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Home automation and networking

A burgeoning field awaits those willing to learn the right stuff.

In my Career Advisor column, in which I answer questions from readers about their IT careers, I sometimes get queries from readers who have a lot of experience in wiring houses and offices for electricity. They have a lot of interest in computers, too, but usually not a lot of experience working with new technology. They ask how they can combine their electrical experience with their technological interests into a new IT career.

I tell them about a growing segment of the sprawling IT world: home technology. I often suggest they find out more about computerized products such as smart security systems and home networks. Instead of running electrical cabling, they can run data and other low-voltage cabling instead.

The home-automation and home-technology segments of the IT world are slowly growing, but I think the rate of growth will start to increase over the next few years. With the threat of terrorism in the back of their minds, more people are interested in staying home these days. Or they want to be able to check in with home base more often while they are on the road.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of technology that people are paying to have installed in their homes these days.

— Security systems with video monitoring capability that you can control via the Web while you’re away from home;

— Programmable thermostats that can sense changes in humidity and temperature within zones and adjust themselves automatically;

— Wireless hot spots that enable some of these devices or even guests to access the Internet;

— Televisions and other video equipment with the Web via a high-speed cable connection.

Planning, specifying, and installing these kinds of advanced technology systems is beyond the scope of what most architects and general contractors attempt to do. However, as clients start asking for home technology, they will be looking for sub-contractors who can do all of these tasks and that’s where people with computer and construction experience can fit in with a little training and experience.

Plus, as the number of installations of home technology and automation products grows, homeowners will need someone who can diagnose, troubleshoot, and fix problems with the systems. Certified, trained and experienced home bug busters will be in high demand.

While the demand for home-networking specialists continues to increase, certifications for these skill sets have not kept pace–until now. CompTIA has developed a new certification–the Home Technology Integrator + (HTI+)–in conjunction with the Internet Home Alliance, a nonprofit consortium of home-automation product vendors. The certification entered beta phase at the end of August 2002. CompTIA expects to have the completed exams available by the end of November.

The HTI+ is tailor-made for anyone who wants to demonstrate their knowledge of how you can put computer technology and computerized systems to work at home. It’s a great opportunity for people with electrical-wiring experience who want to expand their service offerings. It’s also a good opportunity for people with lower-end certifications such as A+ and Net+ who want to develop an area of specialization. Even people with advanced networking certifications and experience might be interested.

The HTI+ is divided into two areas: residential subsystems, and systems infrastructure and integration. The residential subsystems exam covers various home technologies such as computer networking, audio and video, security and access controls, lighting, and telecommunications. The systems infrastructure and integration exam covers structured wiring, user interfaces, and control processors.

The certification is so new that training materials to help people prepare for the exam are still being developed by education training developers and educational publishers. Your best bet is to periodically check the Web sites of companies that develop educational products for CompTIA certifications to see when the HTI+ training products are available. If you have a favorite training vendor, you could e-mail them a query about the training products and ask when they will start selling the products.

DIY research and training

There are a couple of ways you can learn more about home technology in general and study some of the products. One of the best ways to get a lot of information in a few days is to spend some time at the various industry trade shows that cater to the home-automation industry. Walk around, sit in on the demonstrations, and gather product literature.

The Internet Home Alliance is involved in the annual Connections Conference, which is a good place to see a lot of different home-automation technologies in one spot. At the Connections 2002 event in May, for example, CompUSA presented a whole house full of demonstrations, including a wiring closet. You can see the details of what products were included in the demonstration by visiting the CompUSA section of the Connections Web site.

The Consumer Electronics Show is one of the largest trade shows on the planet and always has a lot of products that fall in the home technology category. The show always runs in early January in Las Vegas and 2003 is no exception. It’s a huge show with 100,000 people milling around looking at exhibits and attending conferences, but it’s worth the trip if you want to learn about home technology and products that are going to be available soon.

I mentioned Connections and CES because they are big events that have a lot of home technology exhibits. There are lots of other trade shows and conferences that involve home automation and technology in some way. Products and companies are even showing up at trade events that cater to the building industry. If you can’t afford to travel to a big event, you may be able to learn about some products at your local home show.

Of course, you can always read about home technology from the comforts of your home, either through printed materials or on the Web. Home-improvement magazines periodically spotlight new home technology products. To see a list of these kinds of magazines, visit Homeautomation.org and click on the information resources link.

Once your general research is underway, take the time to make a list of the companies and products you find most interesting or that seem to involve a lot of the skills you already have. For example, if you have a Net+ certification, you might be interested in learning more about home-networking solutions.

Visit the Web sites of the companies you have on your list and find out what kinds of training opportunities they offer. Some of them offer free (or nearly free) training for employees of companies that sell their products. You may also want to check with the companies to find the local dealers for the products and then check with the dealers to see if they are hiring. Even a part-time job with one of these companies would give you valuable experience.

For the next year or so, it’s going to take a lot of DIY work for people who are interested in learning more about home technology services and installation. By this time next year, though, the CompTIA certification will be up and running, and there will be plenty of training materials for the exam. It will be worth the effort that you make now, though, because you’ll be in on the ground floor of a solid IT opportunity.

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