Role of Training and Certification at the Linux Foundation

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Open source allows anyone to dip their toes in the code, read up on the documentation, and learn everything on their own. That’s how most of us did it, but that’s just the first step. Those who want to have successful careers in building, maintaining, and managing IT infrastructures of companies need more structured hands-on learning with real-life experience. That’s where Linux Foundation’s Training and Certification unit enters the picture. It helps not only greenhorn developers but also members of the ecosystem who seek highly trained and certified engineers to manage their infrastructure. Swapnil Bhartiya sat down with Clyde Seepersad, SVP and GM of Training and Certification at the Linux Foundation, to learn more about the Foundation’s efforts to create a generation of qualified professionals.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you tell us a bit about what is the primary goal of Training and Certification at the Linux Foundation?

Clyde Seepersad: If you look at the history of open source, the first wave of folks was very DIY. They would jump in, they would read the docs, and they would get on IRC channels. That was a sort of true way in which you get into open source — by figuring it out yourself. But of course, that’s never been true for software in general. People always get trained on commercial products. Companies have whole market enablement arms.

One of the things that we identified a few years ago is that there was this gap between amazing quality open source products that were changing how computing gets done, and the talent development side of things. How do we create on-ramps for talent in an age of open source where you don’t necessarily have the same quarter market commercial organizations, making sure that people get trained and up-to-speed technically on the software products? And so that’s a piece where we’re really trying to fill — that entry-level talent gap.

Swapnil Bhartiya: I have seen that there is no shortage of all these training but mostly, they are specific to a vendor and its product. So, when it comes to vendor-neutral technologies, core technologies, that is where there is a huge void. I think that’s the void LF is trying to fill?

Clyde Seepersad: Correct. It’s for the core technologies. And we always say you need a starting point that’s most useful to most people and that is a vendor-neutral understanding of the core technologies. We really try to focus on entry-level talent because we recognize that the commercial ecosystems are really valuable. When you get up into the intermediate and advanced layers, by definition, you’re working with specific tool sets and it’s appropriate for you to move into that more specific type of training. But when you’re getting started, you really need that broadest possible foundation because you don’t know if you’re going to be working in an Azure shop. You don’t know if you’re going to be in a GCP shop. You don’t know which district you’re going to be using. And so the broader the footprint that we can give people to start with, the better. That’s kind of where we focus —entry level, vendor-neutral— so people are best prepared for the maximum number of career opportunities.

Swapnil Bhartiya: The way we learned was we just learned everything ourselves: find it on the Internet, read a lot of books, download stuff, get series. But in today’s world where everybody’s connected, what kind of demand is there for this very basic entry level, for respecting the open source space?

Clyde Seepersad: Yeah. I’ll give you a good example, Swapnil. Just this past week, we actually announced the 1,000,000th enrollment in our free Intro to Linux course on edX, which kind of blows my mind. We were able to get out on the internet and find one million people from 222 different countries who wanted to learn the fundamentals of Linux, what it is and what it can do. I think that really shines a good light on just how broad the basis is and I think more importantly, how global the basis is, right? There’s a lot of data on-ramps into a technology career if you’re in North America or if you’re in Western Europe, as they are more mature ecosystems with different entry points. When you look globally, there are a lot fewer of those. So that part of our mission is, “Hey, this is not an isolated technical challenge for the US or for France or Germany. This is a global technical challenge.” And we’re seeing that demand.

The second highest number of enrollments for free Linux courses is from India and that there’s a broad, deep move to this. The example I’ve taken to giving recently is with the pandemic of 2020, my favorite local Chinese restaurant, which is a small mom-and-pop operation, shut down. When they came back online, they came back online with a website and an online ordering system. And I asked, “How did you guys get that set up?” And she said, “Oh, we had to go hire somebody. We had to go figure out how to make a mom-and-pop strip model Chinese food business into a web-enabled business.” It gives an example of the breadth that also is increasingly true: every business is now a technology business.

