Learning to learn

"It's too difficult! Why can't it just be simple, likeI'm used to?" I've been hearing that a lot recently.

No, not from the mouths of people struggling to learnLinux. Quite the opposite, actually.

You see, my wife is currently taking a college coursethat requires the use of "alternative" software.

Perhaps you have heard of the package -- it's calledMicrosoft Office.

Is the problem really that the package is too difficultto use? No, the issue is it's simply not what my wifeis accustomed to using. It's not that learning Officeis a hurdle too tall to jump over; the objection isthat the hurdle exists at all. Life would be so mucheasier if we didn't have to learn new skills now andagain to accomplish things.

The problem is certainly not unique to my wife. Infact, I regularly get e-mail from folks who echo thesame sentiment. For example, I get letters proclaimingthat open source is not ready for prime time. Is thisbecause the software lacks a mission-critical feature?

In most cases, no. More times than not, the complaintis that unless the interface is identical to that ofWindows, it's no good. And for some folks, unless opensource runs Office, it's just not ready for prime time.

Aside from the truly frightening concept that abusiness' survival might actually rest on the abilityto run a particular office-productivity package, thereis clearly something else at work here. Whenkeystroke-for-keystroke compatibility is the be-alland end-all, you are not talking about ease of use orreadiness for prime time. You are talking aboutunwillingness to learn.

Learning new things takes some work. The unknown alwayshas some degree of difficulty associated with it. Butin an industry where technologies rise and fall aboutas fast as the hemlines on Paris runways, not learningis not an option. Timely acquisitionof new skills is essential.

Open source is not inherently difficult to use oradminister. The modern Linux distributions inparticular have some excellent user and administrativeinterfaces. My home network consists of 14 machinesspanning five hardware architectures and threeopen-source OSes. My administrative overhead for thewhole group can be measured in minutes per month. Ispend more time each month unfreezing my wife'sWindows Me box.

It's also not true that other OSes are truly easy toadminister. If that were the case, why would we botherwith expensive certifications for Windowsadministrators? We don't certify people to do easythings; we certify them for difficult tasks. We evenpay premium salaries to certified workers.

Learning is as essential to survival in the IT world asoxygen is for survival in the natural world. The costsof learning are an inevitable expense. Hiding from thecost of learning is like hiding from the dark; in theend, it gets you nowhere.

Don't let the task of learning keep you from adoptingopen-source solutions where they make sense.

What do you think? Send me e-mail at