IT Pro File: IT beats working in the rain

Tim Fenner's career took a hairpin turn, from tough physical labor to the comforts of IT.

Meet network administrator Tim Fenner, who shares his IT history, a how-to guide to Windows utilities, and a true IT blooper.

Tim Fenner might have the strongest hands and thickest fingers of any IT pro -- not from years of plugging in power cords, installing Ethernet cables and lifting servers, but from building barns and towing barges on the Mississippi River.

After six years of braving the elements, Fenner happily started working in data centers about five years ago. Now, he's one of four IT staffers at Independent Pharmacy Cooperative (IPC), a pharmaceuticals distribution warehouse in Sun Prairie, Wis.

As IPC's network and systems administrator, Fenner helps manage 11 Windows 2000 servers, 55 Windows PCs and seven network printers, all running on one LAN. He oversees the collocation service that hosts IPC's Web site. The PCs on IPC's network run a mix of Windows 95, NT, 2000 and XP. The network includes an IBM AS/400 mainframe.

Fenner also does consulting work for RUWired, a small residential and commercial low-voltage wiring outfit that installs cable TV, cable Internet, phones and home entertainment systems. Among other things, he set up RUWired's file-sharing network and accounting system, all based on Microsoft Access.

Under the sun, rain

The life of an IT pro is comfortable compared with Fenner's past occupations, which include jobs not usually found in IT pro dossiers.

Long hours in the server room wiping you out? Try working concrete construction through high school and two years after graduation -- for your dad, Fenner said. A frustrating e-mail glitch bringing you to a breaking point? Try manning a towboat pushing and pulling barges on the Mississippi River. Getting tired of rebooting your PC? Try building barns and sheds in farm country while enduring the Midwest's harsh summer and winter climes.

At 26, Fenner appreciates the roofed and ergonomically correct environs of IT work.

"I was tired of getting my head wet in the rain," Fenner said from his comfortable office situated in a business park. "I wanted to find a job where the weather is the same year 'round." That meant office work, where "the humidity is the same unless the air conditioning goes out or someone spills water in your lap."

New career frontier

Fenner was searching for an alternative to building barns when he heard a radio ad for a tech support company. The ad used the Star Wars theme. Fenner was intrigued. Soon after, in January 1999, he took an entry-level job at SITEL Communications, a call center that sells phone support to various companies, including AT&T WorldNet. Fenner worked on the WorldNet team and learned to troubleshoot more than 400 common problems on Windows 95 and 98.

He went on to be a network support specialist for Royle Communications, a graphics design and printing company. In Fenner's 14 months at Royle, three of his colleagues left, forcing his learning curve to resemble a hockey stick.

"It was a crash course," Fenner said.

While managing a 300-node network with four LANs in four cities, he learned to resolve problems with network infrastructures, PCs, servers and e-mail systems. He also learned -- sometimes the hard way -- about data backup strategies.

The next step

Fenner didn't own a computer while growing up. The first computer he used was an Apple II at school in fifth grade. At home today, he has a network of one PC and two servers, all running Windows 2000. The home network serves as a testing ground for IPC and consulting projects.

Fenner holds no IT certifications and doesn't want to attend college, though he said that could change if his career interests change.

He enjoys improving his IT knowledge on the job, but one area he's not interested in is programming, because it would require staring at a screen all day, every day, he said. He likes troubleshooting because it allows him to move around the office and help out coworkers.

"I like being able to walk away from my desk, being hands-on and getting a little dirty," Fenner said.

Fenner, who's a guest columnist for SearchWindowsManageability.com, wants to do more off-hours consulting. First, he'll soon be working more hours on a big project for RUWired, launching a new e-commerce Web site. Then, he plans to expand his PC repair businesses. That'll give him a chance to get back to his roots, working with his hands.

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