Swapnil Bhartiya: One more thing that people do not give credit or recognize is that despite these tough times, open source technologies, the way they have democratized, because building your own stack is so hard and so expensive. At the same time, if you want to start a business, having your own data centers so cloud and open source, you gave an example. As is the case with my Indian store because of this social distancing, or we did not want to go out, now they never did that, but suddenly everything was available online, you can just go online, place the order and get it delivered to your home. What enabled them to move quickly was all these democratization that has happened here. And at the same time, there is enough talent pool that you guys help create who can actually handle that kind of work. Because of that, suddenly, there is a surge. When we do look at all these technologies, we hear buzzwords like Kubernetes and all those things, they are intimidating. For somebody who is kind of new who wants to get into that, but they have no experience in any of these technologies, or any of these industries, how should they get started?

Clyde Seepersad: That’s a great point, Swapnil. Actually, that exact challenge is why we recently announced the creation of a new entry-level exam for what we call “IT associates”. It’s one of these recognitions that for those of us in tech, getting started seems like a fairly obvious thing, right? You learn the basic operating system, you get familiar with the cloud technologies, and you start thinking about the problems of stability and scale insecurity. If you’re on the outside looking in and you have never learned this stuff, you don’t know anybody in your community or your family who does it. It is a very tall ask to say, “Hey, go start by getting certified in Linux” or “Go start by getting the Azure certification or an AWS certification.” It’s just too much to ask for folks. You need some intermediate step to help people build confidence that this is something that they can do, even if they don’t have a support system and a network and a set of role models around them.

So, we developed this program to see if we can create a pre-professional certification exam that demonstrates that somebody has understood the fundamental concepts in terms of the new cloud infrastructure, the microservice infrastructure, the cloud native infrastructure without forcing them to get to the finish line of “Hey, I’m a competent cloud administrator,” right? It’s too much to ask folks to get in one go. It’s too much in terms of the time, it’s too much in terms of the level of effort without giving them some midpoint to see, “Okay, I feel confident that I can do this. I have the aptitude. I’ve been able to demonstrate that I can learn some of the basics.” And that really is the audience that we’re targeting. These are folks who are coming from the outside, new to IT, who understand the potential and they can see themselves doing it, but we have to give them somewhere to hang their hat to see, “Okay, it’s going to be fine. It’s a lot to learn, but I’ve shown that I can do it. I’ve shown competence. I’ve shown the aptitude. And potentially, I’ve shown enough to start getting a look from a potential employer or for a potential internship, but it’s some entry rung on the ladder.” That’s really what we’re going after: the recognition of it can be a daunting task to try to get somebody all the way up to technical competence. A pre-professional stepping stone could really help make IT seem like a more realistic career option for a lot of folks. 

Swapnil Bhartiya: If you look at open source, we all know a lot of core developer maintainers, they have no formal training. Somebody was a doctor and suddenly became a maintainer of a major open source project. But when we look at this whole “serving the enterprise space”, why do we need formal training when you can just go online and learn everything on your own?

Clyde Seepersad: That’s true. It reminds me of the last time I went to the doctor and he had a cartoon printed out on the wall that said that “Your Google search is not as good as my medical degree.” This is not a technology problem. The explosion of information on the Internet has made it possible to access a lot of knowledge and a lot of information. What it doesn’t do is make it easy and structured. So there are always going to be folks, just like they have been historically, who can go between the documentation and the discussion boards and the YouTube videos. They can figure it out for themselves. And our perspective is that’s great. Those people probably don’t need our help, but they’re probably in the single digits if you think of the percentages of people. 

Most folks need more structure. They need more guidance. They need labs that they can get through to have a solution that if they get stuck, they could go say, “Oh, that’s it, I forgot to open that port.” It’s not that training brings any dramatic new content to the table. What it does is it creates a structured path to help people go through a structured set of exercises and the availability of help if you get stuck. We have discussion boards and different forums for providing that help. It’s not that you couldn’t do it by scouring the web. It’s that the vast majority of people who take an already daunting topic and make it just impossible, right? We’ve got to put the breadcrumbs now to help people find it. That’s where we focus. We’re saying this information exists, but it doesn’t exist in a way that most people can digest it and can wrap their head around and stay committed to a path of getting from here to there. The training program, that’s what it does. It helps people find the path to get to where they want to go without having to invent the path by themselves.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Right. Also, the reason you need this structured training is you’re going to serve a particular industry, you are not just learning something. There’s a big difference in learning about something versus serving a specific industry. There are a lot of challenges. There are a lot of sets of procedures. So yes, it does play a very big role. You can learn everything yourself, but you should go through that specific training to prepare yourself for the job. Now, if you look at Linux Foundation, you guys do a lot of work in this training space. Can you kind of just give a few examples of the work that you’re doing to kind of help that talent gap? Linux Foundation also comes up with the report every year where we see there is such a huge gap between supply and demand of talent.

