The dirt locker: Dirty duty on the front lines of IT

Seven more nasty tech jobs that make you want to bathe

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Dirty IT job No. 1: Network sherpa
Wanted: Local and wide-area networking wonk who likes to get his or her hands dirty; must be willing to camp out in your car and possess the ability to talk customers out of committing felonies.

It's a pretty simple equation these days: no network, no business. Somebody's got to crawl through the muck dragging Cat 5 cable behind them or get two incompatible wireless technologies on speaking terms. Meet the network sherpa, whose job is to haul his clients up LAN Mountain and deposit them kicking and screaming at the summit.

[ For more dirty IT jobs, see "The 7 dirtiest jobs in IT" and "Even dirtier IT jobs: The muck stops here," both on InfoWorld ]

But the dirtiest part of the job isn't squeezing into tight, dusty, rodent-filled spaces, says Bill Horne, who's spent years as an independent networking consultant and is moderator of the Telecom Digest. It's dealing with penny-pinching customers unwilling to upgrade their crumbling infrastructures.

"Hell hath no fury like a customer who hears he must pay for a wireless bridge in order to retire several hundred feet of RG-58A/U coaxial cable that's been serving as the Ethernet backbone between two buildings for twenty years," says Horne. "Even though the cable will be buried under the parking lot, damaged by rodents, and hanging from the ground wire the electric company has ordered him to vacate immediately, he will insist his network is still capable of '10 gigs at least.'"

Horne says he's often had to patiently explain to his clients that (a) bribing the electric company is not a good idea, and (b) 802.11 standards have matured dramatically since 10Base2 was invented.

Worse, if you do a good job for your clients, they'll want you to come to their homes and do the same thing there -- like the time an exec at Horne's largest client asked him to fix the Internet feed at his remote New Hampshire vacation home.

"One assumes when there's a problem with an Internet connection, the customer in question actually has Internet access," says Horne. "No such luck."

After a four-hour drive from Boston to the lip of the Canadian border, Horne arrived to find a Linksys wireless access point wrapped in a plastic food bag, duct-taped to a three-meter TVRO satellite dish, which was pointed at a distant hilltop where at one time there had been an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot. Horne calmly explained to his client it's not a good idea to poach Wi-Fi, and having dependable Net access would require paying a company to provide it, even if you live in the middle of nowhere.

"FedEx ultimately came to my rescue," he says. "After spending a very cold night in my car -- the propane tank was empty and I hadn't thought to bring an ax, although I do always carry a sleeping bag -- I was rewarded with a satellite dish and associated paraphernalia, fresh from the Hughes assembly line."

Horne removed the old dish by tying a rope over a tree branch and pulling it off the mounting pole with his car. Then he installed the new system on the old post, which "delivered green lights and great download speeds at the first click of the circuit breaker."

Fortunately for Horne, that was his last hurrah. He's given up the network sherpa lifestyle and taken a job with computer security firm, where he only has to deal with hackers, malware authors, disgruntled employees, and corporate espionage agents. Ah, the good life.

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This story, "The dirt locker: Dirty duty on the front lines of IT," was originally published at


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