Linux is Just a Tool

Linux is the tool… not me.

There’s really only one job description: Problem Solver.

Sometimes that problem is, “I need to host a website that can scale as demand expands and contracts.”

Sometimes the problem is, “People want good coffee but aren’t interested in making it themselves at home.”

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the tools we use to solve problems, we can forget that we’re more than expertise in a tool. In the tech world, it’s easy to define ourselves by the tools we’re good at using. I’m a Linux guy. I eat, sleep, breathe Linux. And while it’s sometimes important to stress our proficiency with a particular tool, when that’s all we are, we’re limiting ourselves.

My son in law is a builder. He solves the problem of “people need buildings.” I think he’s pretty good with a hammer. But he doesn’t advertise himself as a hammer guy. See, the thing is, people want a building. Maybe someone good with a hammer is the ideal person to make that building. It seems like a really important skill. But he’s a builder, not a hammer guy.

In IT, Linux is a really great hammer. In fact, I think everyone should be proficient with Linux, because it’s the Swiss Army Knife of the Internet. Whether you want to build a website, create an app, move to the cloud, deploy a database, or mine Bitcoin, Linux will likely be part of the smartest way to implement those things. It’s ubiquitous. It’s powerful. It’s free. But Linux is just a tool, and we need to stop thinking about “Linux jobs” and start thinking about problems we can solve with our shiny Linux hammer.

I’ve had many jobs over the years. I’ve been a school administrator, manager of a university database department (Microsoft SQL!), writer, teacher, bus driver, help desk worker, and system administrator. In every one of those jobs, my Linux skills were invaluable. When I was a bus driver, my IT skills meant I was working for the company’s owner on their computers after work. Because I could solve their computer problems. It’s OK to focus on job opportunities that you can do because of your tools, but don’t go looking for a “hammer job”, look for a job that needs stuff pounded in, and come in fully prepared with your tools.

I know most of this seems like semantics. But it’s more than that. When we let our specialties define who we are and what we can do, we’re not only limiting ourselves, but we’re robbing our potential employers of our true worth. Does a background in Linux help you in a job focused entirely on Microsoft products? Yes! Because you’re uniquely skilled to advise places that Linux and Open Source may or may not benefit an infrastructure.

If my son in law were hired to install a deck onto someone’s home, when the materials arrived, he’d know what to do with all those deck screws. Even though he might be a hammer guy. He knows darn well a hammer isn’t the way to go with a box a deck screws. He’s gonna grab the impact driver and build a glorious deck. Even though he’s a hammer guy.

For me, Linux has been an incredible hammer. I’ve used it in all my jobs, even if that use is to know what not to do. I created a course that follows the Linux Essentials exam objectives from the Linux Professional Institute (LPI). If you take my course, it will prepare you to take the Linux Essentials exam. But… honestly I’m not convinced people should actually take the exam. I’d much rather they watch my course, and use that Linux knowledge to build their own set of tools. The course is free, and it requires no Linux experience or understanding at all.

So please, check out my course, and go look for some nails that need a good pounding.

My Linux Essentials Course is 100% free on YouTube

From Professional to Square One

I’m in charge. That’s… terrifying.

I created professional video content for about 12 years. That doesn’t mean I’m any good at it, but it does mean I’m comfortable with it. This year, 2022, I’ve decided to get back into making video, but with a twist: I’m doing it on YouTube.

Certainly over a decade producing hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours of video would mean I’d CRUSH things on YouTube, right? Well… not so much. But also, yes. Sorta. But not really. (I also wrote professionally for a while, this paragraph is not proof of that, lol) There are some things that have been easier for me as I venture into this new platform, and some things that are much, much more difficult. Let’s start with the good things. There are fewer of them.

GOOD THING: Comfort on Camera

I’m pretty comfortable on camera. I’m also pretty comfortable on stage. For someone who is an introvert to a crippling degree, it seems odd that I’m comfortable “in front”, but if you’re an introvert, you might understand. There’s something about being the person in the spotlight that makes the awkward shyness sorta melt away. In a crowd of people, I’m a wreck, but when people are supposed to be looking at me it’s somehow freeing. Or maybe I’m just a weirdo, I dunno. Nonetheless, many YouTubers struggle being on camera. That’s a huge advantage I have.

