Travels in Linux

Being a Linux user is a pretty great experience. Being a Linux user for nearly two decades is a journey.

Early Days

I started using Linux in the summer of 2001. My brother-in-law was a bit of a nerd and worked professionally in IT. I learned a lot from him both in computers and otherwise, but he showed me his desktop and it didn’t look anything like the Windows 95/98 I was used to.

I was intrigued so I asked about it. He told me it was called Linux and it was a free operating system. It had a GUI and all these tools and a web browser included. How could it have been free? He briefly explained the idea of open source to me and told me to do some research on the topic.

I didn’t have a reliable internet connection at the time, so I relied on those things that we call “books”. Our local library had a book on Linux that came with a CD of Red Hat Linux 7.3. Mind you this isn’t the RHEL that most folks these days know. I’m talking about the original Red Hat Linux.

Learning The Hard Way

I was really excited to try out this new operating system. Problem number one came up. I was 14 at the time and the only computer I had of my own was a Compaq Deskpro 286. Not quite enough to run Linux on. So, I went ahead and tried it out on the family computer.

Now, this was before the idea of live CDs. The CD I had was only there for installation, not trying it out. The only way I was going to learn this new world was to dive head first. Just a heads up: if you have a book or manual for the software you’re installing it might be worth it to read it before jumping in. Of course, I thought myself an expert (as any 14 year old thinks of himself) and went right into it.

I successfully installed Red Hat, which required a bit of information about the computer that I didn’t have, but a bit of guesswork and I was off. Red Hat made it fairly easy to get things installed. I would later install Slackware on a school computer and that was a much more involved distro overall. So, with my new Linux desktop I was off to the races. Not having an internet connection meant I was limited as I only had one CD of the several (six I think) CDs required to install everything.

Not being able to install things from the internet was only the start. My brother wanted to use the computer to play a game later that day. I showed him how awesome Linux was and everything I had accomplished. He wasn’t too impressed at the time and just wanted to get on with his leisure time. So, we opened the menu and his games weren’t there. Okay, makes sense, it’s a whole new environment. Just like reinstalling Windows you have to reinstall your software.

WINE was in its infancy at the time and trying to load his games was not happening. I hadn’t even thought that Linux wouldn’t be compatible with Windows applications. After much complaining to my parents I was required to restore Windows to the box.

I would later figure out things like partitioning and chainloading in LILO enough to get a dual boot going. This was not without a couple Windows restores due to messing it up something fierce. Once that happened, I was off to the races. I had no idea that this software and the philosophy behind it would shape my life.

Broadening Horizons

Throughout high school I would try out Linux from time to time on my computer, but never really stuck with it all that much. After I graduated high school and moved out of my parent’s house, I finally had an internet connection of my own. This opened up all of the wonders of Linux to me! I had heard of a fledgling distro called Ubuntu at this time. I was attending a Christmas party with my wife and her friends and one of them was a rather large nerd and we were talking about Linux. He had told me about Ubuntu and how it solved a lot of the configuration problems that other distros had, namely Debian.

Ubuntu was a breath of fresh air. I had previously stuck with Red Hat, and later Fedora, but dabbled in SUSE and Mandrake here and there. Debian wasn’t that appealing to me at the time. Ubuntu provided a usable experience out of the box. Being able to simply apt-get a package to install it, I was floored.

I have to stop and mention that I was horribly addicted to MMOs at this time. Guild Wars and World of Warcraft were my drugs of choice. I know that I am not alone in this as I met lots of people through these games that also escaped their lives into them. This meant that I always had a Windows install hanging around so that I could get my fix. This made Linux a backseat interest for a long time. I would spend time dabbling during server maintenance and occasionally when we weren’t raiding or doing something interesting.

After using Ubuntu for a while, I did switch over to Fedora for a couple releases. Fedora was nowhere near as polished of an experience as it is now, but it provided all the Red Hat tools that I had learned to use. There was one reason I distro-hopped though, PulseAudio. I cannot begin to tell you how infuriating Pulse was back then. It crashed all the time, crackling audio, a mixture of apps using ALSA, OSS, and Pulse, etc. It was a mess. So I switched back to Ubuntu.

Little did I know that the next release of Ubuntu would adopt Pulse as well. I was so upset about this because one of the things I primarily use a computer for is listening to music. If my audio isn’t working right, then we have a deal breaker. I would use Windows primarily for a while due to these audio issues. (and the addiciton to WoW had only gotten worse)

Community

I had been occasionally active in forums, but nothing of note. However, after a couple moves across the country I had a lot of time on my hands. I found a Linux community called the Linux Distro Community, or LDC. The name was kinda crappy, but the people were pretty amazing. The LDC made me passionate for Linux again as I was when I first came across it on my brother-in-law’s computer. I had people who were equally passionate about the platform and had the opportunity to learn a lot from them as well.

I made some friends in the LDC that I still talk with on a daily basis. I’ve learned a lot from them and I’m sure they’ve learned from me as well. That’s what community is all about: sharing knowledge and experiences together to improve everyone’s existence.

College and the Start of my Career

It was at this time that I decided to go back to school and get a college degree. I wanted to improve my life and get started on a career in IT. I had a lot of knowledge at this point, but there was so much that I didn’t know. I was thirsty. I wanted to learn everything I could. I went to a local technical college outside Atlanta. It was a decent school at the time and I learned a lot from it. I initially wanted to go for software development. I tried really hard and learned a lot. It just didn’t come naturally to me, so I switched over to the Networking/Sysadmin track.

Now, you’d think with all this experience and interest I’d have studied Linux, right? Nope. Linux was an option for us, but I thought that I knew all the stuff that school would teach me at this level so I decided to fill out the areas that I didn’t know and went with Windows Server administration. It was difficult at first as I was already intimately familiar with Linux and re-learning the Microsoft way of doing things was hard at first. I stuck it out, though, and graduated in August of 2016 and went to work shortly after. I worked at a retail IT call center for a few months, but I wanted more.

A friend of mine from middle and high school that I hadn’t talked to in over a decade contacted me via LinkedIn and offered me an opportunity for an IT monitoring job. I took it immediately as it was a much better situation than where I was. I started working for Atlanta Public Schools in February of 2017 and quickly learned everything I could about enterprise IT. One of the benefits? Everything we ran was Linux. I was in my wheelhouse here. I showed my value to the organization after designing and building out a new VM hypervisor and storage cluster for our monitoring infrastructure, as well as other things like not being a terrible employee. I was promoted to infrastructure engineer in February of 2018 and have been in that position ever since.

I love working with Linux and I am still learning so much on the job and off. I use Linux full-time at home and at work now. It’s amazing how discovering a strange looking desktop on a family member’s computer could have a ripple effect on my life. I am so thankful for all the people who have made Linux a reality and a success, the mentors I’ve had, and the community that, despite the issues, has been there for me in my journey. There’s still a long road ahead of me as it’s being paved as we go, but my journey has been a great one and I hope that other people can have a great experience like I did.