Zen and the Art of the Six-Figure Linux Job

An expert in the Linux job market talks about earning a lucrative payday. Plus: the effect of H-1B visas on Linux salaries.


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Posted September 30, 2008

James Maguire

James Maguire

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Also See: See the 2009 IT Salary Guide

You’ve heard the stereotypes and the misconceptions. Since Linux is free software, the developers who create it are paid next to nothing, right?

Wrong. Brent Marinaccio, the director of open source recruiting firm Hot Linux Jobs, has an insider’s view. The Savannah, Georgia-based job placement firm, founded in 2000, works exclusively with companies seeking open source experts.

He fields calls from employers looking for expertise in, for instance, the Linux kernel, general Linux user software, PHP, and (more recently) Ruby on Rails. Hot Linux Jobs usually handles 50 job openings at one time, he says.

“Most of the positions that we work on are going to [pay] at least high five-figure and up to the $150k base type area,” Marinaccio says. Companies pay Hot Linux Jobs a fee to find open source experts, so the openings tend to be mid- and senior-level posts. (Of course most entry-level open source jobs pay nowhere near these salaries. Companies often recruit at universities for their lower paying jobs, he says.)

These upper-level Linux jobs are not only lucrative but becoming more so.

“If you went back two years, and using the Linux kernel engineer as an example, for a lot of the positions the low end of the range might be $100k, and at the high end of the range companies had a hard time breaking the $120k barrier – maybe they’d get up to $125k,” Marinaccio says.

“Now you see the low end of the range is generally $120k. The upper range can push up to that $140k, $150k area,” he says. “You have probably seen, on average, at least a 10 to 15 percent increase over the last two years, in some cases higher.”

Linux salaries have been pushed higher by the law of supply and demand, he says. “And that’s helping us as, perhaps, this market does soften a little bit.”

“There is still a heavy supply shortage for the demand that is out there in a lot of these specific areas.”

The Zen of Earning a Major Linux Salary

Given the handsome salaries, a budding Linux developer might wonder: what’s the best strategy to land a six-figure gig? Specifically, what’s the best paying open source sector: PHP? The Linux kernel? Ruby?

But Marinaccio, despite his intimate knowledge of what employers are looking for, advises job seeker to focus not on the external market but on their own preferences and aptitudes. Sounding much like an ancient Zen master, he recommends looking within.

Brent Marinaccio, Hot Linux Jobs
Brent Marinaccio

“First and foremost you have to do what you like to do,” he says. As in any profession, you have to care about Linux to be good at it. No matter which open source sector you choose, “if you're good at it, you’re going to do fairly well [financially].” He recommends asking yourself: “Where within the open source realm do you find a potential fit for your skills and what you like to do?”

And true to the nature of Asian wisdom, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Or rather, a single project. The best first step is often to contribute to an open source project.

But not just any project. (This is where Marinaccio’s advice veers from classic Zen thinking into the pragmatic strategizing needed in today’s Darwinian job market.) Become a recognized member of a project whose members include pros from companies like IBM, Novell, Google and the like. (The members might not list their company affiliations but you can always Google their names to find out.)

“If you see there’s 10 or 20 IBM engineers doing this, if you get involved and contribute code, I would be willing to bet that at some point IBM is going to more than likely offer you a position.” He has seen this happen numerous times.

“That’s the beauty of open source – you have seen individuals in a fairly short amount of time, something that couldn’t be done necessarily [if coding proprietary software], you see someone climb ten rungs of the ladder. It might take them years to do that inside a corporation.”

Not that Marinaccio discourages open source enthusiasts from participating in smaller projects. But he lowers expectations. “I encourage you to participate in that project, but don’t expect it to lead to much.”

Make careful decisions about where you build your reputation. “Essentially, your contributions and your name become your brand.”

What’s Driving Linux Job Growth

Helping create Linux jobs is the fact that open source has become the darling of the datacenter in the least few years. Its low cost and, more important, its customizability is attracting businesses of every stripe.

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Tags: open source, Linux, IBM, IT Jobs/Salary, datacenter

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