Unix and Linux: Similar technologies, different career prospects
April 16, 1999
by Alan Earls
(IDG) -- Unix and Linux — birds of a feather, yes. But one is an established career path with 30 years of proven market value, and the other, barely 8 years old, has only recently become a serious market contender. As the following roundup shows,career prospects for Unix should continue to be strong. But Linux isn't ready for prime time.
Unix has been the magic word, spelling career success for IT professionals for 30 years. And with growth moderating for Windows NT, Unix professionals are breathing a collective sigh of relief — and looking ahead to new opportunities.
"I think Unix will always be around because of its proven scalability," says John Fjellstad, a software engineer at ProdEx Technologies in Saratoga, Calif., an NT shop where Unix is used for development work. "With the rise of Linux, you might actually find a Unix-only shop."
Unix alone can float your career boat, but broader skills are recommended to chart a steady career course. And employers in Unix-only and mixed-tech shops want proven skills and experience. Fjellstad says he began learning Unix in college and now runs Linux on his home PC to improve his proficiency and acquire system administration skills.
"You have to know the material. There is no substitute" for mastering the numerous and powerful keystroke combinations in Unix, agrees Timothy Jones, a designer/developer at Technical Resource Connection, in Tampa, Fla. Jones swears by the value of having a dedicated machine on which to run Unix or Linux.
"Unix systems are very promiscuous. They are almost always connected to networks and to large numbers of other systems," says Wes Peters, principal engineer at XMission LLC, an Internet service provider in Salt Lake City. A consequence of that penchant for interconnection is that Unix professionals need good all-around technical knowledge in order to apply Unix skills effectively.
Then there are the business and interpersonal skills that complement Unix knowledge. "You must be able to use [human] language effectively to accomplish your work goals," Peters says. He also endorses the idea of honing your skills on a home machine.
If you're able to become proficient in Unix — and particularly if you can also talk business — the market will find a home for you. For example, Bill Radford, a vice president at BellSouth Information Systems in Atlanta, says the market for Unix skills in his neighborhood is "pretty tight." In his view, it's likely to grow at a steady pace in the years ahead.
The real demand will be for those with specific business skills or technical skills on top of their Unix knowledge. "We need Unix people who also understand cellular phone billing and Yellow Pages operations," Radford says.
Linux is more than a Unix flavor with similar multitasking, virtual memory, shared libraries and demand-loading and TCP/IP networking capabilities. It's an important contender in the server and desktop market, but to its growing legion of boosters, it's nothing less than the Next Big Thing.
But hiring managers and practitioners are offering a more careful assessment with regard to Linux career prospects.
Steven Pritchard, a contract HP-UX system administrator at a Peoria, Ill., manufacturer, sees a lot of interest in Linux across the organization — especially since major vendors began to support it — but no actual applications. However, Pritchard does consulting work and has set up Linux servers for some nearby companies and colleges.
"The demand for just Linux skills isn't all that high yet," Pritchard says. "Most of the Linux people I know don't have Linux-specific jobs."
Even so, "there is a lot of demand for people like me that know Linux" as well as Unix, he adds.
Off the bandwagon
Gene Denney, a programmer at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, has his doubts about the roadworthiness of the Linux bandwagon. He's currently experimenting with Linux and says those who master it will be in demand "in the future, more so than now."
Still, leading vendors such as IBM, Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. are flocking to the Linux standard. Linux use grew 212% last year to claim 17% of new server shipments, according to International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.
Some professionals are capitalizing on their Linux skills now. Dwayne Masters, a network security analyst at a Midwestern financial services firm, says Linux has become the operating system of choice for internal development projects.
Masters, a former senior Unix systems administrator who says he first started "playing around" with Linux on a personal workstation, credits the experience with giving him the networking, security and scripting-languages skills that helped him land his current position. He advises those who would tread the Linux path to learn by doing.
But to Tom Mangan, a vice president of information systems at Lanier Worldwide Inc. in Atlanta, Linux is more sizzle than steak. "Linux is great for someone who wants to acquire Unix skills. Maybe a very small business could use it, but I don't see it as something for us," he says.
Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, Mass.
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