We plan to double the number of FOSS experts by next year: TechGaruda

Chennai-based TechGaruda Systems is a software solutions provider that aims to dispel the presumption of open source being low-quality and sub-par to proprietary software. An open source professional himself, Vikram Vijayaraghavan, director, TechGaruda Systems talks to Pallavi Arun Verma of LFY about the business and technology myths and opportunities around FOSS.

Q: How do you look at the opportunities that exist for FOSS and Linux experts in the Indian IT industry? What, in your opinion, are the key factors fostering the trend?
With the Indian IT industry maturing and evolving to become product creators and not just competing on arbitrage costs and providing run-of-the-mill outsourcing, we ought to see a proliferation of FOSS usage on the simple grounds that it makes both business and technical sense, a rare combination, for value creators to use it.

Opportunities abound for the FOSS and Linux experts as its usage has seeped into every technical sphere — whether it’s server-side apps, cloud computing, scientific number crunching or desktop user interface. The scenario has been great for the past decade and there is no chance of that heading south because Linux is not a sudden trend or a fad; it is built on a solid technical foundation imbibing the haloed design philosophy of Unix, while having a committed community of coders. It is therefore here to stay.

Q: Do you think using Linux and FOSS can add value to the process of project development? Enumerate some of the advantages of using open source platforms.
The technical advantages of using Linux/FOSS platforms are numerous. A cleanly thought out design based on Unix’s principles, a sane permissions and security model, and a very active and responsive community puts Linux and FOSS on top of the heap. Given that the source code is available, the ability to be infinitely tweaked and configured puts FOSS in a unique position.

FOSS platforms like Trac or dotproject for project scheduling and management; SVN or git for revision control; twiki and LifeType blogs for intra-company communication; jabber server for intra-company interaction; Samba for Windows’ interaction and many more such mature tools provide for a complete end-to-end professional solution for project development and execution at practically zero cost.

Q: Do you think adopting open source technology can cut down the cost of any project, significantly?
FOSS provides quality while being free, and can cut down the cost of all projects tremendously. A sane service model on top of using FOSS can be a win-win choice for businesses in terms of lower costs while having continued support. At the technical level, there are clearly very high-cost savings by using FOSS projects. The Linux shell can string together and execute complex tasks in a jiffy, which may require costly tools in the proprietary world.

Costly and complex API, undocumented calls, limitations, hacks, viruses and spyware, etc are virtually eliminated with the use of FOSS and Linux. This makes development simpler, focussed, and less time-consuming – thus saving costs all around. Also, Linux is eminently scalable unlike most proprietary solutions. We believe that the total cost of ownership for FOSS is definitely lower than proprietary apps even after the maintenance and development costs incurred in the long run.

Q: Your views on companies using proprietary software despite huge costs?
Buying a proprietary tool is like buying a car with its hood locked and its keys with the car manufacturer. For every small change, you have to run to the manufacturer. But with FOSS, small problems can be fixed by companies themselves. They can customise, tweak and add features easily at very little cost. Despite being a great money saver, businesses may shy away from using FOSS in part because they can’t fathom why anything valuable (to them) would be available for free and associating a cost in monetary terms to something that equips them with a safe comfort zone, “It’s paid for, so it must be good”. However, the fact is that this is far from the truth.

It is bewildering to see the huge amount of money wasted by large businesses to obtain a false sense of security and an inferior product whereas they could have gone to the open source world and had their choice of pickings for free. May be it’s ignorance or inertia, but adoption of FOSS simply makes sound business sense today.

Q: What tools are you using for project development? Enumerate some of the key benefits that you have experienced by using these tools.
Some of the technologies we have used are Python, PHP, Javascript libraries (jQuery, Prototype), Apache HTTPD, Apache Tomcat, Apache SOLR, GWT, Drupal, Joomla, Java & Perl, Android SDK with Eclipse, iText, Weka, textcat, yiiframework, mySQL, PostgreSQL, etc. In terms of operating system, we use Debian, Ubuntu and SUSE Enterprise Linux.

When it comes to parsing Web content, writing a quick and simple script using something like BeautifulSoup or lxml, python modules have made life much more productive. Using a tool like iText has solved some complex doc conversion problems in seconds. The incredible flexibility of Apache SOLR has helped us extend and deploy our advanced search solutions. Using, creating, managing and archiving large pieces of content for our projects has been a breeze with Drupal. There are so many such examples of our usage of FOSS, which have saved us time and money and made work thoroughly enjoyable.

