Becoming a Linux Guru
So you want to become a Linux guru? This article is aimed at the intermediate to advanced Windows user who wants to try Linux, not the casual user. If you are a beginner to Windows, learn that thoroughly first, don’t try to bite off more than you can chew too fast. The first thing you will need is a driving desire to learn. Not learn quickly, or easily, but to really learn, thoroughly. Linux is not for the casual PC user, at least not yet. It is much harder to learn than Windows or MacOS, unless a guru does the installation and setup for you, and even then, it’s still hard. You have to be willing to read, and do your own research. You cannot learn Linux by pointing and clicking and figuring things out by the seat of your pants. You have to dig deep into the configuration files and learn non-intuitive commands, and be willing to read large amounts of fairly boring technical documentation. Most of your knowledge of Windows will not translate to Linux, you will find yourself thoroughly confused more often than not. If you don’t know what RAM is, or what a hard drive is, Linux is probably not for you. Basic hardware knowledge is invaluable, especially on an OS as complex as Linux. If you feel you’re competent enough and ready for the leap, you too can become a Linux guru.
There are countless articles on learning available easily from a simple Google search so I won’t go into the minute details here, but there are a few things you should know. Devote time to your learning. Even if you don’t have a specific goal that you need to reach on your Linux system, spend time reading. There are many websites available that have literally thousands of documents about the Linux OS. Plan to spend at least 30 minutes a day of just general reading about various pieces of Linux. If you are serious about being a guru, you’ll spend even more time reading up on it, and the myriad pieces of software that make up the modern Linux distro. It takes incredible self discipline to reach guru status. You have to be willing to take charge of your time, assign yourself tasks, and follow them through to completion. You have to be serious in your commitment, and willing to do what
it takes to reach that coveted “guru” status.
Use two computers. The only way to really learn Linux is to use it. The best way is to devote a computer to it. Casual users can choose to install Linux onto an existing Windows machine, but it’s much harder to learn this
way. You will constantly find yourself going back into Windows to look up a small detail that has you stumped, or to find a resource on something you don’t quite understand. Have your trusty Windows machine up and running, and connected to the internet, then install Linux onto a second machine. I don’t recommend you use a laptop, the hardware in most laptops is not as well supported as most desktop hardware, so it means more confusion for you. You can use an older lower powered computer for learning, Linux happily runs on some of the oldest equipment. My suggestion is to use a computer with a Pentium class or better CPU, at least 32 megabytes of RAM, and a hard drive of at least 5 gigabytes. I highly recommend you use a KVM switch, it connects your monitor, keyboard and mouse to 2 computers, allowing you to easily switch between them, and saving you from the expense of a second monitor while you are learning.
Choose your distro. Linux comes in many flavors, collectively known as distros. Redhat, Debian, Slackware, and Gentoo, are just a few of the more popular choices. For a new user I recommend going with Redhat Linux. It’s very widely used, has a good install system and support is generally easy to find. Most Linux gurus graduate to more specialized distros with time, but virtually all of the older gurus started on Slackware or Redhat. Redhat Linux has commercial support available, and a large selection of books and online resources out there to learn from. Ultimately you should read up on the internet, and go with whatever distro you think would fit your needs based on that reading.
Get a book. This step is optional, as you don’t need a book to learn Linux, there are huge amounts of information available online for free. Some people like having the book as a reference, especially for their first foray into the Linux OS. I’ve heard good things about “Linux Unleashed” which includes a copy of Redhat Linux. It’s a bit expensive, but if you are the type of person that likes the physical reality of a book, as well as being able to read away from the monitor, this is a good one to start with. Stay away from the “Dummies” or “Idiot” books, they are aimed at casual users and will just tend to give you enough info to hang yourself. If you have one of these books already, that’s fine, but be aware they are very general guides and not really detailed enough to get you to even fledgling “guru” status.
Install Linux. You have a couple of choices here, if you went the book route, you probably got a CD with Linux on it. If you didn’t buy the book, you might consider buying a commercial copy of Linux, which usually comes with at least an installation manual. For the truly courageous (or the really poor), you can actually download and burn a copy of Linux yourself, without having to buy anything. Linux is free to the world, and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that get put into a traditional commercial OS like Windows or MacOS. The distros have come a long way with their installers in recent years, but it’s still not as pretty as Windows or MacOS. With your second computer running Windows, and an active internet connection, you have access to a lot of information and resources. I highly recommend using The Linux Documentation Project (www.tldp.org), as well as the website for whatever distro you chose (www.redhat.com). There are installation guides for your chosen distro available from the main website, as well as more general FAQs and HOWTOs available from an easy search of Google. The installers will usually give you defaults that are sane, so you can get a working system in fairly short order. Don’t get discouraged by hardware issues you may encounter, be dedicated to figuring it out, using resources you find through web searches.
Play with the installed system. Now the real learning starts. You sit staring at the login screen and wonder just what you’re supposed to do next. Give yourself homework. Decide you’re going to get some particular piece of software working, like the apache web server, or the Xwindows GUI. Xwindows makes Linux more like Windows, giving you a more familiar feel, and I highly recommend using it while you are learning. Spend as much time as you need on each project you assign yourself, and use online resources to research solutions to whatever problems you encounter. If some particular assignment gets you frustrated, take a break, work on something else, or get away from Linux entirely for a bit. Push yourself to excellence, not just an installation that “works,” or one that is “adequate.” Whenever you need to make a change to a config file, make a copy of it BEFORE you change it, so you can revert back to the original easily. Make one change at a time, and don’t be afraid to make multiple backups as you change things, they will save you time.
Find other Linux users. Real people you can talk with about Linux will help immensely. There are many Linux User Groups out there, called LUGs. Search for one in your area and attend a couple of meetings. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is an invaluable tool you can use to get advice and help from other Linux users and gurus, in real time. There are many windows clients available for IRC, and most of the popular IRC networks have Linux orientated chat channels where you can ask questions and get advice from people immediately. These people usually do this sort of tech support for free, so be patient, and appreciative. Research your problem first, through online resources first, because they will know if you tried to find the answer on your own and will resent you if you aren’t willing to at least try. Be aware you must have a thick skin on IRC, as established Linux gurus or power users sometimes forget just how overwhelming it is, to be new to Linux. You might consider spending time on IRC chatting about Linux before you even decide which distro to use. I use IRC quite a bit, as I believe there is no better way to learn than to interact with your peers. They can give you advice and ideas that you never even imagined in your wildest dreams. I think IRC is one of the best resources available to someone who wants to reach that exalted “guru” status.
Learn how to use Google. Google web searches are something you’ll spend a lot of time doing. Learn the advanced searching techniques, and use them. Google has documentation available, read it, and put it to use. Don’t expect to find something on the first try, or even the third try. Keep refining your searches, read some of the hits, and go back and refine your search more. This kind of strategy alone will allow you to learn much more quickly than the “average” user. Using Google is an art as well as a science and you have to practice at it before you become adept. Don’t skip this part, because it will make all the rest easier in the longrun.
Dedicating yourself to the mastery of Linux will enrich your technical knowledge as well as possibly leading to a great career that will allow you to earn good money. Linux skills are highly sought after, and the better you learn now, the more money you’re liable to make in the future. If you’re serious about becoming a guru, and you push yourself everyday to attain that goal, you will. It will take time, and hard work, and probably more reading than you ever thought you’d do outside of school, but the results will be well worth it.