How much does Free Software influence my career prospects?

Funny how life brings those A-HA moments in the least probable of circumstances. Take my career's development, for instance. I'm currently taking a training to become a government bureaucrat. During this training, each student goes through a thorough skill assessment to help the trainer select an appropriate training place in some government office. Asides from covering the obvious aspects of formal education and employment history, we also reviewed achievements and accumulated skills. My A-HA moment came as a result of our trainer asking me to completely rewrite my CV to match some known template. Additionally, she requested that I emphasize my technology background more. I countered by pointing out that the word "technology" tends to mean "engineer" to the average employer and yet I've have always been in Product Management or Business Development, which are more Sales-oriented roles than anything else, hence why I emphasize the Sales aspect and deflate the technology aspect in my CV. Still, while she conceded that difference in emphasis, she insisted that having worked in technology probably influenced my skills or my preferred workflow in one way or another. At the moment, I simply could not think of how it might have.

Boy, was I wrong! Where do I begin?

First of all, it dawned onto me that I simply cannot claim to know Microsoft Office anymore. Until recently, my Open Office skills were easily applicable to Microsoft Office, because Open Office borrowed a lot of concepts from its Microsoft counterpart. However, following the recent redesign of Microsoft Office, I found that I cannot navigate my way around Microsoft Word's menus anymore. While this new user interface paradigm indeed removes a lot of clutter, it also hides too many features in less than obvious places, which resulted in me concluding that I simply have to downgrade my Microsoft Office skills to medium. Given the progressive conversion of several Finnish agencies and ministries to Open Office, I'm not in such an uncomfortable position but, then again, other agencies and ministries fiercely cling on to their Microsoft licenses and have recently upgraded them. As such, should my practical training take place in one of those offices, I would essentially be unable to perform at my job. Redeeming factor: a friend who only knows Microsoft products faced similar frustrations last year when she got back from her summer vacations, after she realized that their network administrator had upgraded her workstation. It took her the whole autumn before she felt comfortable using Word again.

Another aspect of working in Free Software that influences my workflow: telecommuting and teleworking. As anyone working on Free Software projects knows, teams tend to be distributed around the globe, which means that there's always someone somewhere pushing a commit or answering bug reports, at any given time of the day. Simultaneously, work quickly becomes location-independent and flexible schedules are the norm; whatever and wherever works for a given developer, as long as the work gets done. Without anyone really noticing, this work methodology has permeated the whole technology ecosystem, even at fortune-500 companies. Employees come in and out of the office at whichever time suits them, while others choose to work from home and only show up whenever face-to-face meetings are called. Others even adopt a nomad lifestyle, constantly roaming the globe for adventures and connecting to the office network via VPN, from the comfort of their hotel room or from a friend's couch, on the other side of the globe.

In my case, having twice worked for Estonian companies while living in Finland, it meant taking the ferry twice a week to visit the office. This brought in more benefits than one might initially think: first of all, the quick walk between the metro station and the harbor in Helsinki meant that I arrived on the ferry with blood pumping adrenaline and fully alert. Being on the ferry gave me 2 hours of quiet time to grab my first coffee and plan my day. Getting out of the ferry in Tallinn meant another quick walk, this time between the harbor and the tramway. By the time I arrived at the office, I had exercised twice and planned all my workday. It's probably the most productive that I've ever been in my whole career. Additionally, I was frequently on the road, meeting customers and following on sales leads, which meant that I got to close many deals using my laptop in my hotel room. As our CEO used to joke, "I have no idea where in the world Martin-Éric is today but, just as long as the purchase orders keep on pouring in, it's all the same to me."

As a result of this reflexion, I had to explain to our trainer why I am extremely well-suited to government jobs that require a lot of traveling and where Free Software is used on the desktop and, vice-versa, extremely unsuited to back-office jobs where whatever Microsoft products of the day are the norm. I've had to put particular emphasis on what Open Office is all about, because many homeworks were supposed to be submitted in Microsoft Word format. While Writer indeed offers the option to import and export Microsoft formats, it doesn't come with any WYSIWYG guarantee, which is why I took on the habit of sending her PDF documents. Sadly, this did not always work out so well, especially in cases where the intention was to forward selected parts of a document to third-parties.

Conclusion: working in the Free Software industry, even in non-engineering roles, indeed has a strong influence on someone's choice of methodology, tools and workflow. In some cases, it can even disqualify someone from making certain career choices.

Who would have thought?

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