Why it's important for leaders to mentor and support others
In the more than 50 years I have been playing—er, working—in the computer industry, I have been fortunate to have many excellent mentors. They helped me learn and grow, enabling me to find progressively better jobs with higher salaries. This also helped me into the position I am in today, as a freelance writer of articles and books, a conference speaker, and a proponent of the Linux philosophy.
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My mentors allowed me to fail and then guided me as I worked through fixing the problems I created for myself. They always supported me and were there when I needed them. I could not be where I am today had it not been for those mentors.
The open source way
One of the most exciting aspects of my 25 years working with open source is the community in which I find myself. Part of the open source way is the sharing of knowledge and skill.
I have made many friends online through social media sites and other hangouts. My favorite groups of open source users, makers, and admins all hang out in places that make it easy and safe to ask questions and find mentors. Open source conferences like All Things Open (ATO) and OLF (Ohio Libre Free, previously Ohio LinuxFest) allow me to meet my mentors and others in the community.
In reality, the open source community is also made up of many smaller communities centered around specific software such as Fedora, Ubuntu, LibreOffice, Python, and more. These communities are always helpful and willing to mentor the n00bs like me when I get into something new.
These communities and the sense of belonging I get from being part of them are among the most rewarding things about the open source world.
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So with all the coaching and mentoring I received over the last half century, a few years ago, I decided it was time to pay it forward. I started by writing books about Linux to spread my knowledge.
I recently discovered DigitalBridge, a new nonprofit that I have begun to volunteer for. You can read its website, but the bottom line is that DigitalBridge offers free, mostly online training to post-secondary students who want to enter or change to a career in the digital world. DigitalBridge is in the process of expanding its capabilities to secondary school students.
Unfortunately, traditional learning methodologies and experiences don't work well for many adults with few skills, low-end jobs, and no opportunity to obtain a technical education. DigitalBridge provides a learning experience tailored to the needs of these nontraditional students. This experience is centered around mentors and coaches like me.
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All of the classes offered by DigitalBridge are designed with maximum flexibility for both mentors and students. Courses are designed to allow for remote and self-study learning as much as possible. Mentors and coaches work with students to create schedules designed around the needs of each student and the time they have available while respecting their other life commitments. With guidance from their coaches, students make their own decisions about which DigitalBridge courses of study they want to pursue.
The objective is to provide free and flexible digital training for students with financial and life obstacles.
My role as a mentor
My task is to mentor and coach students interested in learning to be a Linux system administrator or possibly a developer. This course is based on my three-volume book series, Using and administering Linux: Zero to sysadmin, written to be a complete self-study course. A course designed as a self-study tool allows far more flexibility for the student and instructor than a traditional classroom setting.
I recently began working with a student in his late 20s who wants to learn Linux. We just started a course that introduces him to various aspects of digital technology and will give all the students who take it some idea of the directions they can choose.
Like many adult students, he has many demands for his time, so we meet once each week by phone or video conference. We discuss the reading and other work he did during the preceding week. We decide together what his next assignment will be. I also make myself available for questions and discussions between our scheduled sessions.
One of the barriers that people who want to learn about and enter the tech world always encounter is the sense that it is an elite and insular world, which is true to a large degree. We have a language of our own that is a barrier all by itself, and learning that language is perceived as a requisite for entry. There is also the media-fed misconception that tech people are weird, strange, reclusive, and arrogant. That can be true, but it is certainly not true of the vast majority of the tech people I know. Another perceived and sometimes all-too-real barrier is that of racism and sexism.
The All Things Open conference recently brought over 4,000 open source leaders, users, developers, and administrators together in Raleigh, N.C., for one of the premier and most accessible open source conferences on the planet. Todd Lewis, the conference organizer, arranged scholarships for two DigitalBridge students interested in open source and Linux. I introduced them to many people who are friends of mine and who have been working in tech for some time.
Both students were impressed with the accessibility and friendliness of the new people they met. I think they appreciated the number of women and people of color who not only attended but who were also keynote and technical speakers. I know I did.
Part of what I enjoy doing is being an agent of disruption. I like to do what people—so-called experts and authorities—say cannot or should not be done. One way to do that is to immerse students who aspire to learn technology in that world. DigitalBridge is more than just a training center. It's an agent of change and a bridge to 21st-century digital jobs.
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I find this a very rewarding way to pay it forward. It enables me to give to the community as a way of thanking those in my past who helped me pull myself up from a series of low-paying jobs interspersed with periods of joblessness, as well as the mentors who helped me to improve my technical skills during my digital career.
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