GOOD THING: Modest Start Already

When 2022 started, I had about 1600 YouTube subscribers. I’m no where close to being “monetized”, but those first subscribers are the most difficult to find. YouTube doesn’t give anything away for free, so you have to prove yourself worthy of views. Having 1000 subscribers seems to be some sort of entry level point where YouTube takes you a little bit more seriously. Now… those 1600 subscribers were slowly added over 13 years, and very few are active. Even fewer are interested in me as the content creator I am now. Most are here from the days of Linux Journal, or from a semi-viral video I had 12 years ago about breaking into my van. (really)

As I’ve been adding regular content in 2022, I’ve lost a TON of subscribers. I’ve gained some too, and the net change has been positive, but people have been unsubscribing to my channel about half as often as people are subscribing. Two steps forward, one step back. But my videos are getting 50 or so views after a couple days, and that’s a HUGE amount compared to folks starting from zero subscribers. So having a semi-active YouTube channel to start from has been a boon.

BAD THING: I’m Alone

When I made videos professionally, all I had to worry about was making videos. Every other aspect of the process was done by other folks. Marketing, publishing, selling, reviewing… all those things are up to me now. And YouTube is VERY competitive. Guess how many video thumbnails I created before starting on this adventure? None. (OK, a few, but that was back when I was still making professional videos and was instructed to put some content on YouTube as an advertisement, long story…)

Not only are all the aspects of being a creator, publisher, marketer, etc. on my shoulders, but guess what I’m not good at? All those things. So while most folks have to focus on creating their content above all else, the other stuff has been quite a challenge for me.

BAD THING: I Have a Lot of Experience

Or, more properly phrased, “I have a lot of bad habits, or outdated methods.” Don’t get me wrong, part of my “style” is just the way I am, and what makes people love me or hate me. But when it comes to the competitive world of YouTube content, my old tried and true methods aren’t what people want to see. The danger here is two-fold. On one hand, people might see me as boring and outdated with my simple jump cut editing, and headshot/slide/demo video methods of presenting info. But possibly even more dangerous is that I feel compelled to try to BE new and fresh and exciting.

For example, today, I’m going to attempt to shoot a silly intro for a video on user creation in Linux. It’s going to be me “creating” a user (myself) on the couch next to me. I’m pretty sure I can pull it off, but it’s going to take quite a bit of time to set up and edit properly. Will it be worth it? Even if it engages people more, is that what I want to do forever? Keep coming up with fancy video tricks to lure people into my content? I don’t know. It’s a weird combination of having tons of experience and being less-than-fresh in how I do things.

BAD THING: I’m Not Really a Niche Guy

To be successful on YouTube, at least at the start, conventional wisdom is to have a very narrow niche, and stick to it. Sure, once someone is very well known, they can expand a bit and the community they’ve grown will be more interested in the person than the niche, but at first, it’s important to focus on a very narrow aspect of what you love. For me, that’s IT training, with a focus on Linux and Open Source.

But that’s such a very small part of who I am. Even IT training only appeals to me because I want to help other people find their joy in life. Getting a better career, using tools that are free to learn with and free to utilize is a great path, but it’s only that — a tool on the path. I’m also interested in self-improvement, understanding happiness, conquering mental illness (which I know all too well, first hand), and countless other things that make me the whole human being I am. But if I want the freedom to chase those things, and a content creator is what I want to be — at least for now, being narrow is the path. And it kinda sucks.

BAD THING: I’m Old (but it’s not the age that is bad…)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m too old for this. Not at all. I have tons of energy and excitement left to share. I don’t ever want to “retire”, and if you know me, I doubt the first thing you think about me is how old and out of touch I see. (I hope not anyway!) No, the reason that me being old is a “bad” thing, is that I’m just starting on this journey, but I have a lot of baggage. Mainly financial baggage. I have lots of bills, lots of debt, and very little past wisdom to lean on. So everything I’m doing now is in addition to a DayJob.

Yes yes, I’m blessed to HAVE that day job. I truly am. But the notion of going “all in” on a content creation career right now is just not feasible. Too many people are depending on me, and even if things go REALLY well, that doesn’t mean it’s financially viable for a long time. I’m OK with that, but it does limit some of the things I might do. I’m not complaining, or at least I don’t mean to. It’s just a case of starting at the 30 yard line doesn’t mean I’m closer to the goal than someone further back carrying less baggage. (That’s about the best I can do for a sports metaphor, lol)

BAD THING: I’m Soft

I don’t take criticism well. Not because I think I’m perfect, in fact, quite the opposite. Any time someone points out something I’ve done less-than-ideal, it solidifies in my head that I’m indeed a worthless failure. Please note, this a personal failing on my part. I should be able to take criticism, because I’m a grown man and should understand my value outside the things I create, good or bad. But knowing that truth and living it are different. And I’m not even talking about trolls. No, I mean criticism presented in a nice way. The depth of my self-loathing is staggering.

