Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Time to put on our Big Boy pants.....

By Ken Starks

And if you are a girl, you can put on your Big Girl pants too and join us.

Here's why.

I don't know what constitutes "an expert".  I've read different bios and introductions to discover that so and so is an expert in this and that.

So this "expert" thing.....

Is there a test you take?  Is it published peer review? Some certification process maybe?  I'm not sure how anyone gets the badge of "expert" in their title.

I'm not an expert at what I do.  No one has told me that I am.  I don't feel like an expert.  Nothing has come in the mail, proclaiming me an expert, so I guess I'm not.  And to be honest, I don't particularly want the responsibility of that moniker anyway.

But I do have extensive experience in one area, albeit a narrow area.

In 7 years, I have placed over 1500 Linux-powered computers in the homes of financially-disadvantaged kids.  I created an organization 7 years ago, The HeliOS Project;  in order to see to it that kids who cannot afford a computer in their home can have one.  Reorganized in the summer of 2012 as Reglue, we are picking up where HeliOS left off.

I've gained quite an education doing this.

The first thing that became unconditionally clear is that Linux is not a difficult operating system to use on a daily basis.  Keep in mind, I draw that conclusion from observing kids from the ages of 10 to 18.  As the FUD wars rage on the Internet over which operating system is superior, I've watched children sit down at their new Linux-powered machines and do some fairly amazing stuff.

Without supervision or prompt, they explore the menus, experiment with the different applications and settings, and go about the business of making that computer their own.  See, kids don't care.  They haven't yet been maimed or influenced by fanboys or anyone else who has a professional or personal reason to choose one system or another.

Fact is, the uneven male presence in tech doesn't exist at that age.  From what I have observed, the girls may have a better handle on how a computer works than boys do.  And let there be no mistake.  Adults are the ones that make computer use hard on themselves.  Watching an average adult explore new things on a computer is challenging.  They gingerly move the mouse with their fingertips as if one wrong move will cause the entire machine to explode.

But not the kids....they are brave, fearless and hungry to learn.

So what does all of this have to do with us putting on our Big Boy pants?


Chances are, the people that read this are not simply Linux users.  They are learned, proficient professionals in their field.  Some of you contribute to the kernel, some of you write apps or large parts of a distro itself.  A lot of you contribute artwork or documentation.  Many of you are the architects of your own distro.  You command what does and does not happen in your project.  Everyone who has a hand in creating the Linux experience should take the following into consideration.

Some of us still think that beyond the blinding stage lights that illuminate our work, there is only a smattering of people watching a dress rehearsal.  We are going about our business thinking that we are playing to a closed-door cluster of people in the back row.

Some of us have not figured out that the curtain has indeed been raised and it's opening night for our show of shows.  Potentially, there are millions of people watching what you do.

But still, we put no thought in what we name our apps.  We sometimes write our documentation thinking that everyone reading it holds a Masters Degree in Computer Science.  We skimp on small but important details and a lot of us believe that a new user needs to "sink or swim" as they enter the Linux Waters.

I won't say which, but we recently made a major change in the distro we use on our Reglue machines because the forums I bookmarked for these kids were rife with profanity and rude and childish behavior.  Many of us fail to see that an entire generation is taking their first seat at a computer, a Linux computer on our watch.  School systems all over the world are making the change to Linux-powered computers in their labs and classrooms.  These same kids are being advised to have a Linux computer at home if possible.

We're no longer a niche, regardless of what the various statistics tell us.  There are millions of Linux users world-wide and more are making that switch every day.

Look...I know that the fragmentation of distros can be a daunting challenge.  I also realize that the Internet is still considered a Wild West show complete with shootouts in the street and bar room brawls are the norm.  I'm not saying that we can have a profound change on this entirely.

What I am saying is that individually, we should begin to understand the impact our work is having on a global scale.  Kids are growing up, counting on our software to not only do the job, but to offer a full-featured, professional experience.  Much of what we offer does this already, but some of us haven't squinted hard enough to see who is seated beyond the lights.

I think once all of us have taken that glance into the audience, we will realize just how important our work is.  --Ken Starks

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  1. Good points. I am old and retired now but I believe the seeds I have planted in the minds of many students and teachers will accomplish far more than I have done. I see that in my granddaughter who is not yet 4. She can start two different PCs in our home, start her favourite games or the web browser and visit educational sites on the web all with GNU/Linux and Free Software. When she comes to the age of reason I doubt she will ever conceive of Apple or M$ being the One True Way... She will be free.

  2. I, too, am an educator and do what I can to make available LInux (mostly Ubuntu or Mint) as well as OS X and Windows, especially at the high school level but also at K-8 schools where I can (I am currently installing Linux on donated computers for a K-8 school). I let the students experiment and work with each - and have them compare word processors, image editors, web browsers, media players, and other tools on the different systems. I let them explore on their own and have specific tasks they are to figure out how to do - in groups or with the use of doing online research.

    And to top it off I have Ubuntu and Mint media I hand out to the students - many of whom have older computers at home where they install it and get it going. I, of course, do not have OS X or Windows media to hand out.

    Some prefer Linux. Some prefer OS X or Windows. But all end up with an education that there are options - and much as when you learn multiple languages you understand your native one better, if you understand the competing OSs you also learn to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your favored OS better, too.