Work Hard, But Have Fun

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Name: James Steven Austin

Certs: A+, Network+, i-Net+, Server+, MCP, MCSE+I (NT4.0), MCSA and MCSE on W2K, 5 HP/Compaq ASEs, 3 HP/Compaq Master ASEs, HP STAR, Lifetime F.C.C. General Class License, various hardware vendors and warranty certifications

Home: Broomfield, Colo.

Position: Senior National Technical Support Engineer, Northrop Grumman IT

Words To Learn By: “If you can play at your work, why change it?”


When it comes to career choices, James Steven Austin’s suggestion is for everyone to find out what they’re happiest doing and then pursue it. He said, “If it’s not IT, don’t do it. But if you love IT and enjoy it, then go for it.”

Austin didn’t have a hard time choosing the career he wanted to pursue. Almost 27 years ago, Austin’s hobby became his career when he joined the Air Force. Austin had already been building computer-based circuits for fun before he entered the Air Force. Once he joined he had the chance to do what he loves, programming. Other than his work on IBM 360s, Austin couldn’t say much about what he worked on while on duty. “A lot of what I worked with is still classified, even this many years later,” he said.

With Austin’s highly classified beginnings in the computer industry, along with his work as a network consultant and master technician, he was able to obtain a job at Northrop Grumman IT – CIS, a company that delivers solutions for strategic systems; missile defense; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; homeland security; command and control; and technical services and training. He currently works as a senior national technical support engineer in Lafayette, Colo.

Along with his IT experience, Austin believes it was his certifications that sealed the deal in 1998, when he landed the position he has now. “I could not have gotten the job that I got with Northrop unless I had already had my Windows NT 4.0 MCSE,” he said. “They would have not interviewed me.”

In 1975 when Austin first started playing with computers, there wasn’t a certification buzz like there is in the computer industry today. Yet, he can’t see making it as far as he has in his career without having certifications. “For what I do, experience and certification, hand and hand, work well together. If you have the certification but not the experience, that’s not good,” Austin said. Austin believes that “some doors are not opened unless you have certification.”

Since receiving his first IT certification, the A+, in the mid ’90s Austin has become a whiz at passing certification exams. Austin remembers that when he took his exam for the Windows 95 Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification, he was under a lot of pressure.

Austin was taking the MCP exam to get the position as senior technician in a company he had been working for. The Windows 95 MCP certification had become a requirement for the job. After more than 40 people in the company took the test and failed it, Austin was one of the people selected to take classes at the corporate headquarters in Texas. He was scheduled to be in Texas at the same time his family had planned to visit from out of town.

Late in the day on a Friday he found out that if he took the test the following Monday he wouldn’t have to fly to Texas and ruin his family’s trip. “On Friday afternoon I bought a book, spent the entire weekend studying and went and took the test Monday morning,” he said. “I think you had to have a 760 or something to pass it, and I got a 940.”

Although Austin was able to pass the exam with only a weekend to study, he wouldn’t recommend this type of risky studying to just anyone. He thinks that those in the IT field should develop a habit of studying and that they definitely should not make a habit of studying at the last minute. He advises anyone considering certification to take the exam “when you’re comfortable that you know the material.”

Austin said his most challenging exams have been the Compaq Accredited Systems Engineer (ASE) exams. “I’d say they’ve been some of the harder ones,” he said. His next exam will be the HP Integrated Management exam. “It pulls together BMC Patrol, it pulls together CA Unicenter, SMS, Insight Manager, HP OpenView—all that in one test,” he said. “That’s looking like it’s going to be my toughest one yet.”

Since earning his first MCP certification, Austin has passed more than 50 IT certification tests because he likes the challenge. His ability to pass exams so easily could be a combination of his IQ score of 181 and his continuous effort to learn new things in the IT field.

“I’m one of those people that if I’m between calls or between jobs with our company, I will always have something with me to read to improve myself.” Austin believes that “most people who want to get certified aren’t willing to develop the habits that will get them long-term certified and keep them on a certification track. But if you spend at least one night a week, two to three hours that night studying specifically for something to advance yourself, you will walk and leave anyone that is currently your peer.”

Austin’s favorite study method is going to IT boot camps. He feels that his broad base of knowledge in the IT field makes the experience and results lasting. “If I can slam something together real quickly in a boot camp,” he said, “I can get it done. I can have everything that I need and move on.”

Austin wouldn’t disagree that a bigger paycheck is a motivating factor to getting certified, but he also feels that being certified has a benefit that is priceless.

“I think that the thing that [certification] helps me with more is my self-confidence level. The fact that I’ve passed so many exams—I know I know my stuff,” said Austin. “I can go into any environment, any job and feel confident that even if I don’t know exactly what I have to know for that particular job, I know where to find it. By the time I arrive on-site, I can be the expert.”

When Austin is not working on achieving more certifications or spending time with his wife Karmen and his two children Jacob and Ruth, he has another skill that he calls fun. He puts together jigsaw puzzles. Just like the energy he puts into computers, jigsaw puzzles have become a sport for Austin. He has gone to the National Jigsaw Championship in Athens, Ohio, and competed in putting together 100-piece jigsaw puzzles back-to-back in less than four minutes. “I’ve always just enjoyed logic-type problems or even visual-type projects, and puzzles tend to be a little bit of both of those,” he said.

Besides wanting to obtain more certifications, especially those related to security, Austin is satisfied with where he’s at in his career. At age 44, he said, “A little more money every now and then is nice,” but he likes what he does. “I don’t know if I really want to be in management, that can be big headaches,” Austin explained. “This is like a hobby for me, and if you can play at your work, why change it?”

Tanisha Blakely is editor of electronic media for Certification Magazine. She can be reached at


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