Open source in small business

If you’re a Linux zealot you probably don’t want to read this. Keep in mind that I would love for there to be a Linux desktop flavor that competes with Windows. In fact, I think in some ways they already do, but this is going to be about the one area where they just don’t compare at all, and that’s in the small business world. Here’s why.

We’ve had two new employees start in the last two weeks. One in a sales position, one in a secretarial position. In the case of the sales guy, the person who made the hiring decision did not consider at all the technical skills of the applicants. He was looking for a sales guy, and he got a sales guy. Getting this person accustomed to our PC environment and running on his own was considered my job. My job is made considerably easier by the fact that this person has used Microsoft Office for years. I don’t have to show him how to use Outlook, how to create a memo, or a spreadsheet. We found someone who knew how to do that already, without even looking for it.

The other position, the hiring manager was considering PC skills as part of the overall equation. (Not as much a part as I would like, but you take what you can get..) This person has used Outlook in the office and at home. They’re familiar with Word, Excel, Powerpoint. I don’t have to do anything but give her a logon, some basic instruction and set her loose. The person she’s replacing had some PC skills when she started. Unfortunately, the hiring manager did not do a very good job of determining skills for Access, or of considering the fact that they would, down the road, want her to know Access. When asked about using Access, she didn’t even know what it was. When confronted with this, I decided the best way to remedy that would be to send her to a beginning Access class for two days, rather than trying to start from scratch myself, and then fill in from there. Finding an Access class was easy. Finding a new secretary with PC skills was also relatively easy.

Now let’s flip over and see what sort of complications would have arisen if we tried to be an Open Source office. Let’s try and find a sales person whose familiar with Linux, OpenOffice, Mozilla, and Evolution. Remember this is a non-technical job, so we’re talking about a non-techie who is familiar with these things. Sort of limits your possibilities, doesn’t it? OK, so we’ll just find someone with the ability to pick up some techie stuff relatively easy. Except who’s making the hiring decision? Not a technical person. Someone who would have to be pretty darn familiar with that stuff already himself, and comfortable not only in using it, but in knowing who is going to be best able to learn it. No one in management fits that description for Windows, let alone Open Source.

Or, consider your ability to find someone with some PC skills, some familiarity with Open Source software, or some real keen ability to learn new software and operating systems. You might find someone like that. Will you find someone like that who’s looking to be a secretary making low 20’s? (I’m guessing, I don’t actually know what our secretaries make, but given the rate at which they come and go, I doubt they’re making much money at all..) Or if they find someone but later decide they want them to be able to do some database manipulation, is there going to be a place I can send her to learn MySQL, or am I going to be spending a whole lot of my time teaching it to her? Is the person making the hiring decisions, who has been unable to discern Access skills previously, going to be able to discern MySQL skills?

You see where this starts to get really complicated compared to Windows and Office, don’t you? I haven’t even begun to get into the hassles of training current users who are not at all technically inclined, or the additional cost of finding someone to run all of this if I leave, compared to the cost of finding someone who can step in and admin an existing Windows network. Microsoft products may cost more, and may be more vulnerable to bugs and hackers, but there are a ton of people who know how to use them. And isn’t getting things done the point of having PC’s in your business to begin with? Having Windows and Office makes it easier for us to get things done. Using other alternatives, right now, unnecessarily complicates things. Until using open source is common and wide-spread among non-techies in the workforce, I don’t think it can compete. How to get there is the challenge developers should be looking at.

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