The irony is, criticism is VITAL to anyone who wants to improve and succeed. I know this intellectually. Yet, it’s a constant struggle that I expect will only get better the more I have to push through it. When I was a “professional” content creator, I was shielded from most criticism because there were so many layers between me and the people consuming my content. The only self-advice I have here is that I need to continue to be as genuine as I can be, and not seek out only the bad stuff. Building a community of people who you can trust with both your failures and successes is important, and so that’s what I hope to do.

BAD THING: I Hate Self Promotion

Remember that bit about me being the marketing department? Yeah… I really feel like a douchebag when I promote my own stuff. It feels icky. I even think it’s a good, worthwhile thing to promote… but for some reason when I promote it myself, it feels wrong. I’m just gonna have to get over it though, because if I don’t promote myself, no one will. So if I ever DO seem like a douchebag, please let me know. Gently. 🙂

Ending with a Bookmark:

When I started this post, I had 1827 subscribers on YouTube. I just checked, and I currently have 1822. Ouch. But it’s all part of the process, and I’m OK with it. Still… 5 people clicking unsubscribe in the past hour is harsh. 🙂

When I look back at this post in 2023, hopefully it will seem as a nostalgic look back at the beginnings of what was to become a thriving community of people who want to make the world a better place. That’s ultimately my goal, to change the world. Right now, I’m gathering like-minded folks, one human at a time. Feel free to join me… https://youtube.com/shawnp0wers

On the Occasion of Turning 46

Will his beard fill in? Check back in a year… lol!

As far a memorable numbers go, 46 is pretty low on the list. I cant’ really explain why it seems so ordinary, but it truly feels like one of the blandest numbers in the gamut of years old to be.

This past year has been anything but bland, however. I managed to not catch Covid. I started a web comic. I lost 65lbs (and gained back about 50). I started a new job. Heck, it’s been one of the more eventful years in recent memory, and that’s not just because of the pandemic. In fact, it’s easy to get lost in the every day, and lose track of the amazing things that happen alongside “life”. (Perhaps as a part of life, but that’s picking nits)

There are plenty of not-so-good things that happened this past year as well. A dear friend died. Our health insurance is going through some unwelcome changes. Several friends have been diagnosed with cancer. That’s the thing about life, it sorta comes at you like a fire hose. The unfortunate part is that it’s often easier to focus on being all wet, and lose track of how refreshing a good hosing down can be. So as I begin this 47th lap around the sun, I strive to focus on the positive things along the way. That doesn’t mean ignore the negatives, but rather not lose track of the good things that are often overshadowed by doom. I think depression and anxiety often make the bad times seem worse than they might actually be, and the good times to seem more fleeting. Brains suck that way. But nevertheless, I have a few hopes and dreams for the coming year, and I’ll jot a few down here:

Continue My Webcomic

I can’t explain how much I enjoy poorly drawing a comic 6 days a week. Anyone who knows me realizes the adventures of Blue and Spot are really just my daily journal, using silly pictures to express the real things happening in my life. Much like therapists use dolls to make it easier to talk about personal issues, my squares in a round world make it easier for me to express myself. Even the scary bits. I hope I continue with the comic, because it’s not only enjoyable, but also I think very healthy for me.

Make More Videos

I’m no longer a trainer at CBT Nuggets. My videos are still in the catalog, and I still get messages from folks online about how much they enjoy my training. And I’m not gonna lie, those notes of thanks are so cherished. But I’m not actively making videos for a living anymore, and I miss it. I have a lucrative job that I love (Linux sysadmin, managing a bunch of servers in multiple datacenters), but I miss the creation process. So, my hope is that I start making some videos and posting them to YouTube more frequently.

I’m not sure training videos are what I want to create all the time, to be honest. But teaching is something I love, so I expect they’ll be a big part of my YouTube channel. The nice thing is, at least right now, the videos don’t have to pay my mortgage. That gives me a little freedom to do what I like, and not worry so much about monetization, narrowing my niche, etc, etc.

Add Some Revenue Streams

Yeah, this sorta goes against the last paragraph, but I had a little job scare this past year — and it really made me realize that having multiple income streams is a recipe for better sleep. I don’t need to be Jeff Bezos, but if my job were to end, I’d like to continue living indoors and eating on a regular basis. I don’t honestly know what those revenue streams will look like, or if they’ll come to fruition. I’ve decided that whatever I decide to “monetize” will need to be something I truly enjoy doing. That means something in the creative field, which means monetization will be difficult. But, like I said earlier, I currently have a good paying job, so it’s OK if I flounder a bit finding my feet.

