Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Alan Dayley of Phoenix Linux Users Group. Alan had some very interesting things to say from both a Arizona perspective, and from the perspective of someone who helps manage a Linux Users Group.
JMZ: Alan, welcome to my blog! First off, I'd like to thank you for doing this and for all the effort you've put into fostering a Linux community in the Phoenix area. Our readers would like to know a bit more about you, how and why did you first start using Linux?
AD: Thank you for the invitation, Josh. I started really learning about Linux in April of 2000. I had heard of Linux and knew it only as "another version of Unix." I was a mostly happy Microsoft OS user and developer. In April 2000 I started a new job. One of my new co-workers mentioned that we should start using Linux as a testing platform for the company products. He "knew of" a Linux user group meeting somewhere in Mesa. That May (or maybe June) I went to my first PLUG East Side Meeting and walked away with a boxed set of SuSE Linux 6.4 as a door prize.
Install Fest 2002
For the next few months I dual-booted the family computer, doing my real work, like email and so on, in Windows 98 and booting to Linux to play around and learn. At some point I realized that I was not really learning Linux very well by playing. That is when I simply determined to do everything in Linux. If I didn't know how to do something in Linux, I'd force myself to learn how. In January 2002 we migrated the whole family to Linux and have not gone back. The funny part of the story is that the friend and co-worker that pointed me toward Linux is not a regular Linux user, even today. Nor do we use it as much at work as I would like. In fact, at work I am mostly a Microsoft OS user too. But at home and whenever I can, I use Linux and other FS/OSS software. I use it for the freedom and the "tinkerability." As a programmer, I like to dig into the code, though I don't do it much in practice. As an administrator of my family's computers, I like that I don't need to worry about viruses and many of the other attack vectors out on the Internet. I appreciate that my kids can use Linux or Mac or PCs equally well and know concepts like "word processing" instead of just a specific application like "Word" I really like that I don't have to worry about licenses and forking out money to get the functionality I need.
JMZ: I think the 'tinkerability' factor is probably the most attractive aspect of using Open Source for most. This tends to draw in hobbyists who want to learn the principles of computer science or operating systems, the hobby crowd, and also attracts a segment I will call 'power users', who need to get more out of a system than the closed source , ahem *brand X*, platform does not offer. ;) The latter group are looking for superior performance and enhanced market options. Do you think that PLUG is more for the 'garage tinkerers' (the ham radio enthusiasts of today), or for the power user types?
AD: My perception is that most members of plug are into tinkering rather than being power users. The line here is also very blurred but I think most PLUG users would rather understand how things work and have a stable, tailored solution instead of high performance. For example, many PLUG members will brag about how their personal workstation or server is on hardware that is more than 5-years-old. Power users don't brag about old hardware! Still, tinkering around and getting great performance out of old hardware is a powerful thing. So, does that make everyone a power user? ;^) That's how the distinction between tinkering is blurry for me.
JMZ: So why do you put so much into PLUG?
AD: Fostering the Linux community in the Phoenix area comes naturally to me. I enjoy it and get a great deal out of it. I appreciate the thanks but also know I get more than I put in so it doesn't usually feel like a sacrifice.
JMZ: I think one of the reasons you stand out amongst the leadership of PLUG is you like to keep things light, and most importantly: *fun*. PLUG is very much a hobbyist group, but some including myself express a desire to have an organization more devoted to career development. What do you think limits PLUG from operating in this way? Do these two groups antagonize one another, or do they overlap?
AD: Fun is important to me in everything I do. Of course I find Linux/FS/OSS particularly interesting and fun, so the attitude bleeds over into the people part of the group. PLUG can be both hobbyist and "professional," if that is what we make it. However, over the years I have noticed the reality that those desirous to do career development rarely come to meetings. Probably because they have used up their available free time developing their careers. This is not to say that those who do participate in PLUG don't work on their careers, but that they find the interaction of the group valuable in more ways than just applying to their jobs. I personally have used a great deal of what I learn in the group on the job. Everything from understanding of different licenses to tools and applications that are available. For example, it's hard to deploy a solution when one is ignorant of its existence. PLUG interaction exposes me to solutions that I may not need now but may come up later. I have a hard time defining the difference between hobbyist and career development when it comes to personal interaction within the group. We recently had a presentation on using the GNU screen utility (http://www.gnu.org/software
JMZ: Who do you think are the top 5 contributors @ PLUG?
AD: Only five? It's hard to narrow it down that much.
- The Steering Committee: I will count this group as one. They do regular, sometime mundane work to keep things going. They jump to the front to do presentations when there isn't any other. They start things and fix things.
- Alexander Henry deserves special mention for his work to start and keep the monthly Install Fest going for several years now.
