Interview With Fred Miller - GNU/Linux Evangelist

Posted by dcparris on Jun 19, 2007 6:47 AM EDT
LXer - Linux News; By D.C. Parris (Charlotte, USA)
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LXer Feature: 19-Jun-2007

Fred Miller is a prolific GNU/Linux evangelist and active member of the OpenSUSE community. He has converted numerous small businesses and individuals from Windows to GNU/Linux. He is also a big fan.


I would like to introduce you to Fred Miller, whom I have known over the past few years as a long-time FOSS community member and activist. Fred is a prolific news poster - I read somewhere the SUSE-OT list was started because of his posting of news stories on the 'English' (SLE) list. And, while I sometimes wish he would just join the editorial team here, he's actually quite the busy guy.

Fred is best known in the SUSE and OpenSUSE communities, and is pretty darned helpful, if you ever get stuck on something. To me, though, the interesting thing about Fred is the businesses he has helped convert to SUSE Linux. And yes, I mean the sheer numbers. I have converted less than 10 people - that I know of - while he seemingly converts them in his sleep. I thought it would be interesting to find out what Fred could share with us from his experience. So please meet one of the community's most prolific evangelists, Fred Miller

The Interview

Tell me, how and when did you get into computing, and GNU/Linux in particular?

In 1981, I needed a tool that would give me claims data along with personal client information quickly for my insurance business. I was running out of room for file cabinets and it took too long to gather information that a client needed. Personal computers were in their infancy then, but a company named Kaypro had produced a model II that worked off of 2 51/4" floppies that looked promising. I purchased one, and went to work learning all I could about my new "filing system" as quickly as possible. As some others found, I soon really enjoyed my new "tool". It used the CP/M operating system and shipped with the very good word processor WordStar and business suite called "Perfect." There was Perfect Writer, Perfect Calc, and Perfect Filer.

Now, this will blow the minds of younger readers who are "new" to computing, but the Kaypro only had 64k of RAM. Perfect Filer allowed a large number of fields to be defined and a lot of data could be entered into those fields. Editing the hex code, I was able to get the software to do a few things that the developers didn't know it would do, and "won" an article for my messing around with it in a magazine called Profiles. Simply, I was able to maintain a large database on my clients that I could access quickly for my clients. I was the first computerized Field Underwriter in the company.

Later on, I learned to use QNX, Coherent Unix, various flavors of Windows (only when necessary), OS/2, and of course, Linux. Obviously, I'm only one of many "junk yard dogs" who learned a great deal the hard way, and earned our "degrees" in the school of hard knocks. :)

If I remember, you run a small business focusing on GNU/Linux. Tell me a little bit about that. Where are you located (city and state) and when did you start? What is your business name?

I retired from my Insurance business, took some time off, and then took a position at Cornell Univ. as a Systems Admin. During that time, and to the present, I kept getting requests to solve computer problems - the vast majority are Windows users. Word of mouth is the best advertising. "I live in Lansing, NY, which is in Central NY.

I believe you don't do Windows - how do you manage to keep your business afloat?

First, working on computers has never been my only avocation, which has given me a great deal more freedom than I'd have otherwise.

I did coin the nickname years ago, during the days of FidoNet, of "MickySoft." I think the first time I used it was after IBM had purchased OS/2 from Microsoft, had rewritten all of the code, and released it's first version of Warp. A shill who worked for Microsoft (never did know his real name) used the handle of Steve Barkdoll. Some of the "old timers" will undoubtedly remember that name. I used the nickname of "MickySoft" then, which of course did produce the desired responses. :)

I will assist someone with their Windows problems, but more often than not, I end up replacing it with openSUSE or recently if it's a laptop, PCLinuxOS. At this time in my life, I'm very near retirement and a great deal of what I do now are freebies. I can't say "no" to people who simply don't have the money to pay someone to permanently end their problems that are caused by the bad designs and bad code from Microsoft. But, as you know, this is the attitude among most seasoned users of Linux. We are community based and Linux has grown using the old principle of "get one, teach one." ;)

Can you tell me how many Windows-to-Linux migrations you have done (either by yourself or with others, business and personal)? How many of those are business migrations?

I honestly can't tell you how many. I think a fair percentage of business system would be 40%, and most of these are fewer than 10 desktops.

How would you break down the difference between desktop and server migrations? What percentage of migrations has been mainly desktop-based?

Most have been desktop migrations, if for no other reason that many of the businesses are small with no need for a server.

What size businesses do you work with primarily?

