December 10, 2014

How to Keep Your Linux Skills Sharp After Certification

pencil sharpener flickr creative commons

Many people pursue Linux certification in hopes of landing a better job or moving up within their own organization. But once you gain certification, just as if you were learning German or a triple axel in ice skating, maintaining those skills becomes a use-it-or-lose it situation.

“There is no use in a helpdesk candidate getting a high-level Linux cert if they don’t work with it on a regular basis," as Trevor Simm, president and founder of Millersville, MD-based staffing firm OpalStaff, put it.

Regularly using those skills, whether on the job or on your own, is vital to keeping that knowledge fresh in your mind.
“Stop booting into your other operating systems. Switch to a WM [window manager] that will force you to do more from the command line, like Fluxbox,” urges Dugan Chen, software developer at MPC in Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the respondents at Linuxquestions.org. “Use the command line whenever you can. Set up VMs and use them to try out different distributions.” 

The Linux Foundation’s two new certifications, Linux Foundation Certified System Administrator (LFCS) and Linux Foundation Certified Engineer (LFCE) require candidates to show what they can do from the command line.

Make a Personal Commitment

Keeping skills current requires a personal commitment to do so. Fewer companies these days are willing to invest in staff training, making it imperative for IT workers to do it themselves.

“The best advice I can give is be prepared to set aside a percentage of your salary for continuing education. Take it right off the top,” says Trevor Pott, a sysadmin, writer and consultant from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He advocates setting up your own lab, and looking for low-cost services as much as possible.

“The actual skills associated with those certifications are earned only through hard labor.  Experience comes from an investment of sweat equity, not cramming for an exam. The only way to maintain skills is to keep your hand in it.”

Look for like-minded people at local "hackerspaces" and user groups with an eye toward perhaps pooling your resources, he advises.

Advice from other sysadmins

Members of the LinkedIn Linux Users & Open Source Developers group also weighed in with this advice:

“I find it useful to visit forums and tackle the more interesting questions,” said Alvin Sylvain, a self-employed Linux PHP database developer from Los Angeles.

Suggests David Meister, senior technical support engineer for Informatica in the Bay Area: “Keep using the skills. If you don't want to sit at home tinkering, find a volunteer gig somewhere that uses Linux. It might take some shopping, but they are out there.”
“Dig into OpenStack. That will keep you busy and keep your skills up for sure. What I did was figure out how to automate everything with Chef ,” says Tim Cook, who works in operations at Hightail, also in the Bay Area.

“Try building each flavor of Linux on some VMs on your laptop. VirtualBox is good for that. See what works/doesn't work,” advises Garrett Curtis, a consultant at Great Northern Consulting Services in the Cincinnati area.

“I recommend practicing your skills over at TrueAbility,” advises Erik Larson, account manager for the San Antonio, Texas-based startup. “We have over 14,000 users that can self-assess and practice on a live-server environment for free. Think of it as your own server playground in the cloud to test out your Apache, Configuration Management (Puppet or Chef), General Linux Skills, General Scripting (Any Language), MongoDB, MySQL or PostgreSQL.”

Danny Trinh, senior system administrator at Overhead Door Corp. in Lewisville, Texas, offers several ideas:

  • Try to break your Linux box, then try to find the solution(s) to fix it.
  • Join http://nixcraft.com. This website has many valuable how-to’s.
  •  Try to duplicate the issues that you can read on Linux users forums, and pretend that's the real issue you will face on the job.

“I was lucky during my studying of Linux. I was working in a giant lab, so I had many opportunities to break things, then fix, then break again, then find a better fix for it,” he said.

Constantly be tinkering with the latest stuff, advises, Gilbert Morgan, WebLogic systems administrator at Digital Management, Inc. in Marina, Calif. “Personal projects are a huge must. I find that by presenting myself with problems to solve, I get better and better daily.”

And just experiment on your own, Sébastien Le Corre, a cyber security consultant apprentice at Orange Business Services in the Rennes area, of France, offers with perhaps the best advice of all: Just have fun with it.

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