May 8, 2021

Learning Linux

Five years ago I barely knew what Linux was. Two years ago I used Linux knowingly for the first time during, now ...

Five years ago I barely knew what Linux was. I knew it was a thing and I think I knew it was an operating system, but that was about it. Two years ago I used Linux knowingly for the first time during a University course for OpenFOAM. A little over a year and a half ago I started at Canonical, the company that publishes Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution, and everything changed (the fire nation did not attack).

Photo by Jay Ruzesky on Unsplash

Getting going

My story is fairly typical. Linux proved to be a gateway drug to open source and open tech communities. Goodness knows why I wasn’t there already, all the opportunities were right in front of me, I guess I was just on a different path. But now I’m here, I won’t be looking back. It’s the Disney land of tech passions. Once you’re there, there’s so much to do, so much to see, and so many people there for the love of the same stuff.

My first glimpse of the future came when I was trying to install Ubuntu on my shiny new Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1. It was a pain in the ass. A huge pain in the ass. But not because of Linux, because Lenovo’s customer service was a pile of s***. After wrestling with them for a while I had my first Linux lesson. How to install Ubuntu 18.04 on my workstation. This was before I had officially started, and I decided I would nuke the Windows and go full Ubuntu. It worked almost beautifully.

The process was straight forward and well documented for numerous models of ThinkPad. I went through the steps to get it working, did that first bit of configuration in the installer, and I came out onto my new desktop with that little beaver looking at me. Knowing that just a short time before it was a Windows machine and I, with no experience, just some articles, had fixed that, felt good. I was in a good place.

The only issue I had was sometimes I would boot and the touchpad wouldn’t work. But this issue has since been fixed.

This is where my story becomes unique. Within a month I met and started to work with giants in the Linux world. Mark Shuttleworth, Martin Wimpress, Alan Pope and on and on. I have to say, there is no one better to get tech support for your Ubuntu Desktop from than the Director of the Ubuntu Desktop at Canonical.

Stepping into the Linux Community

Linux is the world’s largest and most pervasive open source software project in history. Millions of people contribute all over the world. It’s nuts. Joining Canonical meant joining the Ubuntu forums, the discourse, subscribing to the mailing list, and plugging in as a lurker, to the community. That’s it right? I’m in? This is how a community works?

My second major lesson happened a few months after I joined. I helmed the Ubuntu Desktop user survey in the run-up to the 20.04 LTS release. As the Product Manager for Desktop, I wanted to solicit all the feedback we could get to inform the launch and upcoming roadmap discussions. The Ubuntu community is full of people living and breathing Ubuntu, cutting their teeth on the issues every day, it was a no brainer.

Surveys like this had been tried before, either ad-hoc or focused on a particular area of work. I wanted a more holistic view, something that would paint a picture of how we were doing across the board. I spoke to the teams, I wrote the questions, and we put it out there. The survey closed a month later in January 2020 and it was a tremendous success, we had over twenty thousand responses. At a glance, it looked good, I got some pats on the back but no one paid any real attention.

I summarised the results in what turned into my most successful blog post up to that point and was immediately overwhelmed. I had people reaching out on Twitter, commenting on the blog, messaging me directly on telegram, people from all over the world who I had never met. Saying thank you. The project was mine so I wrote the article my way, honestly. It was a community survey, they deserved to see the results. The good and the bad.

I mention this not because the survey was a success but because it highlighted to me the reach and the personability of the Linux community. Suddenly I understood the community was full of actual real people. I wasn’t talking to customers or clients or dealing with a passive user base, I was talking to real people with a personal passion for Ubuntu. Contributing to their passion (even in the form of a survey) was significant.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Focused learning

After the survey and after doing my part for the launch of Ubuntu 20.04 I knew I wanted to contribute. Not just as part of my job, but I wanted to be involved, a real part of the community. There are numerous ways to contribute of course, but I wanted to know more, I was tired of not being a part of technical conversations because I’d studied the wrong thing. It was time to learn. Not just osmose information the way I had been so far in meetings, but actually, actively learn.

This proved somewhat difficult. And for a long time, I was unable to. I kept osmosing and I would take any excuse to write a blog post or a tutorial that dealt with a technical topic so I could learn. But nothing proper. I was too busy and the work that needed doing was not technical. The closest I came was with the Ubuntu Desktop for the Raspberry Pi. Much closer to my skill-set technically, a good place to start learning, but it needed leadership, product strategy, and marketing, not engineering. The Desktop team has that in heaps.

And then, a few weeks ago, I quit the product team to become a developer advocate. Part of my negotiation in taking the new job was that I would get time and money to learn. I wanted to take certifications and grow my understanding. So I could do my job better, yes, but also so I could contribute the way I want to. This process of focused learning started this week. I started the Linux Foundation course on Edex “Introduction to Linux”. And finished it.

Apparently, the amount I had learnt by osmosis at Canonical was non-zero. In retrospect it makes sense, sitting in hundreds of hours of meetings with incredibly smart people talking about their work, you’re bound to pick up some stuff. I flew through most of the course. I took lots of notes and made sure to go through each section anyway, having no idea where the gaps in my knowledge are, and I took my time with the bits I didn’t know. Done and done. What’s next?