Frank Ducrest does not have a PhD. He does not produce a lot of research. He describes himself as a "grunt." And yet, he is one of the most popular teachers in computer science, and is the students' go-to guy for technical support; for trouble-shooting open source platforms, he is the first person most people call. ultoday.com visited with him recently.

A person doesn't need to go to college to learn facts. He can get them from books. The value of a liberal arts college education is that it trains the mind to think. If a person has ability, a college education helps develop it.
Albert Einstein (first quote on Frank Ducrest's webpages)


Why did you want to interview me? I view myself as a kind of a grunt.

How so?

Well, I don't make policy. I have fairly unique job where I am both a systems administrator, and an instructor.

Tell us about that.

I teach computing to undergraduate students. When I was hired, UL was looking for someone who could do a variety of different things, a teacher and a systems administrator were the first two. Since then, I've become involved in the ever-increasing demands of accreditation, and I keep in contact with high school teachers and students. That's partly P.R., and partly to help teachers provide a good education in computing to their students, so that they're better prepared when they come here. When I started full-time in 2001, the number of schools with good computing curricula was on the decline. It isn't entirely because of our efforts, but we're seeing more and more students with better backgrounds in computing when they come to us.

What do you do with the high schools?

One of the things I get to do is to coordinate the high school computer programming workshops for teachers, and the Louisiana Computer Programming Classic, a contest for high school students.

Is this statewide?

We get teams from all over Louisiana, and some from Texas. I think we had 4 teams from Texas this year, all from the Houston area.

Some of the things those two activities do-- aside from exhaust everyone (and we enjoy it)-- is that the high school students see that there are other people interested in doing this geek thing called computing. The teachers also get to compare notes to get new ideas, to talk to us and find out what their students are doing, what we can do for them, and what they can tell us.

You are the open source man on campus.

I've been called Johnny Linuxseed because I will provide Linux, any version, at the drop of a hat.

A Red Hat? [Red Hat is a Linux flavor.]

We have a student who owns a red fedora and who wears it to events... needless to say, he's a Linux aficionado.

Explain Linux and the open source movement.

Well, open source is a fairly new way of developing and distributing software. The basic idea is that if I create some software and release it as open source, then someone can use it for their personal benefit, or as part of another programming project. There is probably some element of altruism in this, but it turns out it's a pretty good business model.

Open source is a reaction to large proprietary companies-- the best-known is Microsoft-- but for our students, it is often one of the first exposures to being paid for doing what we do.

It works like this. You need a computer system that does something in particular. I know of an open source product that does a significant amount of what you need. I take that, modify it, add to it, and customize it for your needs. You pay me for my time, I gave you the code.

Because I use an open source code to start, if the software is distributed, my code also becomes open source. Essentially, it's copyright material. Most people who produce open source projects release them under one of the open source licenses-- Open Source Foundation, GNU, Free Software Foundation.

So you can't charge for the software.

You can sell the software... but the code is given away.

So why would someone buy code that is freely available?

There are various answers. Take Linux; it's an open source operating system, like DOS or Unix, that is published in many "flavors," or versions. Although Linux is freely available, there are companies that make a good living supplying Linux to clients. How is this possible?

Say I decide to create a new distribution, a new flavor of Linux. The rules say that I can't not release the code. But what I can do, is sell my technical expertise. Companies often sell agreements for technical support.

An operating system is a complicated piece of software. If you are a company using this complex system, and you need quick answers & adjustments, and customization, you may want to pay someone to supply assistance.

Very complex systems have evolved this way. Linux is one example, Apache web server is another; Apache is still the most popular server software on the Internet. Then there are the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird eMail client, and probably the most popular office suite after Microsoft's, OpenOffice.

What drives this? It's pretty straightforward. As a programmer, you don't have to start from scratch to build something, or to provide the software your client needs. Take the guy in the garage, the famous American inventor. He has a few folks providing a needed software product. In the proprietary world, you can spend many millions of dollars producing software from scratch, or buying someone else's proprietary software, in order to get the product you need.

The propriety companies have produced some good products, but they are not famous for customizing those products to meet individual needs. In contrast, those few guys in the garage-- or even collaborating across the globe via the Internet-- are able to provide that flexibility, by taking something that exists, and adding value to it. This makes it possible for the large cooperative venture that we call open source.

In addition, an awful lot of people want to work for themselves. Look at the number of people who work for proprietary companies such as Microsoft or Oracle or PeopleSoft. There's nothing wrong with those companies, but the simple fact is, a lot of people program software as a creative outlet... that's difficult on the boss's time. So many of them work with open source projects on their own time.

UL is moving more into graduate studies. Talk about undergraduate education.

I really enjoy working in undergraduate education. I work in a department that has many wonderful things going for it. It consists of a bunch of very collegial and highly competent people. It's a department that, since accreditation for computer science departments first began, has never failed to receive a 6-year accreditation, which is the maximum. I work for a boss who accepts input, gives you feedback, who supports you when the going gets rough.