Learn to Find Joy

This is the most vague of my plans. I’ll always struggle with mental illness, but that doesn’t mean I have to let it win all the time. Finding joy can mean so many things. Perhaps I’ll find joy serving in the Church again (my frustrations there are another whole post, or twelve). Maybe my webcomic will continue to scratch both a creative and therapeutic itch. If I manage to get into a groove and exercise more, perhaps fitness will provide those promised hormonal boosts I never seem to get. Honestly, I hope all of those things and more will contribute to some more joy in my life. It’s been a difficult couple years for the whole planet, and I’m no exception.

Anyway, enough about me. I have the day off today (thanks boss man!), and my plan is to enjoy it as much as I can. My birthday wish would be that you (yes YOU) have a wonderful day as well. And if you’re reading this after the actual day? Yes, it still counts. Today can be awesome for you. Have a great $CURRENT_DAY everyone. 🙂

Interns, and College, and Certs. Oh My.

I do not have a college degree.

I think it’s important to lead with that, because while I’ve built a fairly successful career, I’ve done it without actually attaining a degree of any sort. I did attend college — a major university for 2 years, and a community college for a year. But in all that time (and all that debt), I never managed to piece together a degree.

Part of the problem is that like most college students, I changed my major multiple times. I started as an Electrical Engineer major. They seemed to make a lot of money, and, if I’m honest, that’s about all the thought I put into it. Then, in Calculus 3, I decided Electrical Engineers did things with numbers that just didn’t need to be done. I was also a Technical Writing major, and English major, and once I shifted to the community college, a “Liberal Arts” major. (I still don’t know what that actually means)

Don’t get me wrong, even though I didn’t get a degree, my college experience did actually help me significantly. I found myself skipping engineering classes at Michigan Tech, and hanging out in the computer labs all day (and night). There was a brand new NeXT computer lab, and it make Unix sexy. In fact, it was probably partially that time in a terminal window when I was supposed to be in engineering classes that made me fall in love with Unix/Linux.

Should I go to College?

This is question I get a lot. A lot a lot. It’s also a question I’m very hesitant to answer. Because the answer is a resounding maybe, and that’s not what anyone wants to hear. Another problem with the question is that the answer keeps changing. For example, back in 2012, I was asked this question at CBT Nuggets, and colleges were just starting to offer more than C++ programming as their only Computer Science class. Here was my response then:

This is still solid advice (well, as solid as advice from me gets anyway), but if anything, the college angle has gotten more attractive. Yes, education lags behind the cutting edge, but if you go into a university computer science program today, you’ll actually get a well rounded education on networking, operating systems, and actual useful programming languages. That still doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for everyone though, because college is very expensive, and you might be served better with a combination of certification programs, internships, and just plain old experience. When I was college-aged, there simply were no computer networking classes. Now there are, but there are also plenty of vocational programs that teach networking as well.

When I was college-aged, there simply were no computer networking classes. Now there are…

Let’s focus on my area of expertise; sourdough bread. No, just kidding, my technical specialty is Linux. And it’s an area that continues to attract more and more employers. Linux Insider posted an article during the pandemic pointing out the need for Linux-savvy workers, even as the industry moves away from traditional servers and hosts everything in the cloud. (Because guess what makes the cloud run? Yep. Linux.) And while colleges certainly offer Linux classes, they’re still lagging way behind current needs when it comes to employable skills. If you get your college degree, you’re still going to need to get certifications to not only prove your worth — but also to fill in the gaps dated college curriculum offers.

So College is a Waste?

Again, maybe. Here’s the thing, college does a couple things really, really well:

  • Teaches foundational knowledge that makes for better equipped professionals
  • Is structured in a way to teach a well-rounded educational base, wider than the specific topic of study
  • Gives students an opportunity to see if they like a variety of subjects (remember my Electrical Engineer “career”?)
  • Looks really good on a resume

And that last one is a real kicker. The current hiring process is largely automated at the early stages. Many employers use a college degree as a litmus test to determine whether or not to even interview a candidate. A college degree shows that a person has the stamina and hard work to achieve a difficult goal. Even if it doesn’t prove they’ll be a good employee, it’s often the first hurdle to even getting an interview. I personally think that’s sad, but I’m sure it’s a statistically viable way to sort the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, companies miss out on some really good folks who chose a different path.

I won’t lie, having a college degree does open doors, especially when applying for a job. It’s not the only way to get hired, but it’s important to judge if the cost and years spend getting educated at a university is worth it. It might be, especially if someone else is helping pay the bill. But going into $100k of debt will take a lot of years to pay off, even if you land a great job.

So What Else Is There?