- Darrin Chandler: He's actually a "BSD guy" but his participation with the group over the years has been tremendous.
- A member known as "Tuna" has made a large impact recently. (I'm not using his real name because he is a minor.) He started the West Side Stammtisch with fliers and all. He is a knowledgeable contributor to the group at a young age.
JMZ: What kind of people constitute PLUG?
AD: My view of the types of people participating in PLUG is skewed by my own interests in programming. I seek such people out. However, I think most of the members are system administrator or IT people. This would be followed by hobbyists, programmers and then users. The interesting part is that these lines are crossed all the time. I'm a programmer but I know most any system administrator would write rings around me when it comes to any scripting code like Perl. The open nature of FS/OSS defies anyone to remain in a "pigeon hole" somewhere, even socially in face-to-face meetings. So many users are learning programming and hobbyists are learning enterprise class principles. The cross pollination is very strong and easy.
JMZ: Are there any interesting trends as far as PLUG attendance goes?
AD: PLUG attendance at the meetings has been largely stagnant lately. There has been some growth at the West Side Meeting but we usually have a core group that is almost always attending with additional new comers that stop attending after a few times. I don't have a good handle on reasons for these people who come but don't continue. I have seen more and more people who are not into computers by trade express interest in Linux and PLUG. It could be that the "market" for group members is shifting away from the technically inclined to more people who see computers as a tool rather than something to tinker with. PLUG will have to shift in that direction too gain a following from those people.
JMZ: I know that most are hardware people- but you've got some web developers and the like- whats the view from a leadership position? How do you account for the fact that PLUG is one of the most active Linux organizations in the country? (given that Phoenix is not considered to be a tech center).
AD: The Phoenix area is a great place to live and work because the people tend to be friendly an accepting, at least in my experience. PLUG reflects that, to a large extent. Lately we have had some heated email exchanges, the first in my recollection at such a strong level. That was both a disappointment and highly out of character to the group. Traditionally PLUG has been and still is accommodating and respectful to all comers. I think the openness to participation keeps the group alive. Besides, what else can you do on a summer afternoon when it's too hot to go outside except email and talk about Linux! ;^) The recent opening of offices for major companies that run on Linux and FS/OSS adds to the energy. I have also been involved with several "proprietary" software people who are driving more social interaction between all developers. Events like Desert Code Camp, largely organized by closed software developers, are opening more channels and possibilities for FS/OSS interaction where it would have been previously discounted or ignored. It's exciting to be here as things begin to bubble! The members and Steering Committee that work and make things happen are the biggest reason PLUG stays active. As long as that continues, PLUG will be worthy of participation and be a viable source of interesting information.
JMZ: Alan, what do you see for PLUG in the next year?
AD: In my opinion PLUG is on the edge of amazing things. If the members can push the group into the local consciousness, capitalizing on the increasing main-stream awareness of Linux, exciting things can come about. An example for the opportunity and challenge before the group: For years I have tried to have my father try Linux. Ubuntu CDs and demonstrations were well recieved but unused or triggered no action. He recently went shopping for a small laptop and, to my surprise purchased an Asus Eee PC without MS Windows. I asked him if he was going to get Windows for it. "No," he replied, "if they ship it with Linux and all this software, I'll give it a try. Besides, it looks good." The challenge for PLUG is to draw such people in because a large percentage of new Linux users will be "non-geeks" like my dad. That will require changes to how we address our meeting audience and communicate in the group. We are trying to move in that direction with multiple topics in one meeting to cover all levels of knowledge. We also have a base for a much improved website and online precense to pul in those that expect "Web 2.0" interaction. But all of this takes work and time from volunteers. If it does not happen, I fear PLUG will miss the people we want to reach the most: new users.
JMZ: Any final words?
AD: First, I thank you for this chance to interview. It has been fun. Second, I have found PLUG to be the single most helpful and valuable resource for my own introduction and education in Linux. I encourage all those interested in Linux to participate with your own LUG, where ever that is. And, if you are in the Phoenix area, PLUG would love to hear from you, especially! Lastly, I would deviate a bit from the main thread in this interview and mention freedom of a wider nature. The world's freedom to create and do and share has never been greater than what we have now. It should only get better. But, many of our freedoms are under attempted restriction by industries and government who enjoyed the default restrictions that digital data eliminates. If we don't choose and use our freedom, we will loose it through DRM, draconian copyright laws and other measures. This effects everything from music to engineering to education. The power of a digital world is only just being imagined and we must do what we can to grow it. PLUG certainly strives to do our little part in that effort.
JMZ: Wow, I feel like Im back in the 90s with all this internet optimism! Thank for being on my blog, Alan.
you can also read more of Alan's thoughts at Freedom Bytes Blog.
for more information on PLUG visit http://plug.phoenix.az.us/