I preferred small businesses, because their interest is in long term cost reduction and service. Most small businesses want to keep their hardware longer than 3 years, which is most often the maximum time big business keeps theirs. If hardware is properly maintained, it will function properly for 5 or more years. One of the biggest operational costs big business has is a continual write off of hardware - buy new systems and write them off over 3 years, and then buy new again. There is of course, the "Evil Empire" that is Microsoft, continually convincing the bean counters of Academia and big business that they must upgrade to the latest and greatest from Redmond. This often forces the purchase of new hardware. This is one of the biggest impediments to reducing TCO for medium to big businesses and has been the ignorance prevalent in upper management, along with not hiring IT personnel who know Linux (often the "good guys" are the ones with no degrees but sure know what they're doing), and not hiring enough IT personnel.

What, in your experience, is the most common objection to migrating to GNU/Linux?

I think it's the same thing that has always plagued all of us. People by nature don't like change. If you suggest Linux, they immediately have visions of massive changes in they way they interact with software. My approach has been get users to understand that a GUI (graphical user interface), is a GUI, is a GUI. Once a user has learned to use any computer with a GUI, they can quickly learn to use a different system. It's simply a mindset. Most I've taught to use Linux, are comfortable with it in as little as a half hour, and no more than a couple of hours.

Applications like OpenOffice are so well coded, compared to Microsoft's Office, it doesn't crash and burn loosing the ability to load a backup copy. I've literally had grad students at Cornell Univ. call me with a request to salvage their thesis because they can't recover after Microsoft Office crashed. I've yet not been able to import a backup copy created by MS Office into OpenOffice.

Once a migration is approved and announced, where do you see the biggest resistance to a new system?

To be honest, most resistance has been from those who are the least productive employees. Those who understand that their employer owns the hardware, not them, and that they are there to do a job and not "play" are happier with Linux than Windows because it's most often faster, it's stable, it's much more secure, and applications are more usable.

You once shared on a mailing list how you had to inform an employee that if she did not make the transition to the new Linux system, her boss would replace her. Is that pretty rare?

Yes, and in this case he frankly was tired of hearing her complaining about everything and anything. ;)

What is the biggest objection to a migration from the employees?

As I said, they don't like change. There's also the fact that some don't like the fact that they loose "administrative" control over their desktops and laptops. Microsoft has been so lax in the security for so many years, that most users have been able to get buy with just about anything. I've seen job sites where management didn't want users having IM installed and certainly not used. Yeah......right.

Once these users get the "word" that there will be an administrator, security will be tight, and no......"you're not going to any software you want on the 'puter that belongs to your employer," then any enthusiasm they may have had for Linux dissipates. Users in the US have far too long had the erroneous idea that they computer they use is theirs. Management has for far too long let them get away with it.

This is a very strong selling point for Linux, where you have management that finally has their heads on straight and understands that solid security, stability, and reliable software auditing is only obtainable with Linux - not Microsoft. If I'm right, there will be a lot of medium to big businesses who will finally "get it" and opt for not just the huge TCO savings by migrating all systems to Linux, but because they can stop all the workplace abuses of the past and be a lot more productive.

How long, on average does it take to train users on the new GNU/Linux system?

As I said, with SUSE Linux, most average Microsoft users are able to find their way around a system after a half hour or so. I have preferred SUSE over other distributions for a number of reasons, which include the great installation and administrative utilities, and that it's the most complete distribution available.

One of the mistakes I think a lot of instructors make, is in the way they approach a class. They most often reinforce users fear my using terms like, "you'll have to learn to........" Or, "OpenOffice doesn't look like Microsoft Office and creates a different format........" This is ignorance! Users know it's different before they even look at it. Why reinforce any fear or negativism? We can make a conversion to Linux a lot smother, if we get users to understand (once again) that ALL GUI's basically work the same way. If you know one well, you can work with another just as easily. Trainers need to spend time showing users the really slick things Linux and applications for it can do, and never mind how something was done in Windows.

How much time, on average, do you spend providing post-migration support?

Not much anymore. I'm looking forward to retirement. I haven't quite figured out what that will mean, however. Linux has become a passion for me. It represents freedom. Freedom from a company that is immoral and evil that is Microsoft. Even better is the fact that it's far superior in every category to anything Microsoft has ever or will ever slap together with it's form of "bubble gun and bailing wire".

Yes, retirement looks good - unless a good company needs a "junk yard dog" to really improve their IT department, then I just might not be able to resist the challenge. :)

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Now that's how it's done. dinotrac 0 1,297 Jun 19, 2007 7:03 AM

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