This is where it’s much better to do what I say, and not what I did. When I left college, I started a small business. It failed miserably. (Like, really bad. It was ugly.) From there I got a tech support job at the local community college answering phones giving support to dialup Internet users. My experience in the computer labs at Michigan Tech, and my experience as a “small business owner” gave me enough resume fodder to get an interview. From there, after a series of very unfortunate events, I applied at a K12 school district for the technology director position. I shouldn’t have gotten that job, but I wrote a very compelling cover letter, and interviewed well. I also got very lucky. Getting lucky isn’t something you can prepare for, but all is not lost if you don’t go to college.

If you decide not to go to college, or at least not head off to university for a 4 year degree, there are a couple viable alternatives that will make you employable (even if it makes it tough to get past the automated resume filters):

  • Get an Associate’s degree at a community college.
  • Study on your own and get tech certifications from places like CompTIA, LPI, Cisco, Microsoft, etc.
  • Apply for an internship. If you can afford it, unpaid internships are an easy way to get experience.
  • Apply for an internship. Lots of interns get paid, if crappy. More on this later.
  • Get involved with some Open Source projects, especially if development is what you want to do.
  • Create an online presence. Certainly GitHub for developers, but also YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

I know this was the “no college” list, but a couple years at a community college is probably affordable, especially if you can stay home and commute. Having a degree, even an Associate’s degree, will open some doors. Even if your major is Underwater Basket-Weaving — just having the paper will potentially get you an interview.

Internships are incredible. They can be at a college, or a business in the field you’re interested in. They come in two flavors: Regular and crappy. Seriously though, some internships are unpaid. It’s the pre-employment equivalent of doing work for the exposure. It sucks. But, if there aren’t any other options, it’s a viable way to get your foot in the door and get some serious experience on your resume. There are many companies who pay their interns though, so don’t assume you’ll have to work for free. You’ll probably make a pittance, but it might be enough if you can still live at home, or have lots of roommates.

Lastly, the old adage is that nothing beats experience. That’s still true, especially if you can get to the actual interview process. An internship is incredible to put on a resume, but if you contribute to projects on GitHub (even documentation! EVERY project needs documentation!), or have projects of your own, that counts. And if a YouTube channel seems like a silly thing to start in order to get a job — I assure you, if you get to the interview stage, interviewers will check out your YouTube channel before they interview you. Same with blogging, tweeting, facebooking, linked-inning, etc. Put yourself in the hiring committee’s shoes, if they can “see” you before they actually see you, they’ll likely do so. Just be genuine, and it will be like an extended interview that you don’t have to sweat through!

You Avoided the Question Entirely

Yeah, I know. That’s what I meant at the start — it’s all maybe. Rather than a one-size-fits-all answer, hopefully this has given you a bit of insight to help you think through what will work best for you. Some of the ideas are valid regardless of your decision on college. All those bullet points above will make you more employable, and a better tech nerd in general. Getting involved in the community you’re interested in will only help make connections that might get you a job. Most of my “best” jobs have been because I knew someone who knew someone who saw my stuff. Good luck, and whatever your future looks like, I encourage you to seek after something you enjoy. If you don’t like calculus, don’t be an electrical engineer. Trust me.

Silent Days are the Worst

Social media tends to be a glimpse into the highlights of a person’s life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the same person I am online that I am in person, but some things don’t get posted not out of shame, but out of inability. I try to make it clear that mental health is a real issue, and that I’m not immune to the one-two combo of anxiety and depression — but it’s difficult to write about it in the moment, and reliving the moment for the sake of documentation is often unpleasant.

Yesterday was that day for me. I was depressed. Very depressed. Self-sabotaging depressed. I did tweet, but even that was a “clever” tweet combining politics and religion in a way that was bound to draw hate responses. (It didn’t, because I wasn’t actually hateful, and my online friends are actually my friends, so I rarely get nasty anything online. I truly love you all.)

Anyway. Yesterday was bad. Today isn’t great, but I’m dressed and working today, so it’s significantly better. But depression has a funny way of hyper-focusing you on all the bad things in your life. Financial struggles. Relationship problems. Societal shortcomings and our response to them. Mortality. It takes those issues, and then coats them with a layer of insecurity, self-loathing, inferiority complexes, and hopelessness. Brains are real jerks.

I don’t have any profound message here — just wanted to document some crappy times along with the silly things in my life. I too wonder if my career benefits the world, worry I’ll never be able to retire, fear I’ll be a burden on my children or society when I’m old. I have existential crises, and I’m not always a great person to be around. But today is a fresh new day, and tomorrow will be another.

I’m doing OK today. Really. Just wanted to share the bits that aren’t fun to share. <3