Most professions have few elements that you can bring home. The more technical the field generally the less you can take home. But IT is one of those really cool fields where there is almost nothing that you can do in the office that you can’t do at home as well. This is good and bad. It means that to really excel you may have to bring your “work” home with you. But for an ambitious IT professional-to-be it presents itself as a unique opportunity to move ahead of your peers.
As this is a “Breaking In” article I will focus only on the areas where “Doing IT” at home applies to getting your foot into the door. Today almost everyone already has a computer at home. It wasn’t that long ago that having a computer at home was itself a differentiator for IT candidates but today the expectations for home have gone up considerably and this is expected to continue. If you are interested in the IT field you should, at a minimum, be doing as much as or more than any of your non-IT peers are doing at home. Today this can apply to entertainment as well but this is not so much a factor from an IT perspective although the more you do with your computers the more you will be comfortable with them.
The bottom line is that the more you do with computers and networks the more you are going to know and be comfortable with them. It takes a lot of time and experience before you will be ready to handle any situation and no one is completely ready. Learning to research answers to your problems online without anyone to help you, fixing hardware and software issues, troubleshooting from scratch and more are the skills that no one can teach you. You must learn these skills on your own. Doing this at home gives you an advantage that you can’t get in other ways. Take advantage of it.
Entertainment: Today “convergence” means that you can do almost everything from the Internet and personal computing platforms. This can include video games, shopping, Internet television, streaming Internet radio, podcasting, vlogging, blogging, photo hosting, etc. As more and more non-technical people begin using their computers for a wide array of entertainment purposes the knowledge base will continue to increase and being knowledgeable about a wide array of computer uses can be very helpful to a budding IT professional. This is a perfect pursuit for “leisure” time but should not be done at the expense of serious “IT at home” studies.
Networking: Almost everyone has some amount of home network whether it is a simple Internet connection or if it is a mixed Ethernet and wireless network with firewall, print server, multiple desktops and laptops of both PC and Mac variety, media centers, VoIP phones, wireless handheld video game systems, video game consoles, etc. Ordinary people are beginning to add network storage into their home networks along with other advanced features. This raises the bar significantly for someone looking to “do everything at home.” I was lucky that when I first started in IT the level to which you had to bring your work home with you was much less – but that will be saved for another article.
You can begin by choosing to work with more advanced network equipment than you would have used if you were simply maintaining a traditional home network environment. Most home networks are protected with a minimum of a “consumer” grade firewall. Now that you are working in IT it is time to move away from “consumer” technology products. For example, Netgear makes two lines of firewalls at the time of this writing: WebSafe for consumers and ProSafe for small offices. ProSafe equipment offers greater security, more features and more configuration options. Many companies have two obvious paths into their product sites – one for consumers or “home” and one for professionals or “business”. Experience with consumer products is not your goal. It is time to move on.
One of the first lessons that needs to be learned about buying technology products, even for home, is that you can almost never just run out to the store and buy the parts that you need. Most companies’ commercial product lines are available only through authorized partners and online. A few companies allow their commercial products to be sold in stores but generally these are small product lines. You will never find HP or IBM servers, Cisco enterprise routers, etc. sitting on the floor of BestBuy.
Since this is probably your first venture into serious home networking you can probably safely start fairly small. A good, quality commercial firewall. You can probably start with an “all-in-one” device with route/firewall, switch and sometimes wireless built into the base unit. I prefer separate units for learning – a firewall unit, a switch and a dedicated wireless access point. But it will depend on your focus as to where you want to spend your initial funds which are most likely limited.
Many homes today are already wired for networking but many are not. Go ahead and run CAT5e or better to every room of your house. Maybe more – your home office location will probably want several runs of cabling. Over time you will likely find yourself using several ports near any computer. In some spots you may want to consider additional, small switches to limit the cabling needs and sprawl.
Having a good, solid network is important for all of your IT studies. Almost everything that you do will be done over the network not just your “network” studies. And having a good Internet connection is, of course, essential.
Wireless has grown in importance and by working with wireless extensively at home you can get first hand, practical knowledge of the difference in wireless protocols and security standards. Many people are using wireless today and just about everyone has major concerns about security and privacy. By working with commercial wireless solutions you can be prepared for that task as well.
Computers: Of course you have to have a computer. But when you are working to move into the IT field you should have lots of computers. They don’t have to be cutting edge. In fact having computers from different eras (but not legacy machines) and of different types can be beneficial. You will want to have machines available at any time to rip apart, rebuild, install different software on and start all over again at a moment’s notice. Early on you will probably spend a significant amount of your time working with the physical hardware – building and modifying the computer itself. Even building a computer or a few from scratch can be fun, rewarding and educational. Picking out computer components is its own education in cost and performance factors.
