Checking in with Quint Van Deman, 2011 RHCP of the Year

It has been a little over a year since Quint Van Deman was named 2011’s worldwide Red Hat Certified Professional of the Year. Out of 600 submissions, Van Deman, an RHCA and director of open source consulting at Emergent, stood out with his experience helping clients move from last-generation, proprietary IT infrastructures to next-generation architecture that embraces the synergy of open source, open standards and cloud-based solutions. With the next winner set to be awarded on June 28 at Red Hat Summit in Boston, we wanted to catch up with Quint to hear the story that won the title, what he’s working on now and how his past year has been.

So, what story did you submit to win the award?

What I really wrote about was my journey to becoming an RHCA and how that really benefitted my professional endeavors. The journey to becoming an RHCA really exposes one to the breadth of solutions that are out there in the Red Hat stack, and how those solve organizational challenges. I was very clearly able to take some of those direct lessons and apply them out into my work. Also, how the RHCA really provides what I call the ‘instant badge of credibility’ when I walk in somewhere. A lot of time when you go into an organization as a consultant, there’s a lot of what I call ‘technical chest-bumping,’ where there will be someone in the room whose only objective of the meeting is to prove that they are smarter than you. Having that RHCA up there really defers a lot of that, especially with folks in the room that may have taken a Red Hat exam.

What did you think were your chances of winning when you turned in the application?

I really don’t think I thought about it much at the time. I would have to say that in retrospect I would have characterized it as being fairly low, or a one-in-a-million shot. Just because the sheer number of quality tech professionals that are out there on the open source side of the coin. The real all-stars these days are playing on (the open source) team, and that puts me in pretty impressive company and that really had me temper my expectations for all of this.

What was it like when you find out you won?

It was honestly very humbling. I’m not a very self-congratulatory person, I’m a very humble person by nature, but the flip-side of that was that everyone in my office and in my company was just over-the-moon with excitement both for me and for the company as a whole. Personally, I was kind of shocked and humbled, but everybody around me was really excited.

How have things changed for you since winning?

(Laughs) I get embarrassed a lot more, that’s for sure. Anytime I’m brought into an architecture call or something with a prospective client, especially for the first time, our sales men-and-women around here love to drop that little tidbit, or my introduction, into the meeting. They certainly do that all in good spirit, but it definitely makes me turn a bit red.

Do any of your colleagues give you a hard time?

(Laughs) It’s definitely died down a bit since last summer, but right after, I couldn’t go fill up my water in the break-room without being ragged on. It’s all in good fun but they have taken their liberty in throwing shots my way, that’s for sure (laughs).

There’s been a lot of press lately about the growth of open source and the demand for Linux talent. How are you seeing this at the companies you work with?

I’m seeing it just about everywhere I go. Maybe that’s an imperfect measure on my part because I’m largely working with companies that have expressed some interest in open source and have largely started what I call their awakening. But many of those organizations are framing their entire strategy on open source, everything from the virt layer on through tech apps and technical service enhancements. To me, I see the growth and the demand just exploding, from the tools to the people needed to run those tools.

Why is it happening now?

It’s a very complex question with a litany of possible reasons. I guess I see a couple of kind of major ones. First, I see open source has really matured to the point where it’s consumable for the enterprise, and I really think that rate of maturation is increasing exponentially. Second, I’d have to say the current economic climate, particularly in the U.S. has really forced organizations to rethink the status quo. For so long, humans just being creatures of habit, folks have been buying and consuming their technology the ways they always have. But when shake-ups like this come along, and they really force people to take a step back, some of those traditional business practices of the proprietary software world, like 22-percent maintenance fees, have just gotten to the point of absurdity. We’re just seeing people saying that enough is enough and I’m getting tired of being jerked around and taken to the poor house purely for the sake of software I need to run my business. Lastly, I’d say we’re finally getting enough people out there who are advocating and really breaking through the common fuzz of open source opponents ā€“ it’s not secure, it won’t scale, you’ll pay more over time in operational costs. You still run into those common misperceptions and those taglines the proprietary world has used to try to slow down the open source train. But we’re reaching a point of, perhaps not critical mass, but certainly well on our way to it where we’ve got the mindshare of folks that are getting to be at those higher levels of the organization that have either grown up with open source and know no different or have simply come to the realization that we’ve gotten to the point of maturity where, if not an equal rival, a superior way of doing those kinds of things.

How have the discussions with potential clients changed over time regarding open source?

