At the age of 10, Matt Hiltner took on his first IT job as one of the “computer boys” in Mrs. Turek’s sixth-grade class. Little did he know that this foray into technology would ultimately shape his future. It just took a while to get there.
Hiltner went on to study photography and accounting in college, but he failed to find his passion in either discipline. It wasn’t until he was working as plant manager at Step Industries, a cardboard company, that Hiltner unwittingly fell back into IT. His boss asked him to grow the company’s technology platform, which then consisted of a laptop and an inkjet printer, into a full-fledged, five-person workstation with a server.
During his 15-year tenure at Step Industries, Hiltner used his spare time to develop a personal Web site called “Miscellaneous Debris,” on which he and his friends posted jokes and pictures to pass the time. But once he realized the large amount of traffic the site was getting, Hiltner decided it was cheaper to begin hosting it himself.
“I picked up a couple of workstations, turned them into servers and did my own hosting,” he said. “That was me getting involved in networking technologies. One thing led to another, and I started hosting for multiple people. And that’s that.”
With no formal computer training, Hiltner made the transition from hosting Web sites to servicing networks. As a result, OliveJar PC and Network Services was born.
“I didn’t contact anybody to set things up for me or fix my problems,” said Hiltner, owner and president of OliveJar. “I sat down and figured it out myself. I read what I needed to read, went through manuals or picked up books from the library. With [this] massive amount of information floating around in my head, I decided to see if I couldn’t make a dime off of it. That’s when I started up OliveJar as a full-fledged networking servicing business.”
Hiltner has about 24 clients in and around the Chicago area. His job is about as conventional as his path to networking was. The only typical thing about his workweek is a morning cup of coffee and dinner at 8 p.m. Everything in between is up in the air.
“Rarely do I have two days that are the same,” Hiltner said. “I get up and usually I’ve got an e-mail sitting in my inbox saying: ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem. What do you think?’ Usually it’s something that I can guide them through via e-mail or a quick phone call. Sometimes it’s not, and it involves me either connecting remotely to their servers or actually going on-site [to deal] with the problem. That’s how it starts, and that’s how it goes all day.”
Because his clients are geographically dispersed, Hiltner can end up spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in his car fighting Chicago traffic, driving as many as 400 miles in one week.
“There are days when I wake up in the morning and I’ve got a panicked phone call because someone up in Gurnee has their server down. So I drive all the way up to Gurnee, which is an hour-and-a-half drive,” he explained. “I get up there, and halfway through that project, I’ve gotten a phone call saying: ‘Hey, we’ve got an issue where employees are not able to connect remotely to the server in Joliet,’ so I’ll need to drive out to Joliet.”
But this laid-back network administrator takes it all in stride. He tackles any number of issues from troubleshooting to network security and sometimes dabbles in computer hardware.
One of the most common issues Hiltner encounters is VPN (virtual private networking) connectivity problems, especially in today’s workplace, where many employees are working remotely and offices are decentralized.
“With VPNs going down, you need to start to wonder why,” he explained. “You just start at the source and work your way up through the list of variables that are involved in the situation.”
Hiltner believes network administrators need to know how IP technologies work and how certain protocols operate, but they also need to be able to step back and look at the big picture.
“The key to being a good network administrator, whether it’s a small network or a massive network, is being able to look past the problem, see the big picture and run through a list of variables in your head,” he said. “Let’s just take e-mail for example: If a user cannot connect to the server to get their e-mail, there could be 25 different reasons why that person can’t connect. You need to know what’s going on on-site to start picking away and reduce those 25 down to 20 down to 10. If you don’t have the ability to pull all those pieces together in your head, you’re going to end up with angry employees, an angry boss or angry clients.”
The Road Less Traveled
Hiltner graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in business management and accounting. He has a certification from WatchGuard in network protection, but none of the traditional certifications. Why?
“I suppose as an employee or an intended employee, the certification is probably a nice thing to have, but it’s been my experience that certifications are like a driver’s license: Just because you have one doesn’t mean you know how to operate the car properly,” he said. “It’s on-the-job experience, it’s actually getting out there and doing it and using the knowledge that you have that is more important than a certification or a diploma.”
Yet Hiltner said if he had the opportunity to do it over, he’d probably get Cisco-certified.
“I would take the certification for the knowledge more so than for the actual certification,” he said. “Even if I didn’t take the test, just sitting down and reading through books or taking a couple of courses to lead to the certification would be more valuable to me than the actual certification.”
That’s because some of the most important skills needed to succeed as a network administrator are learned on the job.
“You need to be able to communicate,” Hiltner said. “This would apply regardless of what role this network administrator is in, whether it’s someone like me who’s a freelance network administrator or you’re a network administrator for the largest conglomerate on the globe. You need to know how to listen to people’s problems, understand what the problem is and be able to communicate to that person what it would take to fix that problem.”
The Future of Network Administration
According to a recent study by Cisco on networking job roles, employers are looking for network administrators with experience in security, risk management and monitoring network performance, as well as troubleshooting and system management. These same areas are where employers are seeing skills gaps.
“The areas are becoming more important just because of the way the network is evolving,” said Christine Yoshida, senior manager of Learning@Cisco’s product management team. “And security is becoming more and more embedded in the network.”
Carol Norrington, a network support professional at Harris-Stowe State University, said security has become a vital part of her job, so she will be pursuing a security certification after she completes her Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certifications.
“We’re a public four-year institution,” Norrington said. “We have to protect the students, the faculty and other members from some of the things that are out on the Internet. We have to be ahead of the game. We’re just trying to make sure that we are not attacked and, if we are, that we are able to handle it.”
Because of the emphasis on security and wireless, Norrington believes the demand for network administrators will only grow.
“For this institution, nonprofit institutions and corporations, security and wireless have been major pieces of networking,” she said. “Anyone who might be starting in technology, the security and wireless areas [are] really good for them to go into right now.”
As employers look for specialized candidates, the role of network administrator may subtly change during the next five years.
“We think employers will be looking for [specialization] in wireless and voice,” Yoshida said. “And then there are places in the network where we may need administrators to specialize. It might not be the case today, but over the next five years, you’re going to see more and more demand for people who are specialized.”
– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, firstname.lastname@example.org