EXECUTIVES and NETWORK ADMINISTRATORS:
Sharing Insights for Successful Hiring
In order to better understand what information technology executives are looking for from the network administrators they hire—and what those network administrators want from their employers, we hand-picked a select group of high-level IT executives—VPs of IT and CIOs—and their network administrators and asked. We wanted to find out what CIOs expect in terms of networking skills and training. Then we asked the network administrators what career guidance they seek from their organization's leadership.
Here's what we learned:
With the growing complexity in technology—particularly in networking—the most successful network administrators are those who can maintain both a full understanding of general technologies that make up the whole of the network infrastructure as well as command an area of specialty. As David Parsons, a network administrator at Virgin Entertainment puts it, you must be "a jack of all trades and master of one."
What does this mean for top-level hiring managers and job candidates? For CIOs, it means finding network administrators who have an innate intellectual curiosity that drives them to want to learn about new technologies. Additionally, it is valuable for these professionals to have an understanding of the business context in which their organization and its network operates. That way, as the technology and the business evolve, the network administrators can constantly add to their capabilities, and maintain their understanding of how all facets of the network fit together.
What are the implications for certification? Those we interviewed stressed that certification is most effective when combined with a broader understanding of the business issues that drive the IT requirements. So, in addition to feeding one's curiosity for technology topics, it is also critical that the IT professional explore and understand the evolving needs of the business.
Ultimately, clear communication is critical between high-level IT executives and network administrators. As our interviewees note, IT executives should offer insight about the company’s needs and the network administrator’s opportunities. The network administrator should exhibit a keen sense of curiosity about technology while maintaining grounding in specific capabilities.
These are the individuals who contributed their insights:
Virgin Megastores: Retail arm of Virgin Entertainment
Robert Fort, CIO
David Parsons, Network Administrator
SBLI USA: Financial services firm using e-commerce to serve value-conscious consumers.
Paul Capizzi, Vice-President of IT
Jeffrey Gonzalez, Senior Network Administrator
Medicis: Leading independent pharmaceutical company providing dermatological, podiatric and aesthetics medicine.
Ralph Loura, Senior Vice-President of IT
Jon Fendenheim, Manager of Infrastructure Services
Robert Fort, CIO, Virgin Entertainment
What kind of people are you looking to hire?
IT is full of different personalities. That’s certainly true for the network administrator role. You have wild and woolly types who love to put out fires and are resistant to standardizing processes. You have a calmer type whose objective is to make IT predictable by establishing policies and procedures. At Virgin, we’re moving from our cowboy phase into our more predictable phase.
Three years ago, when we were grappling with an immature infrastructure, we needed guys who would crawl through anywhere to find the cables that were causing problems. Once the system got stabilized, the 80/20 rule kicked in—it took 80% of our time buttoning down the last 20% of the issues. We still have server crashes—those things happen even in a perfect world. These days we have people who are well-suited for our situation. They can deal with the fires, but they also likes things buttoned
down. They have very clean desks.
Network administrators need to be proficient not just about the network, but also knowledgeable about the applications running over the network. In a mature IT organization, IT has to recognize that its real job is understanding the business impact of everything it does. I need folks who understand that they’re not just fixing a router, that what they're doing can effect the productivity of the rest of the company. I’ve had administrators who installed a patch and wanted to immediately reboot the server in the middle of the day. I have to remind them that that will cause problems for the people accessing data."
How can network administrators be of more value to the company?
They have to be interested in learning because technology is always changing. Even though we don’t have a formal program for continuing education, I do put something into my budget for training. And our team has to be willing to do a lot of cross-training.
David Parsons is both a systems and a network administrator. He has Microsoft skills, and he is working on his Cisco skills. This is important, because all too often, I see people who only have single-area skills resort to finger-pointing and what I call “a cubicle mentality.” We only have seven people in our department, so roles have to blend and blur to make sure the systems remain up and running.