This probably mirrors the experience of many, but for the longest time my conversations about open source were fairly constrained to the operating system. Maybe some IT management tools on the side, but it was really at that base foundational level. And that was right for the time, but these days the aperture is wide open. As long as you can go in and demonstrate best value, we’re seeing decision makers that are very comfortable with open source for everything from the bottom of the stack to the top. It’s not just operating systems and virtualization anymore. It’s everything up through platform all the way to what I think really is the true next stage of growth, the applications at the top, be it content management frameworks, be it those business intelligence tools, be it tools that still reside on the technical side of the organization ā€“ security-type tools, monitoring-and-management-type tools. We’ve really gone from being that foundational component to really able to provide the full solution as an open source ecosystem.

How did you come to start working with Red Hat?

This is kind of a good story of just right place, right time. I was an electrical engineering student at UVA back in 1996 and I went to class everyday and my courses were taught on Solaris machines running on big Spark hardware in these computing labs. This was really before the advent of broadband or any kind of connectivity from my off-campus house into that lab, and I needed to find a way to do my homework without having to truck through the snow to the computer lab. The best way I found to do so at the time was to snag a Red Hat CD ā€“ I think it was Red Hat 5 or maybe 6, and that’s obviously Red Hat, not RHEL. I believe it came in the mail on a CD, and I spent the next week or so hacking sound card drivers and modem drivers and a variety of things to get a functional system up and going. It was really just for the principal motivation of wanting to do my homework from home. Once I went through that exercise, I really found there was really something there. It was a better way of doing things, it was kind of the perfect blend of that big UNIX world and the personal computer and I really used that as kind of a launching pad to go after professionally.

What made you get certified?

In 2002 I was working for an Internet banking company down in Atlanta called S1, and they had a really strong certification program, which was uncommon at the time. I had some financial incentives attached to it, but they were very much encouraging all their employees to go out and get certified in the tech areas that were really going to benefit the employees, as well as the organization. With my background,and also knowing I was kind of the main open source/Red Hat guy in the company at the time, I went out and found the RHCE, which was fairly new at that time. I don’t know exactly when that certification was originally started, but it kind of played right into that program, and by some stroke of good luck I actually passed it on my first shot through.

Did you start out knowing you wanted to work toward earning RHCA?

So I got that RHCE in 2002 and really for a long time after that I was pretty content. The RHCE alone was rather distinguishing for many of my peers. My original certification was on RHEL3, I then re-upped my RHCE on RHEL5, but somewhere around 2009 or 2010, after the RHCA was announced, I really saw that as the next way to distinguish myself from the pack. In those 7 or 8 years, the number of RHCEs has obviously grown quite tremendously and I just kind of personally wanted something to elevate myself again from my peers, but also organizationally there was that same benefit that comes from having certifications on the wall that separate yourself personally. The organization that I was working for at the time saw that same value and they supported my endeavor and I just kind of went after it, one course at a time.

How are you using Red Hat technologies today?

For just about everything, from the bottom of the stack to the top. It certainly serves as the bedrock for any open source solution I design for my customers. There’s some times where the design is purely about an infrastructure or platform design in which it’s only a Red Hat solution, and there’s also times where a particular customer is looking at a broader business-focused open source solution where maybe there’s either a custom application or just another general community open source solution that sits on top. Red Hat really takes the unknown out of the infrastructure and platform components in designing a solution. Their maturity, their capability, their name recognition. It really provides the building blocks in which to build genuine, high-performance and very effective enterprise solutions.

Any advice for those starting out with open source or thinking of learning open source?

The first thing I always tell people when they’re installing RHEL or whatever the tool may be for the first time is to ditch the GUI, to get under the hood and break things. That was a lot easier when I started, but I think it’s still an important thing to do, to kind of open the black box, if you will, which is something you can’t really do with the proprietary equivalent. There is no get-under-the-hood, but you really can with open source. It’s taking that engineering mentality and realizing you’ll be better at what you do and how you’re able to explain and apply things as a technologist if you really fundamentally understand how they work under the hood. And the only way you really understand how they work under the hood is taking apart the lawnmower engine one piece at a time and figuring out how it all goes back together.

Any advice for the next RHCP of the Year?

(Laughs). Enjoy how it changes a simple trip to fill up the water bottle. I would say, aside from preparing for the good old-fashioned ribbing you’ll get, it’s really to use the spotlight to be an advocate for open source in any way you can. In the last year I’ve had the good opportunity to do a number of interviews, to get out and blog about open source and certainly tackling the advocacy client-meeting-by-client-meeting. And really being a firm advocate that this is simply a better way to deliver technology, that it’s superior technology and an ecosystem that everybody should be participating in and not let those entrenched habits, that status quo, get in the way of good decision making.

What’s next for you?

I’m continuing to build our open source practice here at Emergent. We’re really getting ready to roll into our next fiscal year in a little less than a week. We’re excited about what we think the next year has in store for us. We’re continuing to plan and grow and go after bigger and better things. And continuing to build that practice and that brand of open source advocacy leadership and competency here at Emergent.

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