Why Absolute Technology Rules Can Be Bad For Your IT Career

Technology inspires enthusiasm and passion, and we often defend our choices in semi-rational tones replete with religious fervour. In your own life, you can do what you like. When you’re working with IT in your career, you need to learn to compromise more readily.

Hands tied picture from Shutterstock

Why am I thinking about this? I made one of my semi-regular appearances on ABC Radio National’s Drive program last night, talking with host Waleed Aly about open source and Linux.conf.au. (As I keep pointing out, I’m attending the event as part of our World Of Servers coverage.) You can catch the full broadcast here if you’re curious.

The first question Aly asked was whether I was a Linux user myself. My answer? “I have to use everything. That’s the point of being a geek. You jump around through everything.”

That’s a brief but accurate summary. Regular Lifehacker readers will know that a Windows notebook is my main day-to-day machine, but I keep an Ubuntu box set up for experimentation and learning, and a couple of emergency bootable Linux USB sticks are an essential part of my toolkit. I use each technology in the context where I find it helpful. In a professional context, that’s the only sensible approach.

Aly’s next question was also revealing if jokey:

This has to be the most pretentious self-righteous conference in the word, doesn’t it?

My initial answer was equally jokey and throwaway:

Well I don’t know. I think maybe the Liberal Party might give it a run for its money.

Then I got back to the more serious issue:

There’s a great sense of conviction and sense of purpose that drives people who use Linux and drives people within what we call the open source movement so they’re very passionate, but I’ve never thought passion was a bad thing in this sort of context.

It certainly isn’t. Events like Linux.conf.au are driven by passion. The whole shebang is co-ordinated by volunteers; many of the attendees schedule their holidays so they can come along. While there are certainly plenty of people attending and presenting who work with these technologies every day, the vibe and the organisation is quite different from ‘corporate’ conferences that are centred around a single brand or suite of products. But does that mean that the vibe is ‘self-righteous’?

In my experience, it generally doesn’t, but I can see why people might reach that conclusion. I suspect Waleed Aly has been stuck at a dinner party at some point in his life where someone has ranted on about the importance of open development and free software to the point of tedium. Open source bores exist. But being stuck with one is no different to being stuck next to an Apple zealot who thinks everything that has ever come out of Cupertino is beyond criticism. Life throws dullards at you sometimes. They’re free to rave; you’re free to move on.

The context where this gets trickier is the workplace. While work environments have historically been fairly dictatorial in terms of what technology can be used, that increasingly isn’t the case today. We live in the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) era, at least some of the time. The modern workplace will include a mix of technologies: proprietary and open source; up-to-date software and decades-old code; cloud apps and programs that crash if you remove just one piece of local hardware.

[related title=”World Of Servers” tag=”wos1″ items=”5″]This pattern is very evident looking around at my fellow attendees. I am possibly the only person in the room where I’m typing this (while waiting for the next presentation to start) who is using a Windows machine. Outside this room, that wouldn’t be the case. And even here, there are plenty of Macs in sight, and many of them are booted into OS X. There are phones of every stripe. There’s very little sense of being an absolute purist. You have to be able, to use my slightly awkward phrasing from last night, to “jump around through everything”.

Those are personal choices, but the same logic applies when it comes to the back-end systems which power our enterprises. Yes, there will be workplaces that refuse to use any software that’s not free and open source, but those are a minority. There will be workplaces with absolute rules about only using a given proprietary platform, but there will generally be edge cases. Working with a mix of platforms is, I suspect, the dominant reality.

I think that’s a good thing. Diversity of choice has to include people making choices you don’t personally approve of. You can’t choose all your colleagues, and even if you become the CIO, you can’t choose all your technology platforms. Budget issues and the trends in your industry sector and the concerns of other managers will all play a role. You need to be flexible.

If your job involves helping to deploy technology, you need a sense of pragmatism and a willingness to compromise. You won’t always get your own way. You have to make the best choice at the time. That’s not the same as the best choice for everyone. That doesn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong. Open standards are important and helpful. But the world is messy. When you navigate through it building a career, you must bear that in mind.

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Canberra for Linux.conf.au, paying particular attention to the systems administration mini-conference and sessions on virtualisation and best practice.

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