yourself: “Where within the open source realm do you find a potential fit for your skills and what you like to do?”

And true to the nature of Asian wisdom, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Or rather, a single project. The best first step is often to contribute to an open source project.

But not just any project. (This is where Marinaccio’s advice veers from classic Zen thinking into the pragmatic strategizing needed in today’s Darwinian job market.) Become a recognized member of a project whose members include pros from companies like IBM, Novell, Google and the like. (The members might not list their company affiliations but you can always Google their names to find out.)

“If you see there’s 10 or 20 IBM engineers doing this, if you get involved and contribute code, I would be willing to bet that at some point IBM is going to more than likely offer you a position.” He has seen this happen numerous times.

“That’s the beauty of open source – you have seen individuals in a fairly short amount of time, something that couldn’t be done necessarily [if coding proprietary software], you see someone climb ten rungs of the ladder. It might take them years to do that inside a corporation.”

Not that Marinaccio discourages open source enthusiasts from participating in smaller projects. But he lowers expectations. “I encourage you to participate in that project, but don’t expect it to lead to much.”

Make careful decisions about where you build your reputation. “Essentially, your contributions and your name become your brand.”

What’s Driving Linux Job Growth

Helping create Linux jobs is the fact that open source has become the darling of the datacenter in the least few years. Its low cost and, more important, its customizability is attracting businesses of every stripe.

The breadth that it’s taken on is all encompassing, Marinaccio notes. “A few years ago there were early adopters, especially in the financial area and in the energy sector. And now it’s very widespread.”

Over the last 6 to 12 months, he has gotten calls from plenty of companies just getting on board with Linux. For example, smaller firms in the Midwest who have been testing Linux as a platform and have now fully switched over. And open source continues to grow in its traditional areas of strength like set top boxes and mobile computing. It’s hot in anything calling for a RTOS (real time operating system).

“Essentially it’s moved in to most everything.”

Those companies migrating from Solaris to Linux – a common shift these days – don’t need to hire an entirely new crew. The existing Solaris experts can make the switch. Yet that company might want a couple Linux experts on staff who know all the differences between those kissing cousins, Unix and Linux.

Although Marinaccio’s firm handles system administration jobs, at this point it’s comparatively rare for a sys admin job to require an exclusive Linux focus. Today’s companies have patchwork datacenters, combining Solaris, Windows, Linux and assorted legacy OSes. Overseeing this disparate quilt doesn’t necessarily call for a Linux specialist. (Or, a company seeking such a broad-based administrator probably wouldn’t hire Hot Linux Jobs to find him.)

Companies see the value of hiring open source experts because shrink-wrapped software is becoming a thing of the past. To gain competitive advantage, they want to tweak and twist their software to wring the highest performance from it. Companies want the customization process to be a constant. Like a financial services company, for whom executing a trade 1/100 of a second sooner could mean big bucks. Or Google, trying to propel its global network of Linux servers to produce still faster search results.

This malleability, and open source’s group nature – with a transparent architecture that invites mass participation – have awoken corporate understanding that Linux staffers can create revenue.

“The beauty of it being open is that hopefully, as time goes on, you have all these heads that are collaborating and you go beyond the economies of scale of any one company to come up with a superior product,” Maraniaccio says.

H-1B Issues Affecting Linux Salaries

Linux and open source is far more prevalent outside the U.S. than in America. Windows’ decades-long hold on the desktop prompts U.S. IT managers to lean toward American giant Microsoft – a preference not shared by their colleagues around the globe.

“For Linux kernel development, I would say probably 60 percent is done in the EU,” Marinaccio says. Moreover, “The Indians are now fully engaged and the Chinese are fully engaged – there’s so much overseas involvement in Linux.”

What this means is that there is a potential international influx of Linux experts poised to fill American jobs. Yet after 9/11, the U.S. government acted to slow the pace of immigration. The number of H-1B visas was cut sharply in the years after the terror attack.

Further tightening the bottleneck are the maneuverings of U.S.-based subcontractor firms that hire H-1B immigrants to fill short-term IT jobs. These firms, sometimes called “body shops,” are notorious for paying below-market wages.

“An outsourcing company might have one opening but will throw 20 [H-1B] applications at it,” Marinaccio says. “They’ll see how many H-1B’s the government is going to allot them. They’re just going to bring as many as they can, whether it be Indian or Chinese or whatever country their focus is. And they’ll try and get that many people and then they’re going to try and ‘sell’ them.”

These firms, Marinaccio says, have “taken a stranglehold on these H-1B visas.” They have a lot of Linux developers who sit on the bench waiting to be subcontracted out – being paid rock bottom salaries. “It hurts this supply-demand equation, because some of the supply [of developers] is sitting there within those outsourcing firms.”

But this bottleneck is good for American Linux developers because it pushes up their salaries, true?

It doesn’t exactly work that way, Marinaccio says. Eventually, a new arrival liberates himself from his underpaying subcontractor and looks for better wages. But after years of earning around $70k – during which he has become a seasoned professional – an American company can woo this foreign-born Linux expert with the still low offer of $100k. (Low, that is, given that an American with similar Linux skills might command closer to $150k.)

So on balance, the flow of open source experts from other countries has a mixed effect on domestic Linux salaries. The H-1B bottleneck helps keeps U.S. salaries high, yet the continuous supply of new talent acts to lower paychecks for American Linux developers.

“It fluctuates,” Marinaccio says, noting that the net effect is something of a wash.

One factor that may influence Linux salaries long term is the countless young developers who are now drawn to open source. Back in the mid to late 90s, interest in Linux was limited to hardy pioneers. (To see Linux life in that simpler era, look at the 1997 Atlanta Linux Showcase; note the picture of a young Linus Torvalds mock posing for the cover of GQ magazine, or giving the keynote speech – gosh, the audience was over 100 people.) It wasn’t until the 2000-02 period that a larger mass of Linux enthusiasts began coalescing.

Consequently, there has yet to be even a partial generation who has grown up learning open source. So there’s a scarcity of veteran experts (at least in America), forcing companies to offer big paychecks to hire top Linux pros.

What happens when the current crop of young open source advocates (who enthusiastically fill Linux user groups at every university in America) matures and reaches the job market? Will this vast cohort of budding experts depress pay? Or, on the other hand, will the current crew of young open source developers be enough to keep up with business’s enormous appetite for open source software?

James Maguire is the managing editor of Datamation.

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