A CIO Conversation: NeTraverse's Mark Hinkle

Mark Hinkle, CIO of NeTraverse, talks about what's fueling Linux's rapid growth and why CIOs can stop worrying so much about staffing and support issues.

Linux adoption is on the rise. No one knows this better than Mark Hinkle, CIO and vice president of Austin, Texas-based NeTraverse -- a seller of software that extends Windows-based applications to Linux platforms -- and editor in chief of LinuxWorld magazine. In this exclusive interview with SearchCIO.com, Hinkle talks about what's fueling Linux's rapid growth and why CIOs can stop worrying so much about staffing and support issue...

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IDC recently predicted that the overall Linux market will grow more than 25% annually to reach $35 billion in 2008. Do you agree with these numbers, based user interest and what you're reading and writing about in LinuxWorld magazine?

Hinkle: I really do. There are world and domestic factors. As for world factors, I see the modernization of China contributing to the growth of Linux adoption. China is a relatively untapped IT area, and I think the recent acquisition of IBM's PC business is bringing this to light. There's been a shift in places like China over the last 10 years; they've shifted to a culture that now studies and focuses on education and sciences.

Domestically, I think things have changed since we've gone through the IT hysteria between 1995 and 2000, which included mass adoption of the Internet. We weren't careful buyers, and now our economy has shifted. Being a leader and having the latest and greatest technology isn't as important. We need to get value out of all of our investments, and Linux and open source technologies are good values. Today, people are doing more shopping. You have a very viable alternative to commercial products, and the marketplace is getting much more competitive.

Support for Linux-based products and services has always been an obstacle to adoption. Do you see this getting better?

Hinkle: I think it has been a problem in the past, but those days are fading fast. Vendors that enterprises already have relationships with like IBM, Sun, Novell and Oracle have support for their products on Linux now. If you trust them to supply one product, I would say you can trust them to supply Linux products. Oracle's 'Unbreakable Linux' campaign interests me because they bundle Linux support with their database support.

Also, there is an increasing number of companies that are growing around this industry. Some companies like Linuxcare [now called Levanta] entered the market before there was a market for Linux support and had to change course. Others are regional VARs that have noticed the value that Linux brings and [they] provide top-notch service for these products.

Plus, with the help of the Internet, there is a 'global village' of sorts that provide the support informally for most any Linux product you can think of. Oftentimes, it's real time and the same quality (or better) than you receive from an 800 number.

What are the big initiatives your IT organization is working on in 2005?

Hinkle: We're refreshing our IT systems. We're migrating our Web system to a new content management system. After going through such lean years in IT, I think people are looking to fix things up now. I'm tweaking my systems, in an effort to get more out of what we have rather than installing new systems. Technology came upon us so fast -- there's so much good technology out there that the technology has outpaced our demands. What about staffing? As Linux adoption picks up, so do the needs of CIOs looking for qualified candidates. I read recently that there are more than 3,000 Linux job postings on some career sites, up about 200% from last year.

Do you think there is a shortage of qualified candidates today?

Hinkle: I don't think there's necessarily a shortage of skilled open source people. I just think they're in high demand. In the short term, we need a lot of people with both skills -- commercial Linux and Windows. But the need is growing for candidates with more specific open source skills in areas like Apache and Tomcat. I think smaller organizations are looking for candidates with both skills; whereas the bigger enterprises are now looking for more specific, pure open source skills.

What skills are you looking for in new job candidates, other than open source? Are you looking for project managers? IT architects? What are the hot positions in IT today?

Hinkle: We plan to do some hiring in the second quarter this year. I think my biggest need is consistency; I don't want people who are position players. I think that's the sign of a more competitive economy. You need someone who can grow and acquire new skills. Programmers, IT architects, people who can pick up skills.

Do you have a good relationship with the business side? Is IT/business alignment an ongoing issue for you and your IT organization?

Hinkle: Yes. I report directly to the CEO and have a good relationship with him. In my case, I'm an operations guy who ended in the IT department. Before becoming CIO here, I ran a call center for EarthLink. Successful call center people are good operationally; it's been a big help for me. I have spoken to thousands of customers and worked on the service side as well.

Would you consider yourself more of a technical CIO or a business CIO? Which is a more important skill to have in your opinion and why?

Hinkle: I'm more of a business CIO, because of my background and the needs of our company. When you're as small as we are [six full-time employees and various contractors], everyone has to be a salesperson and a service person and pick up other roles. I think your business dictates which type of CIO is better.

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