Local business, Local jobs

The press has been alive the past several days with news of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where the police have been going in and rounding up drug dealers. From the amount of press and police actions, some people outside of Brazil must think that all of the people in the favela are thieves or drug dealers.

I went to a favela in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks ago while I was on a trip to Brazil. I was invited by a very interesting guy who was born in the favela, and started his “business career” by selling trinkets to the tourists on the beach. He taught himself how to speak three languages besides Portuguese, and in a short time he realized that he could make more money if he bought his trinkets off-season instead of waiting for the prices to rise in season. Later in life he taught himself computers and networking, and finally set up a wireless network infrastructure inside the favela. People laughed at him and told him that there would not be enough business, but by careful planning his little company is growing and the favela is benefiting from the connectivity.

The favela is like a small city inside a city. There are homes of people, stores that sell things, and most of the people there “just want to get along”. He showed me with pride several community places in the favela where the young people could meet and vent steam.

This young entrepreneur had obtained a government grant, and with the money he is helping to set up an extension to a small school where people can learn web design and systems administration. He introduced me to some of his “apprentices” who were beginning to study these topics. Even though I could not talk Portuguese to them, I could see from their eyes and from their actions the intelligence and the curiosity that would take them a long way.

In talking with this young entrepreneur, his words to me were “In the past their talk was about guns and drugs, but now their talk is about computers and the web.”

Brazil is not alone in this respect. Where people can not make a living by constructive methods, they may choose destructive methods. It does not make any difference whether the place is a favela in Brazil, the inner city of Manhattan or the poor rural south of the United States. Poverty breeds desperation, and taken long enough, lack of hope.

It used to be that computers cost millions of dollars. Those high priests that programmed them or ran them were highly educated. If they did need help in programming or running the computer, they would simply turn to the person next to them or across the hall, who also typically had a Masters or PhD in Computer Science. “Support” was very close, since the cost of not having proper support was felt immediately. Every second that the computer was down lost thousands of dollars of money.

Over the years that “support” was moved further and further away from the end user. The “support” became “down the hall”, then “over the phone”, and finally “outsourced”. At the same time a man named Bill Gates took a machine that basically had the same support needs as a mainframe computer and put it on everyone's desk. As the cost of the hardware dropped, the consequences of not having good support appeared to decrease on a per-person basis because the equipment did not cost as much. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is the old saying, and as people became more “familiar” with computers, the service and support became more contemptible. Time and money were still being lost, but on a scale not easily seen by managers in charge.

For example, imagine a computer that does not work for just fifteen minutes a day in the United States. Perhaps it has a lot of spam, or viruses have built up. Or new software is needed and installing it causes the computer to stop working. Perhaps a disk drive breaks and anyone who can fix it (after it is determined what it is that went wrong) is far away.

At twenty dollars an hour that means the employee has lost five dollars of time in those fifteen minutes. Now imagine that happens world-wide for the 1.2 billion computers that are out there. We lose (as a world economy) over six billion dollars a day.

Or think of it as a manager of 300 “knowledge workers”. It is as if nine people did not come into work that day. They did not call in sick. They did not take vacation. They simply did not show up. Any manager worth their salt would be very angry, wondering what happened to their employees. But the manager does not see these nine employees disappear, because the nine employees are there sitting at work, fighting with their computers. What would happen if we took ONE of those nine employees and trained them to be a good systems administrator? Could they help the other 299 people avoid problems with the computers they have? Perhaps lose only five minutes a day instead of fifteen? Would three of the nine missing people “show up” because we took one of the other six and made them a systems administrator?

And the opposite might happen. If computers started working the way they were intended, there might be a lot less people who avoid using them. Productivity might go up outside of just having working equipment. People might actually enjoy working on the computer for a change.

What has been happening over the years is that the so called “cost” of support (as supplied by companies and consultants) has been dropping through consolidation and outsourcing, but there has been little or no examination of the costs of not having very good systems administration local to the end user.

I have been exploring the concept of creating many new jobs by training people to be local systems administrators. I would like to have very local systems administrative help for end users, not move the support further away. I feel that the greater costs of this local support would be born through reducing the amount of time lost by the other workers. As long as the reclaimed time was used constructively, there might be a reduction in time lost by individual users and therefore justify the position of the local systems administrator.

How could we teach these people to be good systems administrators in a cost-effective way? Some people might learn through taking a series of courses, whether from a college, high school or other formal method of learning, but there are many people who have never had “formal” education in systems administration, but who have been “self taught”, whether from books, the Internet or from an apprenticeship with another systems administrator. In addition, if we were training enough people then low-cost “distance” learning or learning based on DVDs becomes cost effective.

Another reason why Free and Open Source Software is good for systems administrators is that FOSS does not hide things. With closed source, all you can learn is what the developers want you to know about the product. Therefore you will always be second-rate to the developers or company that produces the code.

With FOSS you see everything, and can even follow the decision-making process of development through the mailing lists of the project. With a lot of study, you can become as knowledgeable about how the software works as the person who wrote it. You control the time and effort that goes into your learning, you are in control.

As far as equipment is concerned, donated or cast-off equipment can go a long way to allowing people to practice beginning (and even intermediate) systems administration.

There are two problems with teaching yourself systems administration. One problem is that you do not necessarily learn the things you should know, and by the time you know what information and skills you need, it is often too late to learn them. The other problem is that after you are trained, you have no proof that you know what you know.

For the first problem, potential students can either look at college curricula and see what they recommend for systems administration, or the students can look at the objectives of LPI's certification program. These objectives can be a guide for what to study.

For the second problem, you can get recommendations from the people that employed you, but sometimes those are hard to get, particularly when you are looking for the next job and you do not want to tell your current employer that you are leaving.

This is where certification can really help, and a scalable certification like LPI's allows people to be trained any number of ways, then tested in large numbers.

Systems Administration is typically a job that can be done by male or female equally well, and can even be done by some people that are physically challenged.

In an environment where there are lots of local people out of work, let's try improving our local computer infrastructure by training and hiring more local, on-site support people.