The first thing that UL Computer Science has going for it, in addition to the people and our other strengths, is it just focuses on undergraduate education. We don't teach graduate students unless they're taking undergrad classes.

The second thing is that we're in the same physical area as the Center for Advanced Computer Studies (CACS). That means that when we need someone with expertise in a given area to teach an advanced course for our upper level students, it can happen. If there weren't a graduate program here, this department would not be nearly as successful as it has been.

So we have two faculty: research faculty, teaching faculty. We, the teaching faculty, get to concentrate on being generalists, focusing on the variety of things that students need to know to be computer scientists.

So having a bicameral faculty seems to be ideal.

Yes. We are fortunate enough that we can maintain two faculties.

But it's not that simple. Most people talk about undergraduate education as if it's one thing. If you want to offer piano lessons as part of a music program, you basically have to choose between putting a bunch of people in a keyboard lab, with one teacher-- that's OK for a beginner-- but for a piano major, you need that student involved with an instructor, and no one else in the room.

If you want to teach a class where you have a discussion of great literature, and you have students without an extensive background, having 4 or 5 people in the class won't work, you won't get a discussion going. But it also won't work if there are 50 or 60. You want to have 20, or 25 at the most.

If you want to turn out good quality computing, yes, you can start with 50 to 60 people in a room. But if you want to teach good quality senior level projects, you can't have that many.

So a general discussion of undergraduate education is difficult. Because what you need to teach, and what you have to teach, all come into play. Undergraduate education at public institutions will always be a compromise.

Explain systems administration.

In some ways it's the most boring part of the job. I maintain the undergraduate labs, which means that once or twice a year we strip the machines completely, and rebuild them. Things change rapidly, and these machines are getting a bit older. The only way we can keep them going is to start from scratch. We're hopeful that we can replace these machines this fall.

I also maintain all the office computers here, all the systems in them, the file servers for the labs and the offices. I maintain a web server for the department, I make sure things get backed up, and so on.

It's something I'm able to do as part of my job only because a lot of the issues of normal system administration are taken care of by CACS. As a systems administrator, I find I'm more into virtualization than supercomputing... supercomputing is nice, but we don't have the hardware.

One of the things that has been my pet project is to get as much software to our undergraduates as possible, by creating 100% open source virtual machines.

Explain what that means.

In their very first course, students will get a virtual machine on a CD. They'll get Ubuntu [a Linux flavor] loaded with lots of stuff, set up for software development: C++, Java, Alice, Squeak, lots and lots of tools. They can take those and copy them onto their personal computers. They get a free player, and it's a second operating system on their computer.

Most of these kids come in with a weak Windows background, and we try to expose them to other operating systems. We expect them to work on Unix, Linux, Microsoft, a variety of operating systems and tools.

The only way you can do this is with virtual machines. My hope with the new machines is to have more than two operating systems.

Your father [the late Willis Ducrest] taught music here. Are you a musician?

I grew up being closely related to the School of Music. I had the privilege of driving a piano teacher crazy for 12 years, Mrs. Ballard. Wonderful teacher, very patient, I was just a terrible pianist.

I played string bass in the West Australian Symphonic Orchestra in Perth for four years from '74 to '78. We played 104 non-repeated programs per year, maybe 180 performances total.

Your father taught here, you grew up here, you went to school here. What makes UL what it is?

What makes UL special to me... what's not to like?

I get to teach, I get to create new classes. What person with a masters' degree gets to create new courses? My opinions are respected among the other faculty. They're just nice folks, and they're supremely competent. I get to work with all kinds of equipment, install all kinds of software, and play with it. I get to work with high school teachers and students. I run an event that is 90% volunteer labor by computer science students, and I've never not had enough volunteers. Again, what's not to like?

UL allows this department to exist, and wants it to exist. CACS, Computer Science, there is no earthly reason why, back when all of this was put together from Dr. Oliver's original efforts, that we couldn't have ended up with a bachelors' and a masters' degree, all being taught by the same 5 people.

This is a public university, in a state that is not known for funding public universities. There is no reason for a separate undergraduate department to exist, except for the fact that it is here at UL. I can't think of anyone else in the state of Louisiana who is doing what we do at the undergraduate level.

UL is just different. In the 1960s, this University put on two grand opera a year, and did summer stock musicals. From my perspective, we have a history of doing things that you probably wouldn't expect to happen at a public university.

This is a place where you can have the opportunity to do things. I have seen different areas of the world, lived in different countries, and I can truthfully tell you that I've always considered myself blessed to be here.

When my wife and I returned to Lafayette in 1984, I thought that someday I would like to teach here at UL. I thought I would never have the opportunity.

But I did, and I've never regretted it.