Clyde Seepersad: Correct. And we’re actually going to publish our newest version, the 2020 version of that report, the Open Source Jobs Report shortly. I’ll give you sort of a sneak preview. Even with the pandemic going on, more than 50% of the respondents said that they’re going to be hiring entry-level talent. And it’s really because there’s only so many times you can go to LinkedIn and try to poach somebody, right? Companies have realized that it’s a zero-sum game. You’re going to have to build and grow talent in-house, especially if you’re taking legacy loads and try to make them cloud-native and move them into the cloud, right? Getting brand-new people is not necessarily going to be the best way to make that happen. As LF, what we were doing is trying to say, “You need a portfolio of solutions to try to help fill that gap in the market.”

So, we do things like the Intro to Linux course I was talking about, which is available for free on the web. Anybody can go sign up for it and you don’t have to pay a dime. We have new exams like this entry-level certification exam. We’ve got instructor training for folks who want that. We’ve got affordable e-learning options for folks who want that. We recently put together some bootcamp tech programs to train people, to have that extra layer of instructor support. We recognize that there is no one silver bullet. It’s a portfolio of different actions to try to figure out different people who are in different places. How do we create solutions for them to find a path to get to where they want to go with the right level of intensity, the right level of support, and importantly, the right level of availability, and the right affordability. Because that, in reality, is a barrier for a lot of folks. Not everybody can drop $10,000 on a coding bootcamp. 

Swapnil Bhartiya: That also made me think that how do you also help individuals meet their own educational goals. As you said, sometimes, you need so many resources there?

Clyde Seepersad: Yeah. The structured training programs help because it helps folks see that there is a sequence in which they can learn and grow. It’s also helpful for them to just get into the discussion boards that we provide and be able to engage, not just with the instructors, but with the other people in the programs, to figure out “These are the challenges we’re all facing, I’m not alone in this. Other people are stuck in similar places.” Just like we were talking about with the new certified IT associate, folks see that they’re not alone and helping them get help and making it easy for them to access that help is an important part of making it accessible. I mean, ultimately, what we want is to create a pathway where people can succeed, where the barriers to entry come down. 

A lot of that is around building the community, the affordability, the accessibility, and coming from a place where we are fortunate in the Foundation that we’re a nonprofit. Folks get that we’re not trying to appease shareholders. We really are a mission-driven organization and I think that also helps give people the confidence that the agenda here really is to expand the talent pool. It really is to try to help folks. I think the mantra for my team has been, “Great code alone can’t change the world.” You still need people in there implementing systems, implementing solutions, providing support. So, the open source revolution does need a talent revolution to help sustain it.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Now, we did touch upon this point at different points, but do you need to have some specific qualification or you should be in a specific location or you should be of certain age to join these training programs?

Clyde Seepersad: No. We really do make this, as my training director likes to joke about it, we try to go down to what is the file level, right? If you look at our Intro to Linux course, for instance, it really starts by saying, “What’s an OS? What’s a file? How do you install it?” And the beauty of doing this stuff as self-paced learning is it allows people to skip ahead. Usually, you would look at the outline and you can figure out, “Oh, okay, Chapter 7 is where my journey needs to start.” So, it allows people to opt into a training program and find their level, but it also allows people who truly are new to this to find an accessible path in.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Awesome. Clyde, thank you so much for taking time out today and talk about this training and certification. And I look forward to talking to you again. Thank you.

Clyde Seepersad: Same here. I really appreciate you having me, Swapnil.