Karl Fischer used his passion for open source to change lives across the continent

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The CTO’s introduction to Linux became the gift that kept on giving.

Karl Fischer’s introduction to the world of IT dates back to high school when his father handed him a book on Linux, an open-source operating system. “All my father said to me when he gave me the book was that this would be a big technology one day,” he says. And on his 18th birthday, Karl decided to really immerse himself in this world of Linux and dedicate most of spare time in trying to understand it. He did more research on the best companies in this realm and came across Obsidian Systems.

Karl took a gap year after completing matric, and a year later, he tried to look for a job, which proved to be harder than he anticipated. “I eventually ended up becoming a dishwasher at a restaurant, my first taste of the real world,” he says. But during his hard graft in the kitchen, Karl caught wind of an opportunity to become a junior technician at a particular company. He was relentless and called the company almost every day to secure an interview, he says.

“The role itself wasn’t particularly glamorous; they were merely looking for someone to fix PCs, but my intent was to pursue a career in open-source and Linux technologies,” Karl explains. “What was quite clear was that I would need the necessary training and certification to get me to that point.

“The fact is that nobody will hire you if you don’t have either experience or a qualification behind your name,” he says.

Karl later joined DireqLearn as a system administrator and developer, where he had the opportunity to do open-source work with schools across the continent. “As such, I travelled to Nigeria, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where we did the main deployments of open-source in schools and built Linux distribution for schools,” says Karl.

“At the time, Europe was experiencing huge issues with landfills and recycling. So it was easier for them to essentially dump their technology in Africa – we saw this as an opportunity – refurbish the computers that were discarded and put them in schools,” he continues. “It was actually cheaper to refurbish these computers than recycle them in Europe.”

According to Karl, this created an opportunity to put open-source (operating systems) in the hands of these much-deserving children, who would in turn copy, share with their friends, and build stuff. In fact, this is something that remains quite close to his heart: teaching people the value of open-source technologies.

A few years prior to him joining Obsidian, Karl worked for the Innovation Hub in Pretoria. “It was in the late 2000s, where I worked with a company called AgileWorks that focused on agile technologies, which was an incredible experience. I then joined the Department of Science and Technology as Assistant Director: Open Source Project Manager to drive open-source adoption and policy,” he says.

However, things weren’t moving at a pace that he would have preferred, and this is what makes working in the private sector slightly more appealing, according to him. “The allure of a start-up is that you need to innovate in order to generate revenue or survive as a company. Working for the government was a complete change of pace for me,” he notes. He was eventually approached by Obsidian, the very same company he initially wanted to work for some years earlier, and where he is currently their CTO.

What Karl finds most fulfilling about working at Obsidian is the culture. He says that the people he works with are quite amazing. “We dream up such incredible ideas as a team. We are progressive thinkers, and it’s like we’re living in the future,” he says.

In addition, the company, he says, is run like a meritocracy: if your argument has merit there, it is allowed to be heard, and titles are not glorified.

The SMARTER framework

As far as projects are concerned, Karl has had his fair share of successful projects, namely the work he has done with open-source across the continent. But he is not naive to the possibilities of failure or a project not going as planned. In fact, the Obsidian team has a system in place to solve problems called the SMARTER framework, which stands for strategy, mapping, architecture, risk, tooling, execution and reflection:

  • Strategy: When things go wrong, your strategy is most probably at fault: the best way to approach a problem is to start with the strategy. What is the big picture goal?
  • Mapping: This entails looking at the technologies, the people and all the moving parts involved, and mapping them out.
  • Architecture: This is where things naturally start to build themselves, certain aspects that lean towards specific areas, including the people involved.
  • Risks: Where things generally go wrong, and these risks are usually measurable (e.g., skills shortage, lack of time or resources).
    Tooling: Once you understand all the other elements, you now look at the tooling (technology), the tools available to mitigate those risks.
  • Execution: It is quite nice to talk about your plans, but if you don’t execute them, then you’re just another talk shop.
  • Reflection: This could also be interpreted as ROI, but reflection is a better word because it allows you to assess the strategy, mapping, architect, risk, tooling, and execution. And ask yourself; Am I delivering on what I was supposed to be delivering on, cognisant of how people feel, spending the money in the right place or dedicating enough time? It is also some level of self-reflection by asking oneself the hard questions.”

In his spare time, Karl enjoys reading books on individual routines. He recommends Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. “Mason maps out the daily rituals of different people. I enjoy reading books on self-help or personal improvement,” he says.

He also enjoys listening to music, but prefers alternative music, and is currently listening to a playlist called New Latitudes on Apple Music, which is a blend of electronic, indie, and experimental jazz music.

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