Looking Forward: The State of the Open Source Job Market

What a whirlwind it has been.  Falling to the depths of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and now finding ourselves clawing back to a stabilized economy, with hopeful signs of growth in the future.  It is a challenge that most have never had to endure in their lives.  And it has taken a toll on this nation as well as the rest of the globe.

So, how did we end up here?  It has been well documented that the combination of a credit crisis and a housing bubble are the key factors that lead us down a road of near disrepair.  No need to discuss who was at fault for this state of affairs we found ourselves in.  There are arguments from every angle.  The focus of this piece is the turbulence the labor market has felt as a result of this turn of events.  And, most notably, what has been the effect on technical individuals with a skill set that encompasses the use and development of open source-based software?

From a technical labor standpoint, the September/October 2008 time frame is when things took a noticeable turn for the worse.  We had already been talking about the recession and the credit crisis dating back to mid 2007, but the effects in fall of 2008 were pronounced.  The stock market was plummeting, and as a result there were nervous CEOs at nearly every company.  But it all came to a head when the likes of John Chambers from Cisco and Eric Schmidt from Google announced that they were stemming all hiring and preparing for the worst.  That had a resounding effect on a lot of the other technology companies.

The end result was companies scrambling to close all of their open job requisitions.  In a matter of a month or two, one could see the amount of job openings requiring an open source software background  drop by at least 50-60 percent on major job boards.  It got eerily quiet, as if a there were some sort of natural disaster, but there was no physical destruction to speak of. Just companies sitting and waiting for the landscape to improve.

But we had seen this before; even in recent years.  After the technology bubble of 1999/2000, it was a very difficult employment market for technical professionals as well.  However, there was one major difference this time.  In addition to the larger enterprise companies going dark, the start-ups followed suit.  The fear got so prevalent that well-funded start-ups were asked to hold on to their money and not progress as planned.  There was some of that mentality after the technology bubble, but it was not as widespread as this time around.  

Granted, there were many more start-up failures during the last recession (2001), but the strong ones continued to move forward.  Everyone was in such a panic that the status quo became sit and wait.  And wait and wait.  At first, people talked about the wait being relatively short.  Perhaps only three months or so, and they would start opening their job requisitions again.  Three months would come and go.  Six months would come and go.  Companies found themselves in unchartered territory.

All was not lost, however.  As the argument goes, open source software thrives in a down economy based on the cost differential between it and proprietary software.  As much as I like to focus on open source software thriving on its technical merits, there is some truth to this argument.  

During this downturn, we witnessed the likes of Red Hat and MySQL, among others, doing very well.  Red Hat has continued to realize double-digit yearly percentage gains in terms of revenue, and MySQL was scooped up by Sun Microsystems for the hefty price tag of one billion dollars.  Therefore, companies with a core competency in open source software plowed through the murky water quite well.  But, the companies that utilize open source software were not faring as well.  Granted, their use of open source software continued to increase, but that did not necessarily translate into positions for engineers.

One very interesting thing has occurred during calendar year 2009.  Financial companies, who were the focus of this downturn, were the ones that seemed to be leading us out of this state of disrepair.  We poured billions of dollars into these institutions to keep them afloat.  Whether you agree with that or not, the benefit to open source software engineers is that they began to hire again.  

There is now no question that open source software is permeating the financial companies at the core.  It use to be on the periphery, but we are well beyond that now.  That will translate into more jobs for open source software engineers in this sector.  We have seen a migration of sorts of engineers moving from technology companies to financial companies, and I think it is fair to say that this will continue in the future.

There is another glimmer of hope as we get ready for 2010.¬† The start-ups that were like bears hibernating over the last year seem to be crawling blearily out of their caves.¬† Venture capital seems to slowly be on the increase.¬† And the ones that already have VC appear to be ready to put some of it to work.¬† Let’s hope that this trend, albeit one that is moving at the pace of a glacier, continues.

So, what does the employment landscape look like moving forward?  

For the first time in over a year, there are signs of improvement that are hopefully giving companies some confidence.  Recently, some of the large technology companies have announced that they are going to reengage in hiring engineers.  This should eventually trickle down to small- and medium-sized businesses following suit.  

As far as open source software engineers are concerned, the future is bright.  The plus to be taken out of this terrible economic cycle is the fact that companies have continued their adoption of open source software.  This will continue to translate into more positions for engineers with that background.  

The climb from the depths of the deepest recession in decades will be a slow one, but one that seems to finally be happening.