September 16, 2005

Why Linux needs a mentor program

Author: Tarun Agnani

Imagine you're a new Linux user. You ordered an Ubuntu CD weeks ago and forgot about it. You're surprised it actually comes in the mail. You slap the shiny disc into your PC and cross your fingers. The installation is quite slick. You're impressed by the splash screen and attractive desktop. Wow, you think you're hot stuff -- a Linux user. But the euphoria fades as you realize there's a problem with your modem. Now what do you do?

This is what happened to one of my coworkers, who called me to get help with his system after he installed Linux. After we worked through his modem problem (he had the wrong port selected), he asked me a lot of questions about Linux. Some of the answers could have been found in a good Linux FAQ, but not all of them. A question about menus in Ubuntu stumped me because I run Gentoo, but I was able to do some research and had the answer ready the next day at work. Since then, I have continued to give him Linux help and advice while he gives me excellent programming tips. It's a win-win situation.

The whole experience made me wonder why there isn't a formal Linux Mentor program. The Linux community has spawned message boards, newsgroups, HOWTOs, FAQs, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, and Linux User Groups (LUG) to provide help to new users -- but most of these resources provide little or no direct human contact. While LUGs let new users mingle with Linux experts, new users have to wait for meetings to get face-to-face help. Why isn't there a system for teaming up Linux newbies with a more experienced Linux user to help them through the transition?

Another person can add perspective and context to any situation or goal. It's the old, "If he can do it, so can I" phenomenon, where a goal becomes more tangible simply because someone else reached it. To a new Linux user, a mentor is the person who is not only knowledgeable about Linux, but also representative of someone who uses Linux successfully.

Informal mentoring of the kind I provide to my coworker goes on all the time and, under the right circumstances, can be very successful. The question is, how can the community facilitate the mentoring process and make the experience better for both parties?

The first thing someone should do is create a "Linux Mentor" Web site that helps users find mentors. A mentor's profile on the site should include:

  • Geographical location: New users should be able to find mentors who live close to them. Users may be able to talk with mentors over the phone or using voice over IP, but there's still no substitute for face-to-face contact. If a mentor and new user live in the same area, they can meet in person when necessary. This also makes it much easier for a mentor to help a new user troubleshoot hardware.
  • Hardware configuration: All hardware has quirks, whether it's your wireless adapter in combination with Linux or your misbehaving video card on Windows. Unless you've worked with a piece of hardware, you're not likely to know its quirks and how to work around them. A mentor should be able to use his experience with hardware problems to help new users, or to recommend new Linux-compatible hardware when a user's existing hardware is unsupported.
  • Mentor rating: Users should be able to rate mentors and provide opinions much in the same way that people rate books and movies on Amazon.com.

Ideally, a new user would be able to find a mentor who lives nearby, has a similar hardware configuration, and a high mentor rating. The mentor should also have to take a test to demonstrate Linux knowledge. The site could feature training and certification programs for mentors.

My coworker is a happy Linux user now. One has to wonder, though, what would have happened if things hadn't gone well? What if he (like a lot of people), encountered a problem with Linux and didn't know where to turn -- except back to Windows?

The Linux Mentor program would provide a unique avenue of support to frustrated users in need of a patient and understanding hand. By mentoring users, not only will Linux gain more brain and market share, but we will sow the seeds for future generations of mentors. I still recall my mentor, Chris, guiding me through installing Red Hat 5.2 and KDE 1.0. If it weren't for his enthusiastic help, I'm not sure I would be running Linux now, much less mentoring others.

I know the Linux community is made up of good, kindhearted people. Sure, we may occasionally squabble over petty technical details -- but underneath it all, most of us have the same goals and values. We want to promote freedom, openness, and the evolution of Linux and open source software. Sometimes we get so caught up in the technology, we forget about the people that actually make use of it. The Linux Mentor program would reflect those values, not in some abstract way, but in a concrete way by helping other users with their day-to-day problems.

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