Is open source a clear path to success for new grads?

Open source is a great career direction for newly minted computer science and IT graduates. Here's why.

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It's the catch-22 every new college graduate faces when looking for his or her first job: You need experience or a portfolio of completed work to prove your competency to a potential employer, but it's hard to get that tangible proof of your skills without having had a job first.

That's one of the major benefits of the open source world, says Heidi Ellis, professor and chair of Computer Science and Information Technology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

Ten years ago, as a visiting professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Ellis challenged her computer science students to use technology to solve some of the logistical and administrative problems than can hamper the effectiveness of humanitarian causes.

"In 2006 I introduced the concept of humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), and my students developed a volunteer registration and management module for Sahana, an open source disaster management IT system developed in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami, so that disaster recovery and humanitarian efforts could easily register and track volunteers," Ellis says. Not only did the module go on to become a standard addition to the software package, but because the project was free and open source, each student had a major, real-world project in their development portfolio that they could freely and easily share with potential employers.

"If a student goes through a traditional CS or IT education, they most likely will have an internship or do a work-study with a business, a corporation in their IT or software development department. But most of the time, in those situations, they can't show evidence that they've worked on those kinds of projects, because all the code is proprietary -- not so with open source. It's a marketable, visible, demonstrable portfolio," Ellis says.

[ Related story: 5 open source skills in high demand ]

A hiring bonus

It's one of the most important things employers look for when hiring open source talent, along with a strong, committed presence in the open source community, says Bob Melk, president at

"Almost every open source company or client that's looking for open source talent wants to see contributions to the code base, and/or a profile on GitHub," Melk says. That sentiment's echoed by Marie Louise van Deutekom, global head of human resources for SUSE Linux, which is currently looking to fill around one hundred open positions within the company.

"We definitely want to see some kind of code contributions and an active profile on GitHub. It's a very important part of our recruiting and screening process here," she says.

Having a portfolio of successful projects and an active GitHub profile is a great advantage to have, especially in the midst of an open source hiring boom. The recent Open Source Jobs Report from and The Linux Foundation showed that 65 percent of hiring managers say open source hiring will increase more than any other part of their business over the next six months. With even traditional companies tackling digital transformation, there's more code than ever before in areas like home automation and automotive, and much of that code is open source, says Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation.

[ Related story: Open source job market booming ]

Open source shortage

"The reality is that technical talent in open source is tight. This is a huge opportunity for open source professionals and new graduates to grow their skills in this area. Digital transformation means that almost everything now is a digital device, and that means much more code must be written," Zemlin says.

With such a huge emphasis on the IT talent crunch and the business needs of companies looking for open source professionals, Ellis believes her students -- both from her Trinity College days and her current position at Western New England University -- have a major leg up on the job market.

"I have an industry advisory board of people I speak to, all of whom are either CEOs, CIOs and other high-level executives, and they all want to see candidates with evidence of open source contribution. It absolutely answers the question about how classroom skills translate into the job market; it makes that transition seamless," she says.

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This story, "Is open source a clear path to success for new grads?" was originally published by CIO.