An interview with Brian Koontz, creator of the Open Source Technology program at North Lake College
There are two ways you can tell if there is a change in the wind. The first is
that the CEO on the golf course is talking about it. The second is when you
can get College credit. Well open source software has come of age based
on that measure with a certificate in Open Source Technology.
Brian Koontz created the Open Source Technology certificate program at
North Lake College in Irving Texas. This is near Dallas and in fact just
around the proverbial corner from my home. I learned about the program
from Slashdot through this link. It seemed like a great idea to see what
it was all about by talking to Brian and to post the interview here.
So, let's talk with Brian and see what this is all about.
Daniel Brookshier Q: First, tell us a little bit about yorself and how you got into
teaching computer science.
Brian Koontz A: While working as an air traffic controller in East Texas in the
early 90s, the thought occurred to me that there wasn't much of a
future for a retired controller. At the time, I've long held an
interest with computers and programming, so I decided the time was
right to formalize my technology experience and began working on my
M.S. in Computer Science at UT-Tyler. Times were good back then for
technology work, so I had no trouble walking away from my life as a
controller and into the world of technology.
After six years in the IT business, I was laid off as a consultant
shortly after 9/11. I had been tutoring math students at a local high
school, and thought teaching might be an interesting vocation. I
obtained my state teaching certificate in math and computer science,
and taught high school honors math and AP computer science courses for
the next three years, followed by my current stint as the Computer
Science program coordinator and OSS zealot at North Lake College.
Q: You have stirred up the developer world with the announcement that
you have a certificate program in open source. What has the reaction
been so far?
A: Very positive. Having braced myself for what I expected to be a
critical response to the announcement of our program on Slashdot, I
was pleasantly surprised that many comments were actually supportive
of the program. However, even before the Slashdot posting, the
program has received a warm reception from members of the various
local OSS-related users' groups. The encouragement from these groups
means the world to me, and I'm grateful for their continued support.
Q: Open source seems like it is expanding in its reach and use every
day. But the real measure of the mainstream is when it becomes part
of a teaching curriculum. What was it that made that transition for
you to go after students interested in open source?
A: Part of the reason is purely personal in nature: I've been
involved with various aspects of OSS development and support since
1996 (I cut my teeth on perl and vi, and have never looked back).
OSS has benefited my personal and professional life in so many ways;
it has always been my intention to contribute something back to the
OSS community which gives so freely of itself. On a professional
level, I've watched as Microsoft certification programs have dwindled
away, and decided it was time open source stepped up to the plate.
Q: I noticed that one of the classes is related to the philosophy of
open source. How did 'philosophy' bubble up to the curriculum?
A: Proprietary licenses exist in a realm that is defined by the paper
they are written on and the legal structure that is used to defend
them. When a company chooses to adopt an OSS solution, there are
some changes in philosophy that managers must be willing to embrace
for a successful adoption. As an example: Managers must realize
that they now shoulder some of the responsibility for technical
support and innovation with OSS, rather than relying exclusively upon a vendor
to supply such services (often at an exorbitant cost). While the myth
that service and support for OSS is non-existent still persists, true cost
savings with OSS are realized only if companies are willing to devote
in-house resources to customization and tech support.
Q: One of the questions I am asked a lot is, how do you make money in
open source? Since one of the reasons for education is to prepare for
a job, how are you approaching this question in the design of the
classes for the certification?
A: It's my belief that as OSS continues to gain corporate acceptance,
these companies will recognize the value in an employee who
understands what Open Source is about and can apply Open Source
principles to the company's bottom line. To me, Open Source is more
than just another collection of software tools used in the workplace.
It's a mindset that encourages innovation and the synergy that comes
from many individuals putting their collective wisdom together to
Q: One trend today is a blurring of working life and open source
community life. For example, I run several projects, I am a member of
others, I write books/articles/blogs on open source for fun/profit, I
am an open source community manager, and have always used pieces of
open source in code for many years. I see myself using some open
source for my job, some as a hobby and some as a career growth.
Do you think that this blurring of hobby verses career becoming
more pervasive? Will you be teaching open source as a career path
and as a sort of high-end continuing education?
A: We've already made plans to offer the courses as both credit and
continuing ed classes. In fact, continuing education is actually
geared towards the role of workplace training: Many employers who pay
for training will do so only if the courses are continuing ed courses.
But whether a course is taking for credit or CEUs is really beside
the point: The Open Source Technology certificate has been designed to
provide students with a solid foundation in Open Source technology and
best practices, while still allowing students who simply want to take
selected courses to do so without having to navigate a maze of course
Q: Communities like java.net and sourceforge are sort of generic open
source communities that anyone can participate in. Do you have
students work in these communities? Do you teach them how to run and/
or participate in their own open source projects?
A: What a great idea! Student are required to demonstrate
familiarity with on-line help resources and code repositories in each
OSS course; I believe a successful OSS developer should be as
self-reliant as is possible when it comes to interacting with the OSS
community. Plans are in the works to develop two capstone courses
which take students through a complete OSS development lifecycle, and
that would be the ideal time to introduce students to the mechanics of
making their work publicly available, as you've suggested.
Q: LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL,Perl/PHP/Python)seems like a pretty
big subject. What is the focus and what elements are you expecting
a student to learn?
A: Actually, it's four separate semester-long classes at this point.
The goal of the program is for students to successfully incorporate
the knowledge gained in the certificate course (including LAMP) to
successfully design and implement a project of their choosing in the
final two capstone courses. We provide the tools (and encouragement)
for building successful OSS applications; it's up to the students to
discover new and innovative ways to use them.
Q: Open source is a fairly big arena. As an educator, how did
you choose what subjects to teach?
A: Before I was an educator, I was a software designer, developer, and
architect, so I've taken the liberty of drawing from my experiences
with various projects I've been involved with to put together a series
of courses I believe every developer should have exposure to.
Q: I'm a community manager. In fact I am moving into my second job
with this title this month. I have also served as a corporate
representative to open source communities to further corporate goals.
I bring this up because it seems that there are now many different
possible jobs in the open source world that are paid positions. Do
you think that education will evolve to include these, or will we
fill these positions through related education and experience?
A: I believe the Open Source Technology certificate program at North
Lake is on the forefront of "formal" OSS education. We're leading the
wagons down a lightly-trodden trail that few educational institutions
have traveled. As more companies come on board with OSS projects (and
no longer shy away from OSS as a "dirty little secret" to be hidden
from shareholders and customers), they're going to find themselves
tapping a market that is bereft of developers with adequate OSS
skillsets. Those who have had the foresight to pick up OSS skills
along the way will be in a prime position to take advantage of OSS job
Q: If you could create a full BS degree in open source software, what
would the goals be?
A: Too many BS degrees in IT/COSC focus more on mechanics than on
practical experience. Many graduates from these programs don't have a
clue when it comes to good software design practices (I know; I've
been there!). To answer your question, I'd have to answer
a precursor question: How can IT/COSC BS degrees be revamped in order
to produce graduates will real-world software application development
skills? Trying to develop an OSS-themed BS degree without a major
overhaul of the programs that currently pass for technology education
is premature. Ask me the question again when you find an IT/COSC BS
program that prepares its students for the real world!