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Network administrators: the new renaissance men

The real deal on college, certification, and networking platforms.

The question network administrators hear most often is, “Do you have any openings?” Demand within this field has expanded steadily since PCs started getting connected in the early 1980s. As a result, comfortable salary and benefits packages continue to be plentiful for those with proven experience. The daily work is challenging and always unpredictable (a characteristic that typically defines the people who enjoy this field).

Networking provides enough diversity to satisfy a wide array of nerdy personalities. In fact, succinctly defining network administration is virtually impossible, because there are so many distinct job functions that are performed under that title–sometimes all by the same person. There are network administrators who perform help-desk functions; others who specialize in data security; technical researchers; project and team coordinators; script and program code developers; server hardware configuration specialists; TCP/IP protocol and routing infrastructure designers; and operating-system administrators.

Perhaps the biggest appeal of network management is that it’s a largely self-managed job. Sure, large corporations and government organizations with multiple levels of management and bureaucracy employ the lion’s share of administrators. Yet day-to-day tasks that fall under the rubric of network administration require a lot of critical, quick decision-making, and the best managers trust their staffs to handle this responsibility without looking over their shoulders.

Everyone entering this field would like to divine the best training path for success. Technical training is important for any IT position, but it may be just as important–at least, in the process of planning training itself–to understand how educational choices play out in the marketplace. College degree or certificate? Broad systems knowledge or a specialty? Windows 2000 or Linux? The following is a brief primer on preparing yourself for a career in the real world of network administration.

(It should be noted that, in addition to working as a corporate network administrator, I also teach classes in an OS administration track leading to MCSE certification. Although I certainly believe the classes I teach are a good part of job preparation for some situations, it would be dishonest to claim that they–or any single training tool–are a panacea.)

What to know to get hired

Can you really get hired without any prior experience? At some point everyone in network administration was inexperienced. Talk to 10 administrators and you could hear 10 very different stories about how they worked into their present knowledge and responsibilities. Admittedly, some did not plan their career path, as such, but rather fell into it. If you don’t want to leave your life to chance, you must make choices, and the best way to do that is through education. This decision is where career planning starts to feel like gambling or fortune telling; there is no universally recognized format for learning this field. This would be simpler if a college degree, or state certifications like those for lawyers, laid down firm rules for what a network administrator is supposed to know. For now, prospective administrators must navigate through a minefield of choices.

College vs. technical training:

One school of thought among IT managers is that given the dynamic nature of network products, job candidates should eschew technical training that focuses on specific skills in favor of general education. On the other hand, there are those who feel a computer-science degree is so general that graduates need to immediately start over to learn current skills in the real world.

Many HR departments automatically reject applicants without degrees. It’s possible to get a job and advance to a certain point without a degree, but you’ll eventually hit a barrier. To anyone who is relatively young and has the opportunity to get a college degree: Do it. Completing college will never be easier than it is when you are starting out. I quit midway through college, but finished later, and it was definitely harder to take night classes while working and raising a family. A college degree may seem a pointless formality next to real-world experience, but it nevertheless is an expectation in our society. A lot of people point out that Bill Gates never finished college–but they should also remember that Bill Gates has never had to interview for a job, either. The reality is that most hiring managers want both a college degree and technical skills. Completing college is only a prerequisite; even after getting a job, you must make constant decisions about which technical skills to acquire.

Ten years ago, deciding whether to pursue certification was a no-brainer; having a Netware CNE turned a résumé into gold. For a while Microsoft’s MCSE had the same power. But there’s been a backlash of late–an attitude that many people had “paper” certifications with no application of real-world (or even hands-on) skill. Most technical classes have no grades, so it’s hard to know whether the certificate-holder even attended an adequate number of classes. Even so, certification remains a necessary qualifier for most people, especially if training counts more than past experience on a job application. The only option is to get the certificate and argue that it does demonstrate your knowledge. It can’t be helped that you may face some skeptics or even critics of the process.

Specialists vs. generalists:

In the early days of networking, one person could command knowledge of virtually all aspects of the field. Some all-purpose nerds could design a LAN; choose and install its components; select, buy, and install workstations and servers; configure and support desktop PCs; set up and administer servers; and write applications to run on the system. If anyone still maintains that top-to-bottom expertise, they can only do so within a narrow universe of products. The field is too broad for a person to thoroughly understand all brands of routers and all computer hardware and operating systems (let alone programming languages).

