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Linux For Mortals: How Shawn Got Into Linux

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts about Linux written by CBT Nuggets’ Linux expert, Shawn Powers. Check the blog each week for his latest installment. 

I never set out to be a Linux sysadmin. In fact, I never planned to work on computers at all. I graduated high school in 1993 and got accepted to Michigan Technological University. Since I grew up very poor, in a double-wide trailer and on welfare most of my life, my main goal when going to college was to make money. Lots of money. So I looked at the average salaries expected from the various majors and decided I was going to be an electrical engineer. I had no idea what an electrical engineer did, but the chart I looked at revealed that they made $72,000 a year — so I was sold.Blog-email 2

My journey in the electrical engineering program lasted almost a year. I found myself skipping many of my engineering classes, and going to the computer labs for most of the day. I never had a computer when I was in high school, and the networked Unix systems in the math building were fascinating. I found myself not only skipping classes to go to the computer labs, but in between classes I’d end up there too. The final nail in my electrical engineering coffin was Calculus 3. I felt we were doing things with numbers that never needed to be done! Halfway through my second year at Michigan Tech, I realized there weren’t any classes, much less majors, that prepared someone to work on computers, networks, and Unix. So I left the university and started my own computer repair business.

It failed spectacularly.

I only mention my failed computer repair business, because I think it’s important to know we all fail. I wasn’t good at running a small business, but I still had a knack for computers and loved networking. I managed to find a job at the local community college and ran tech support for their dialup Internet users. After only a few weeks, I was the technical support person and also the guy in charge of running the BSD Unix servers that hosted the Internet access.

I’d like to say I had a great trainer, or classes, or even books on learning Unix, but at the time, nothing existed. I had to learn by doing — and that meant some long, frustrating nights trying to figure out channelized T1s, PPP servers, and racks of analog modems. It was during that time I realized I needed to understand Unix more, and I couldn’t experiment at work, because it meant possibly knocking the internet offline for an entire college campus. And that’s when I discovered Linux.

I had to set up test servers so I could experiment at home and learn how Unix worked. (Boy, do I wish CBT Nuggets existed back then!) I couldn’t afford to buy BSD Unix, so I started playing with FreeBSD. Unfortunately, FreeBSD didn’t work on the hardware I had, so I decided to try the similar-but-different “Linux” operating system that people were starting to talk about. I installed the “Halloween release” of Red Hat Linux, and my life was forever changed.

Linux made sense. I had been wading through Unix servers at work, slowly figuring out how things went together, but with Linux, it seemed obvious and wonderful. Plus, documentation on Linux was far more useful and clear. It seemed like Unix people liked to keep their secrets for themselves, whereas the Linux community wanted to share with everyone. I still worked on Unix most of the day, but Linux meant I could learn on my own as well. It wasn’t until I had a car accident in 1999 that I truly learned how awesome the open source nature of Linux really was.

On my way to work one day in March of 1999 (15 years ago now, wow!), I got into a car accident. My head went through the side window, and I had a brain injury. The details are here on my personal website, but basically, my injury caused complete amnesia. Yes, it sounds like something off a cheesy talk show, but the reality was that I couldn’t remember how to do anything. If it weren’t for the free and open source nature of Linux, and my ability to get free resources (including software) during that time, I’m not sure I’d have been able to rehabilitate myself. As it was, in a little under a year, I managed to relearn my trade, but my focus was 100 percent on Linux, because it was the only software I could afford! At a time when Linux experience wasn’t something any company was looking for, it turned me into a good enough general sysadmin that I was able to land a job at a K-12 school. As the technology director for that local school district, I was able to learn networking, Windows and Macintosh administration, and most importantly, system integration with multiple operating systems.

My road to Linux was a strange and twisty one. It happened at a time in history that was admittedly unique (no networking classes at a university for instance), but I’m thankful for how things turned out. Not only have I been around Linux for most of its existence, but I know what it’s like to crave know-how and long for someone to teach me. At CBT Nuggets, I get to be that teacher I never had, and it means our customers can get a head start on their careers that I never got. It means people will be able to do far more than I have been able to accomplish, building on the things I’ve learned to help them along the way. It’s sort of like the open source concept itself: building on the shoulders of others to see how great we can all become.


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