David Parsons, Network Administrator, Virgin Entertainment
How can CIOs be of help in providing career guidance to network administrators regarding their career path?
I need to know what new and existing technologies I should
learn and pursue training in with regard to the services and technology that the
company supports. I was hired by Virgin
Entertainment because of my MCSE certification and my many years of professional
experience supporting Microsoft technologies. I had gained much experience with
Cisco technologies while consulting professionally and when working for other
Soon after I came aboard, Virgin's on-site Cisco administrator
was let go, and I was asked if I thought I could handle supporting the entire
company's network of Microsoft and Cisco systems, which I've been doing solely
ever since. My CIO was kind enough to offer me a few weeks of Cisco training
annually so I could polish up my Cisco skills. From there it became a goal to obtain Cisco certification. I've recently completed training for the CCNA, and intend to pursue a CCNP as well. Achieving Cisco
certification will compliment my Microsoft certification and, besides making me a
more well rounded technician, will help make me more marketable as a
network/system administrator in the future.
What characteristics do network administrators need?
I agree that you have to have intellectual curiosity. When you face a new technology, you have to get your feet wet. You have to have a good fundamental understanding of the systems and software that you’re dealing with, but you need to master your primary responsibilities as well.
I believe that a desire to learn more, a strong attention to
detail (with a certain level of perfectionism), and a sense of responsibility for
the network one supports are all characteristics that a network administrator
should possess. By taking responsibility, I mean having the desire to do
whatever it takes, day or night to keep your network stable and all systems you
support functioning properly.
The IT industry is so dynamic, that if one's skills aren't up
to date with current software releases or next generation hardware, it's very
easy to get left behind. It can be a challenge to get familiar and gain experience
with technology that one doesn't have access to at one's workplace, so it may take some initiave to get trained. I
believe it's important to stay motivated and have an intellectual
curiosity when it comes to learning new technology. Often that means spending time after work studying. I think of it as an investment.
Paul Capizzi, Vice-President of Information Technology, SBLI USA
What kind of people are you looking to hire?
In terms of skills, we look for a lot. Our priorities constantly shift, sometimes radically, and we really need people who can wear different hats, who have multiple skills. But, at the same time, we need people who are well-grounded in technology. That’s because over time, someone’s job description is always going to evolve into something different. One of my network administrators, Jeffrey Gonzalez, is doing work that’s not on his job description, because I can’t keep up with the changes in what he does, what he needs to do for us. It’s sometimes difficult when you want to promote someone, because they’re doing three jobs, and you have to figure out what to put on their business card.
How can network administrators be of more value to the company?
It’s increasingly important for our people to have both vertical and horizontal knowledge. At the same time, it’s hard to find those well-rounded individuals who are aggressive self-learners. They need to keep their vertical strength, but at the same time they need to be involved in all aspects of the technology across the company. It’s a big challenge. There’s a lot of talent out there, but it’s hard to find individuals who are willing to focus on different areas.
How do these issues affect whom you hire?
I start by filtering applicants in terms of what they can bring to their job and their ability to learn new technology once they’re here. Their qualifications may fulfill 80% of what we need, but I ask them hypothetical questions to see where their mind goes. If you ask them a troubleshooting question in a field outside their comfort level, the way they answer will show you whether they’re curious and willing to learn more.
How do you handle training?
We try to train them internally, but it is costly. Sometimes we provide in-house training, carving out several hours a day over three days to cross-train the staff. But the Internet is full of sites that can help educate individuals. I urge employees to download documents and read those resources on their own time to get up to speed on new technology.
Certification plays an important role, just as experience does. We find the CCNA, CCDA, and higher-level certifications helpful. Network administrators should at least have a CCNA, because they need to understand switches and routers. In my role as VP of IT, I have to understand how it all comes together, and it’s important for me to be up on the latest technologies and training. I just recently completed a CCDA class myself, and I plan on taking the test.
