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Q&A: Jon maddog Hall

We speak to the free software champion about where he thinks the industry is headed.

You came to Europe in June to launch London's Campus Party.  Can you tell us something about thinking behind the event?

Students know a lot less about computers than people did about 20 years ago. Computers have no compiler, no interpreter -  kids just need a web browser. Maybe they know enough HTML to create a web page but that's not really programming.

The basic problem is that universities say their responsibility is to get kids a good job. They teach things like Cisco networking, Nortel telephony, Microsoft and Oracle no-one needs to know machine code. Students have no idea of how a computer works.

I interviewed a programmer who didn't know what a cache was. That's hard to imagine. Our students are smart enough to become brain surgeons and build bridges, yet we're supposed to think they're too stupid to pick up anything more Microsoft Office.

Campus Party is aimed at the sort of people who do know how a computer works. It's aimed at the sort of people who like overclocking CPUs. At a previous Campus Party, there was a kid from Sao Paulo who learned how you could program FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) to produce greater capabilities and he gave a presentation on it. It's not just old greybeards at the event. Students can learn entrepreneurial skills too.

Most of all, it's about getting the right system for you. You should be getting the software to do exactly what you want.

Apart from Campus Party, how else can a young person learn? Are universities teaching the right subjects?

I was talking to a university lecturer who was wrestling with Asterisk (open-source PBX software). He was finding it tough to find the time so I told him "Get your students to do it."

He said no at first and then realised it would work, that the students could learn on the project.

Everything's changing. University lecturers can't know everything any more. In some cases, on some technology, the students will know more. That's all right though. The lecturer's role changes from being a teacher to providing expertise that's the result of years of experience.

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