Your home is your lab. This is the place where you can experiment with those things that may be embarrassing or dangerous in the workplace. At home you can push the computer to its limits until it breaks and or attempt to tune it for performance or whatever. In the office environment almost everything about a computer that makes it useful is its ability to connect to and communicate with other computers. Your home computers should be similar. This can be difficult as home networks are often single user affairs or else the others users are often only casual users but you can learn a lot by doing things all by yourself as well. It just becomes purely educational and not functional.
At home you will have the ability to learn new platforms like Windows XP Pro, Vista Business, Mac OS X and Linux. Select your targets based on your immediate needs and future goals. Not every technology is for everyone but IT tends to reward broad knowledge almost as much as deep knowledge so having worked a little on Mac or Linux even for a Windows desktop support professional might prove to be beneficial in a shop that has one or two Macs for some specific purpose but doesn’t need a serious Mac pro to support them. You never know how your knowledge might come into play in the field.
Computers can be expensive but for a lot of “learning” needs quite old computers can fill the roles quite nicely. With the availability of eBay there are many computers, network appliances and parts available that can make excellent educational tools at very reasonable prices. Good, older computers often with built in Windows licenses are available for well under $100 US.
Today virtualization technology like VMWare Server and Microsoft Virtual Server and Virtual PC have made it much easier for anyone to have multiple computers in their homes. A good, fast desktop with plenty of memory and disk space and easily virtualize several desktop and/or server machines without needing to purchase another computer. This can save space, power, time and money.
Printers: While this skill set is rapidly becoming less and less important it is still wise to be well versed in installing, configuring and sharing via the network a printer. Most people have printers attached to their computers but few people configure their computers as printer servers or use dedicated network attached printer servers to drive their shared printing needs. This can be another simple but important differentiating factor between job candidates.
Applications: You have computers in your home but what do you do with them? You learn many applications of course. The obvious choices are the Microsoft Office Suite and the OpenOffice.org Office Suite. These are the principle business productivity suite players today. Not many IT jobs actually require an in-depth knowledge of these non-IT tools but many helpdesk professionals use them daily and knowledge of common applications is always useful. Using many IT applications can only be helpful.
Servers: Now we reach the real differentiator between the advanced home computer user and the hard-core, ambitious IT professional home network – the server. Unless your target job is in programming, analysis or management having a home server can work wonders for your confidence, skills and career. The options for a home server are very wide and your choice will need to reflect your goals. If you are only using the server as a means to learn about desktop maintenance and to provide a place for backups and storage then most likely you will just want to have a single Windows Active Directory server as AD is the current most popular desktop management environment. But if you plan to go into system administration for UNIX you may want to have several Linux, BSD, Solaris, etc. servers. Some physical and some virtual.
Working hands on with real server hardware is a big deal. Just because you can virtualize doesn’t means that it is the only way to go. This is about breaking in and having hands on experience to server class hardware can be effective. Since only very serious potential IT professionals usually have real servers at home this can turn heads. Having multiple will do even more for you. This is where costs start to climb but so does career value.
Don’t start buying servers when you aren’t ready or your investment will be too early and not effective enough. Get familiar with the desktop technologies, basic networking and applications before venturing into the server space. Once you do be sure to shop long and carefully on eBay or other discount used equipment location. Servers definitely don’t need to be new. For a few hundred dollars US today you can have very good, reliable, entry level enterprise servers at home. They are often large, loud and ugly (to others) but they are things of beauty to the IT professional who sees them as opportunity and experience at their fingertips.
You can use servers at home to fill a variety of roles just like they would in the real business world. You can use them for storage, security, network authentication, application hosting, remote access, name resolution, host configuration, desktop deployment, etc. The list could go on for a very long time. Eventually your server(s) will become the heart and soul of your home network. Once you get passed these beginning phases you can start doing more exciting and useful projects with your server(s) but we will save that for another article.
When shopping for your first server look specifically for somewhat advanced servers with features like hot-swap hard drives and hardware SCSI/SAS RAID controllers. Features like this are not available on desktop class hardware and being able to work with it first hard is important. The most important feature is that the hardware be from a well known enterprise server vendor such as HP, IBM, SUN or Dell. Do not spend time with whitebox or custom built servers. Enterprises are interested in your experience with the category of equipment that they will be using.
Programming: If you are interested in getting into programming or web design then much of this is unnecessary for you. You need to spend your time writing code or producing web sites. It is far easier for these “soft” skills to be honed at home as there is practically no barrier whatsoever for someone to spend time learning and practicing. Open source projects or volunteer web site design can be perfect ways to produce real, “production” code that can be used as part of an interview process. Saying that you can write code carries little weight but producing actual code that you have written does. This lets a potential employer see what you can do firsthand. It means a lot.
Of course often programmers and web site designers need to cut their chops on some entry level jobs before really being in a position to get into the discipline of their choice. For this purpose getting some experience at home in other areas such as desktop support can be helpful to you as well.