Jeffrey Gonzalez, Senior Network Administrator, SBLI USA
How can CIOs guide network administrators regarding their career path?
I need to know what I can do better, in what areas I should improve. I need to know whether my goals are focused and in line with what the company wants to achieve. What projects are coming up in the near future that I should be preparing for? What
certifications should I consider for those projects? What training classes should I take that will benefit me in the future?
How does your company help you with your skills?
Technology continuously evolves. Most of these technologies have overlapping concepts. You can take the basic skills at each level and apply them to every level. The key is training and certification. Culturally, SBLI USA always helps employees strive toward personal development. That includes certifications in their field, whether they’re in technology, finance, or legal. As far as IT is concerned, we’ve always been given development goals that we should attain during a particular period. In fact, I am currently working on my CCNA. I have to do all of my studying at home, because I don't have free time at work. I pay for the test, but the company will reimburse me.
Ralph Loura, Senior Vice-President of IT, Medicis
What kind of people are you looking to hire?
We need people who are solution-oriented, who keep the architecture in mind, who can anticipate issues. We need people who are capable of navigating complex systems and finding problems in those systems in an efficient way. In networking today, you don't control all the elements that can cause a problem. We need people who can do problem-solving across multiple technology domains. We look for people who are adept at self-learning, but who also maintain some skepticism. We expect our network administrators to follow technical blogs and read articles. But they should also be able to sift through the glossy e-mail blasts about new products that claim to compress traffic and cure cancer at the same time.
Quick learning is also important because we frequently rely on our resellers and integrators. If we roll out a new technology such as wireless, our lead network engineer will shadow their folks to track progress and get some knowledge transfer, so he or she can internalize that. We negotiate a transfer of information and build it into the work process, so that our network team will be getting trained by the right people.
What else does your company do to help network administrators learn more?
We allocate a healthy amount of money on an annual basis for education and training initiatives. It has to be in an area that we have identified as relevant. If they wanted to attend a four-day WiMax seminar, they would need to enumerate five reasons why it is important. If they say it's a cool technology and the conference is in Florida in January, we'll probably pass.
Jon Fendenheim, Manager of Infrastructure Services, Medicis
How can CIOs guide network administrators on their career path?
They need to tell the network administrators where the company is going and where they fit in that process. In staff meetings, vice-president of IT Ralph Loura always gives us a high-level view and asks for input. For instance, he’ll say, we’re looking at this technology, but he talks about what we’re up against technically and financially. Then he asks what we can bring to the table. That gets the network administrators more involved and lets them know that they have a voice.
What trends do you see affecting network administrators?
Network administrators need multiple disciplines. If you’re a specialist —for instance, you know routing and border gateway protocols—but you don’t know how to put voice on the network, that only gets you so far. You need to understand the entire picture. It’s best if you can draw from different backgrounds. For instance, if we’re putting phones on the network, it’s great to have someone who’s already worked with PBXes so they know how to deal with clocking (a way to ensure synchronization between devices). That’s different from what network administrators had to do ten years ago, because things have become more integrated. The world has changed.
How does your company help you to gain knowledge in other disciplines?
We push for continuing education, even if it’s only through training sessions that the vendors offer.
So, if you're an IT professional seeking a great position in this challenging market or you're looking to become even more valuable to your organization, take the advice of the folks doing the hiring: Let your curiosity motivate you to stretch your skills and gain a fuller industry understanding beyond the specific skill set required to meet your immediate challenges.
If you are an IT executive, you only enhance the value of your investment in your greatest resource—the human resource—when you provide encouragement and support for continued training and career advancement. After all, your network is the lifeline for your entire supply chain—customers, employees, suppliers, and partners—. You can't afford to compromise when it comes to making sure that the administrative staff securing, maintaining, and growing that lifeline have the best training and well-rounded experience available to enable them to deliver their best service to your organization.
Howard Baldwin is a freelance technology writer based in Silicon Valley.