The technical specialist knows one area so well that he or she can solve problems quicker than anyone else in an organization. Because of their deep knowledge, specialists are valued more highly than run-of-the-mill techies, and paid accordingly. As an area of expertise narrows, however, it becomes less valuable. Specialists whose skill sets involve a particular brand of hardware or software–such as a server OS like Novell Netware–are also dependent on that brand remaining in favor. It’s very hard to break into the field with an extremely tight focus; experts at administering NetBIOS name-resolution on Windows 95 desktop PCs, for instance, will find relatively few job openings. An alternative is to generalize, either horizontally or vertically. The former approach involves learning more than one type of platform, such as server operating systems. Horizontal diversification increases a job candidate’s value because it shows an understanding of the general principles involved in similar platforms, and indicates an ability to adapt to future versions or emerging brands. This capability appeals greatly to employers that run multiple platforms. But acquiring and maintaining expertise in even two operating systems is difficult and expensive. Server operating systems are rapidly broadening in scope–they now include functions such as Web server services and hierarchical storage management–and routers are also becoming more complicated. Most OS certification programs involve six to nine classes, at a cost of at least $5,000 for each program.

Vertical generalists have a solid, top-to-bottom grasp of information-system structure. They may actually be specialists with a general knowledge of components related to their own area, such as a Linux expert who also understands essential principles of other server OSes, network protocols, and routers.

Platform roulette

Most administrators are specialists, to some degree, in a particular platform. But choosing the right one can seem as arbitrary as reading the future in tea leaves. Here’s my take on the status and prospects of some primary platforms:

Novell NetWare: Perhaps the server operating system most familiar to network administrators, Netware dominated the market for more than a decade, and still is used in more than half of American corporations. Novell took the idea of platform certification to new heights with its CNE program. The latest version of the OS, NetWare 5.1, is mature and technically excellent, according to many analysts. Yet Novell is considered a company in decline, due to slipping market share. Training companies report steep declines in demand for CNE training, so administrators sense it is a sinking ship. However, as COBOL programmers learned in the pre-Y2K boom, supporting older systems can be profitable, if not sexy. Some knowledge of NetWare will be valuable for a long time to come, especially for companies that want to convert those legacy servers to something else.

Microsoft Windows NT/2000: As with Netware, perception of a product’s parent company can have more to do with its popularity than with technical merit. Windows NT has been the most popular server OS since the mid-1990s, and Microsoft’s dominance has had much to do with that. A lot of larger companies are making plans to deploy Windows 2000, but are proceeding cautiously. To some degree, they are probably waiting for the next upgrade to Win2K, due later this year–partly to clean up some of its imperfections, but also to see what becomes of the company. Prediction: If the antitrust cloud clears without a Microsoft breakup (President George Bush is believed to side with Gates in the matter), demand for Windows 2000 skills will skyrocket.

Linux: The darling of the technical elite for the past few years has had greater growth in terms of percentage points than any other OS. Linux skills are hot and in great demand. If you want to work for an e-commerce company, this is a good specialty, not only because Linux is widely used but also because it is so integrated with Web services. There are caveats about Linux, however. Large corporations have been very slow to adopt it. This is due in part to their being hidebound dinosaurs, but also because Linux is perceived as a niche tool, well suited to Internet services but not to bread-and-butter tasks such as file- and print-sharing. Justified or not, this perception is a barrier to Linux’s growth. Another, paradoxically, is its open-source environment. Open source is great in theory, but in practice, most companies want one vendor they can look to for support, certification, and future development.

Cisco: Currently the hottest skill and certification in the industry. Cisco routers are everywhere, and have no obvious strong competition in sight. The only warning about getting Cisco’s CCNA or CCNE certifications is that it’s a difficult and expensive process.

Experience shall be served

General network administration involves a fair amount of entry-level work, such as user account administration (i.e., resetting passwords and creating accounts) or monitoring servers. But the network jobs that most people covet involve configuring operating systems and client-server applications; designing subnets and routing; or building new servers. To get to this level, you’ll need experience. High-end network administration requires proven decision-making ability as well as technical expertise; corporate IT staffs are eager to find qualified candidates for critical tasks such as configuring key servers, but not so eager that they are willing to trust raw new hires with such responsibility.

But to gain experience, you need an education, and the best way to get that is by going to school with your eyes wide open and with an informed plan of attack. Carefully consider the present networking environment and market trends, then pick the level of education, and technological platforms, that make the most sense. Network administration is a very rewarding field. Preparing to reap those rewards begins now, in the classroom.

Contributing Editor Joe Rudich joe@rudich.com is a network administrator with the St. Paul Companies in St. Paul, Minn.

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