Phoning It In: Telecommuting Systems and Networks Engineer
BackBy Daniel Margolis — January 2008
It’s late one night in August 2007, and Cassidy Kern is in a back alley in Chicago, setting off fireworks with two editors of this magazine. This isn’t exactly the type of environment in which one imagines “work” occurring.
But suddenly, he steps away from the explosions to take a call on his cell phone.
“Hey, what’s up?” he says. “Oh. Well, just download an open-source pop-up blocker; that should fix it.”
Kern later explained that this call came from a lower-level tech support person at Positive Networks, a software company that enables remote access in the workforce.
“That goes along with providing Level 3 support,” Kern said. “It was a Level 2 support person calling because they were having a problem with one of our larger customers.”
Kern is a senior systems engineer at Positive Networks, based in Kansas City, Mo. He signed on with the company in August 2001.
“When I started, I was in the office,” said Kern, adding that he was initially hired to be a network operations center manager (basically tech support). “Once we started to actually have a product and get customers, I started doing a lot of the server builds, maintaining the servers and doing software releases. I was also doing quality assurance.”
Kern, at this point, was getting a little overextended. “I was doing support from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. for a while, because we just didn’t have enough people,” he said. “Then we hired some other people to start doing support, and I started moving into the role that I’m in now.”
While remaining in this role, in ’07 he began formulating plans to move from Kansas City to Chicago. He decided it might be possible for his job to move with him. “Since we are a remote access company — it’s what we do — I decided that I would talk to my boss and find out if it would be OK if I worked remotely,” Kern said.
Positive Networks granted the request. He moved to Chicago in early June 2007 and has since telecommuted on a daily basis.
Commuting to the Basement
The more than 35,000 IT professionals who responded to the CertMag 2007 Salary Survey reported that they are telecommuting, but not in large numbers and not all the time. More than 27 percent of respondents said they don’t telecommute at all. The largest group, 34 percent, reported telecommuting less than 10 hours a week.
Seventeen percent telecommute 11 to 20 hours a week, and 8 percent telecommute 21 to 30 hours a week.
Just 7 percent telecommute 31 to 40 hours a week, and another 7 percent telecommute more than 40 hours a week. Kern is a member of this select group: For the last seven months, he’s telecommuted 45 hours a week. “It can be longer if it is a busy on-call week or if I have a lot of maintenance to do,” he said.
Interestingly, a day for Kern begins much the way it does for any office worker. “I’m supposed to start at 9 a.m., so I get up at 8:30 a.m., take a shower and get dressed, just like it’s a normal day and I’m leaving [to go] somewhere else,” Kern said. “I usually walk and get a morning soda.”
All fairly standard, but instead of then running to the subway or flooring it to the highway, he just walks downstairs. “I have a separate room with several computers and my VoIP phone set up downstairs,” he said.
Kern’s routine once he gets down to the basement is fairly standard as well; he checks on the status of the systems and networks he maintains. “The first thing I do is review e-mails that come from the automatic scripts, to make sure that the backups worked properly,” he said. “We have a lot of system monitoring because I need to be able to know before a problem happens. So, I have spent a lot of time setting up monitoring and writing scripts, and all of those scripts e-mail my phone when things are happening, so I know right away.”
From there, Kern’s time is split between supporting his team and engaging in automated engineering, not so much putting out fires. “If any outages or any service interruptions come up, I deal with those as needed, but really it goes between doing the Level 3 support if any of the Level 2 people need help and then working on different projects that we have [ongoing].”
Positive Networks has three data centers — racks of servers in a facility that provides security, redundant power, proper cooling and a 24x7 support staff — spread around the U.S. Kern helped organize the launch of these data centers. “I planned how those data centers were going to be set up, what we needed there and how they were going to be remotely managed,” Kern said. “I built the servers, installed the operating systems, got the Positive software installed and got them all networked.”
When it comes time for a break in his work day, Kern has it better than most, obviously. He doesn’t have to make do with an iPod or Nerf toys: His office is equipped with a Yamaha CR-2020, a vintage stereo receiver that pumps out 105 watts per channel. Upstairs — his break room, as it were — Kern has a homemade video arcade cabinet that houses a large flat-screen TV, a full complement of mounted joysticks, buttons and trackballs, slots for coin-operation capability and a dedicated PC loaded with roughly 4,000 video games. “It’s nice to have, because a lot of times I will just go up and play Robotron for about 15 minutes and not think about what I was working on,” Kern said. His next project is modding an Xbox and getting it set up as a media center.
