The making of an IT professional

It's your first week on the job, the server keeps crashing, and the boss is out of town. Good luck!

They don’t call it “lost wages” for nothing. In 2003, after a spectacularly unsuccessful stay in Vegas, I came back to Pittsburgh with no money and no job leads. I had been trying to break into IT, but my job skills were not that strong. I had taught myself to program, and I could design a Web site. But I had very little experience with servers or network administration.

Then my luck turned. A friend knew a guy, James, who was looking for someone to manage his network. James couldn’t pay much, but he wasn’t asking for a lot of experience, either — and he needed someone who could start right away. To my amazement, several phone calls later I found myself employed at “Paper Trail,” a printer-and-copier dealership in Shadyside.

My first few days went OK. Then, on Wednesday, just as I was sitting down to lunch, PMX, our primary point-of-sales application, went down. From service to accounting, everyone used it. And everyone had their crosshairs on me, ready to shoot if I couldn’t get it working fast.

The first thing I discovered was that the application wasn’t the problem; the server that ran it was. I found myself standing in front of the server closet (and I do mean closet), rebooting the system over and over again. It would come up fine, I’d start PMX, and — after a randomly variable number of minutes — it would crash. After several hours of fruitless trouble-shooting, I bit the bullet and called my boss. He was out of town for a three-day training class. Terrific.

So I hung myself between the server and the wall of the closet like a contortionist in a circus act, one leg on the UPS and one arm hanging from the server rack, sweating in the summertime heat. Then I changed out electrical cords and cables; I scanned the hard drives; I reseated boards. I was so desperate I even reconfigured PMX. And inevitably, after no more than two hours, I’d be back in the closet. That was how I spent my week, while the company sales staff gave me increasingly dirty looks.

That weekend James came back, and the two of us spent most of Sunday taking the server apart and putting it back together. After four hours we discovered the problem: a dying power supply, helped along, no doubt, by the lack of circulation in an un-air-conditioned closet more suited for mops than MIPS. We had PMX running reliably by Monday afternoon.

When the boss called me into his office on Tuesday morning, I fully expected to be fired. I had failed. To my surprise, he shook my hand and told me that he appreciated the fact that I’d dug in my feet, returned to the closet day after day, stayed late, and even came in over the weekend to work with him — while the rest of the staff was waiting for me to quit. And no, while I hadn’t solved the problem, I hadn’t run away either.

That was three years ago, and currently (after completing quite a few certification classes) I’m director of IT at Paper Trail. People still kid me about my first week, and the more I think about the lesson I learned, the more it makes me grin. Sure, technical skills count for a lot, but hanging in there and not giving up is what makes a true IT professional. Luck has nothing to do with it.