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Open-source or proprietary technology: A career advice.

Decisions, decisions, decisions – Why do our education systems not teach us how to make proper decisions for our own future’s sake? After over two decades in the IT sector, I can say there is a decision every newcomer to the IT sector should consider: Should I focus on open-source or proprietary technologies?

Before I get into details, I will break down what the difference between open source and proprietary technology is.

What is open-source technology?

One thing I always loved about software is the altruism in the early years. Very smart people, who created solutions to problems for the sake of satisfaction and a smile on their faces when seeing the theory working. The inventor makes the technology available to everyone in the hope of wide application. Another benefit of publicly available technology is, that it allows other people to contribute to the solution which makes the solution even better. A classic win-win situation!

Typical examples are Linux, MySQL, Node.js, and Docker.

What is proprietary technology?

On the other hand, big companies sometimes take the gamble and try to establish technology in the market that is not publicly available. The advantage for the company is, that it can demand payments to issue a license that allows using the technology.

Proprietary technology doesn’t necessarily follow trends as fast as open-source software does, as its reason to exist is defined by the number of clients who are willing to pay for it.

Typical examples are Microsoft Windows, Adobe Photoshop, and WinRAR.

Why is it important to choose?

The choice of technology is crucial for everyone’s career in the IT sector. Companies usually not only focus on the university degree but more and more on the experience a candidate has with the required technology. This is because the more experience a candidate has with a technology, the faster the candidate could contribute to the company as the training time is reduced. Additionally, companies tend to increase the salary based on experience as the candidate is able to influence & teach the employees with less experience.

Should you consider open-source or proprietary?

A career with open-source technologies has the benefit that it allows one to deal with new technologies on a frequent basis. I remember in my early days, I created a website using HTML and a text editor only. Seeing the required skills for website development now, working in this field is exciting as there is always a “cool” and new technology that can be played with.

Proprietary technology doesn’t have this edge and can therefore appear “old fashioned” and “dusted”. But as I mentioned earlier, is proprietary technology not dependent on trends but on market demand. That means, companies will continue to hire employees with experience in proprietary technologies even though the technology was created years or decades ago. A great example of this is COBOL which was created in 1959 and continued to have a high job demand until the early 2000s.

Additionally to the longevity of proven proprietary technology, another benefit is the availability of skilled experts. Proprietary technology is normally not available for free as a license must be purchased first. That means, that people with a new interest in IT will focus and build skills with publicly available open-source technologies first. This is a natural barrier that limits the availability of experts in the job market. That in turn is a factor that guarantees job security. Companies tend to invest in their employees more as it is more difficult to find a replacement than in the job market for open-source technologies.