But, as is customary for IT professionals in general, and telecommuting IT pros in particular, the concept of when exactly his job ends can be somewhat nebulous.
“Normally, a work day will end somewhere around 5 or 6 p.m. and I go upstairs, but then a lot of the times I’ll just open up my laptop and work on something if I need to,” Kern said. “Then there’s the other aspect of the job: maintenance and software releases. We have to do those at times when the fewest amount of users are on our system. That’s usually 2 a.m., so maybe once a month we have to do some sort of maintenance at 2 a.m.”
Kern said the support his company offers has made this requirement manageable.
“I’m definitely used to it, because the majority of my career has been at Positive and it’s only gotten easier as we hire people for me,” Kern said. “The nice thing is we trade off who’s on call. So, say one of our routers goes down at 3 a.m.: If I’m not on call that week, then one of the engineers picks it up and works on it, and they’ll only wake everyone else up if it’s a huge problem that everyone needs to be on. Generally, it’s not stressful, because I know what week is mine.”
So, what’s it like to live with someone who may have work tasks scheduled in the middle of the night? “Sometimes it’s disappointing if we’re out and we have to go home early, but I understand that in that industry, it’s just part of the job,” said Trisa Inzerillo, Kern’s live-in girlfriend.
Inzerillo was quick to add that Kern working from home has its advantages. It has facilitated a role reversal between the two. “In Kansas City, I had a 10-minute commute and he had a 40-minute commute, so I would go home right after work and cook dinner and start laundry,” Inzerillo said. “Now, I have a 40-minute commute and he has a zero-minute commute, so he’s more of a homemaker in that I will tell him when I’m coming home so he can start cooking dinner and throw in laundry for me.”
Despite a career in IT that goes back more than a decade, Kern has had little in the way of formal training, though he plans on pursuing an LPI Linux certification and CCNA at some point in the future.
He started college at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. “I went to college for about a year, but at the same time I was interning at a company and realized that I could just make money right away, so I stopped college and got a full-time job.” This was with Cerner, a company in Kansas City that writes software for hospital management.
This begs a question many techies’ experiences tend to raise: How did Kern acquire all these IT skills if they weren’t taught?
“I’m definitely a hands-on learner — when I get interested in something, I will just sit down and try to figure it out,” Kern said. “When I first got a computer, and friends showed me what bulletin boards were, I thought that was awesome, so I started learning about Linux and really digging into Windows and getting into networking. I’ve always had a lot of computers in my house, so I’ve been able to set up little networks and servers and different machines to just test things. With Google now, I also spend a lot of time reading how other people do things — how-to articles and posts — and that helps a lot.”
Kern looks for a similar enthusiasm and aptitude for learning in interviewing prospective employees of Positive Networks. He places a higher priority on this than on formal education.
“I don’t really necessarily look at their college experience,” he said. “I look more at how long they’ve been interested in computers and using computers. I always ask the question of what’s your home network like, because I’m really interested in knowing if the person goes home and sits back down in front of the computer and is messing with stuff. And, then, of course, I look at work experience.”
Kern also looks for the ability to research a process autonomously. “If there’s something new you’re working on that you aren’t familiar with, you really need to be able to learn it from doing research on your own,” he said.
Kern also stressed being able to handle high-pressure situations common to his job, and not only handling them, but planning for when they’ll arise, as well. “Being able to react quickly when there are service interruptions, that’s very important, because when something goes down, you have to be on it right away,” he said. “You should be able to plan ahead so you can think about different ways that the servers can go down and prevent that.”
Being able to multitask is essential. “It’s important to be able to manage requests from a lot of different people and departments,” Kern said. “A lot of times, we end up being the go-to people for a lot of stuff.”
Other skills that Kern identified as crucial to his job role include strong knowledge of Linux, Windows, networking, firewalls and at least one scripting language. “You should also be able to get meaningful packet captures and interpret them,” he said.
Going Back Home
Though he’s now working remotely in a city distant from his company’s home base, Kern will still need to get into the office from time to time.
“Actually, right now, we are in the process of moving our office, and so there’s a lot of planning that I can do with everyone remotely, but they’re still planning on flying me down there for a week or so to help with the move and get all the office servers back up and make sure everything goes smoothly,” Kern said. “There will definitely be times when they need to fly me down there for things. There’s always the Christmas office party.”
– Daniel Margolis, email@example.com
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