Blog: Elizabeth Ziph

Elizabeth Ziph is the co-founder of The Linux Box Corporation in downtown Ann Arbor, has over 30 years of experience in the IT industry and sits on the Detroit Chamber of Commerce Technology Advisory Panel. She will be writing about open source software, the freedom it gives its users and its potential impact on the future of computing.

Post No 1: So What Do You Do Here?

 At least once a week someone will find their way into our office and ask us the same question: "So...what do you guys do here?"

They've seen the blue, yellow, and white neon "Linux Box" signs or the penguin collection in our windows. Usually they confess to having walked or driven past countless times before finally giving in to their curiosity.

It used to take quite a few minutes to explain what Linux is, that it wasn't china or a furnace, what open source software is, and what do we do and don't do with it.

Many who drop in are just happy to have the mystery solved. A few are disappointed that we don't sell computers and parts; we refer those people to local shops that do. Some work for or own regional companies and end up with a business card and a brochure. We do actually have clients that started as curious drop-ins. Some are looking for a job employing their Linux skills and we've hired a few of them, too. One of the most unusual of the drop-ins was a very sweet person who brought us a gift penguin shaped teapot-and-cup-in-one to add to the penguin menagerie on our window sills.

Our offices have been in the historic Salvation Army building since our founding in the summer of 1999. With this central location, our initial plan was to help consumers and organizations adopt Linux and open source software through training and exposure. We assumed that the only reason that adoption of open source software had been less than enthusiastic was due to fear; fear of not having fall-back if things went wrong. 

We decided that if we were here, to help when things went wrong, people would be less afraid to try Linux and open source software. We thought that our being here would accelerate the adoption rate.

To this end we offered free drop-in services nights and weekends in addition to the professional services we offered. And some people came. The people that embraced open source software in the early days were the fearless enterprising innovators that wanted to tinker with anything new, especially if it was free like our community services during the drop in hours we had offered. They were not afraid of doing things differently and they ultimately became our early customers.  Many of them are still our customers. 

Over time, there were organizations that saw the potential in Linux and Open Source Software. They liked the fact that they could have a program changed to suit their special needs; they liked the fact that their investment in the change was given back to the original developers of the software so that it would be included in the next release and they would not have to reapply it when they upgraded. They felt good about contributing and being part of the solution. These customers adopted open source solutions when it made sense to their organizations.  

And they liked having the Linux Box as a trusted partner in the adoption process. 
The Linux Box does not own any of the software and could remain objective in terms of recommendations. When one solution fails to keep up or is less suited to meet the clients needs, an alternative can easily be recommended. 

These early adopters understood the benefit to their organizations. They understood that they were buying freedom; freedom from software vendors who push them to make unnecessary business decisions; who push them to upgrade; who dictate what release to upgrade to; and dictate when their software becomes obsolete. They did not appreciate it when the vendor of the software they used was bought by a larger fish and they were left without support and forced to shop for a replacement solution. This is an issue that started affecting large organizations too. 

I realized that a large number of American companies crossed over to open source software when the word Linux started appearing on subscription cards for free IT magazines. This started happening in the last 3 – 4 years and with it, our customer base changed; their requirements changed. They were hiring their own Linux Systems administrators. What they needed from The Linux Box was second and third level support. They needed custom software development and software integration. And we were ready. 

Having been doing this for so many years, we have become the experts at it. We still have a number of drop-ins every week or so. By now, our team has honed the "elevator pitch" to perfection, it is very short – we are expert free-software consultants. And the visitors get it.