Q: Are you a software solutions provider or into helping customers set up IT infrastructure, using FOSS?
TechGaruda works with a variety of start-ups in Silicon Valley and top-notch universities around the world. We are into high-tech consulting and outsourced product development. Our main aim is to dispel the myth of outsourcing being typically low-cost and run-of-the-mill. We want to work juxtaposed with the client, developers and suggest changes to make an impact to the product itself rather than just affecting the bottom line.

Q: Do you involve developers from the community during project development?
Most of our developers are part of the community already. We figure out solutions for problems that we encounter or expect to encounter in our projects by asking the relevant community members and work with them to find a solution. We recently did this with the Android community and have done so in the past with a variety of open source projects such as Python, and Apache HTTPD.

Q: What kind of training programmes do you offer to keep your developers abreast with the updates happening in the technology world?
For newcomers, we have them undergo few months of specialised training after which they take a series of tests to assess their understanding and capacity. The training is provided via online resources in the technology of their choice which they are interested in working with once they start.

Q: Do you have any team involved in R&D for any of your open source projects?
Most of our projects can be termed R&D because we are into technical design consulting, which is basically researching the client’s requirements and coming up with solutions. We specialise in working with large amounts of data, processing data in parallel, unstructured search on such data, data migration and creating Web services to access various slices of data. We have implemented a variety of voice-apps (IVR) and have considerable experience in writing complex mobile apps on various platforms like iPhone, Android and j2me.

Q: What is the process of your intake for FOSS experts? Is good quality talent available?
Readily available FOSS experts seem to be a rare species because open source experts are talented and capable enough to create their own projects or start-ups. If they don’t have that proclivity, they tend to venture into academia or attract a very high pay scale. Obtaining FOSS experts and retaining them is a tough task, and a key problem we, and most companies, indeed face. So the next best choice is to hire engineers and create FOSS experts out of them. But it’s a double-sided sword as every company is faced with the stark reality of losing them due to bidding wars or better opportunities opening up due to his/her expertise, quite ironically.

Linux User Groups and their mailing lists are great places to spot and get talent. Another option is the various mailing lists and IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, channels of open source projects. Conferences are also good places to recruit potential employees. Today, any company would consider a potential hire based on the fact that he or she has taken part in FOSS projects and contributed.

Q: How many Linux/FOSS developers are working at present in your company? Going forward, do you plan to hire more FOSS professionals?
We have around three dozen Linux developers working in our company. But we always need more experts as there is a dearth of good quality people. We plan to double up the capacity in the coming year.

Q: What kind of technical skill-set do you look for while hiring? Does it help to have certifications? Can you recommend few names to young enthusiasts?
Specialised courses or programmes may help in certain cases. However, we find most (not all) training programmes or certifications quite ineffective. To sharpen their skills, we believe, developers must constantly immerse themselves in the technology community and spend quality time with other developers and coders. The good thing is that this is easy to do with open source because of the ever-active project mailing lists, groups, IRC channels and the various online resources available like blogs, tech talks, videos, webcasts and e-books.

Also, there is nothing like gaining first-hand experience; so it makes sense to have junior developers attach themselves to the projects as auditors and observers and see the real action while getting involved in small but useful ways. Competitions like topcoder.com, Google Summer of Code, etc are great ways of keeping yourself sharp. It also helps to go to conferences not only to see the latest trends in business but to measure yourself against your competition. The best and time-tested way is to actually create or participate in FOSS projects in technologies that are of interest and relevance to work, however small said projects are. Sites like sourceforge.net and code.google.com are great places to start with.

Finally, mutually exclusive to all the above, a clear and analytical mind with a logical bent is a must for good programmers. Also, a temperament suited for programming, which can be a combination of boring, frustrating and exasperating, is a must. If one has these qualities, the training and upgradation path for any technology is bound to be easy as it is just a matter of learning specifics and details.

Q: What is your message to the community and the developer fraternity?
The open source/FOSS community should carry on its excellent work in terms of development and enthusiasm in propagating FOSS. It is also high time the Indian FOSS community showed Indian businesses that FOSS is a serious alternative and not simply an amateurish attempt by geeks. There is a need for pragmatism in the community to spread the use of FOSS. Towards this, understanding the business and non-technical context and need of end-users is imperative for the members of the community.

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