If you think you're working too hard, you're probably right. A survey last year by Voyager Networks (see box) highlighted the unpalatable fact that UK network managers are working longer hours than ever.
As network managers survey this uninviting landscape, they could be forgiven for thinking that this is the right time to make a career move. Those who resist the allure of going it alone in the dotcom world and attempting to become an e-millionaire might consider the more realistic notion of trading in their networking skills, and launching themselves into emerging and well-paid IT niches. However, to be in the right place at the right time, network professionals must first know where that place is, and how to get there.
So which areas should network managers be looking to, and which should they avoid? David Bloxham, development team manager at GCS Computer recruitment services, says that as the number of companies using Novell networking software steadily decreases, network professionals are turning to Windows NT training. "People are looking to get out and get some new experience, usually in NT," he says. "People see NT as a safe career, because of the progress Microsoft has made."
While moving into NT is likely to suit those looking for career security, others will be seeking an escape route away from network administration - one that potentially leads to greater rewards. Many in the industry say that the current internet and ebusiness boom has opened just such a route, but while Bloxham agrees this is the case for some, he warns that network professionals should not raise their hopes too high at this stage in the game.
"A lot of internet-based work is development-based, such as setting up the website," he says. "Where the networking skills come in is more at the comms level, which will become more and more important as companies put more traffic across the Wan, rather than only the Lan. So, one way into ebusiness is to start looking at a lower level, more at the comms engineering side of things."
Comms engineering might not sound glamorous, but it is a good step forward, maintains Bloxham, particularly for professionals with good networking qualifications. "NT and Cisco skills are both good ways in to areas such as the call centre market, where the rates are higher because there are fewer qualified people," he says. On average, NT professionals with a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) qualification can expect salaries about 10 per cent above average wages (see box) in the call centre market.
Shortage of opportunities
Bloxham also sounded a note of warning. "The problem is that there are fewer projects, so it's swings and roundabouts," he says. "With NT there is always work. We suggest that professionals who are interested in making that kind of move concentrate first on looking at how NT works on the internet, and go for the best qualifications and experience in that area. They can be a very good NT professional with some comms skills, or simply a very good NT professional - either approach will push their salary in the right direction. It's more a question of what people prefer."
Another area worth considering is customer relationship management (CRM). This covers a wide range of technical and business skills, which may be off-putting to the average network professional. However, this market is set to explode, according to industry experts.
The core technical skills in CRM are database management and integration, but recruitment agencies looking for CRM staff also emphasis the need for some consultancy and marketing skills. CRM training is a good idea, although it can be expensive and intensive.
Even better is to gain hands-on experience on an in-house CRM project or pilot. With that kind of experience, plus some training, an IT professional could expect a salary of well over £30,000, as early adopters of these systems and the consultancy firms in particular, look to snap up talented staff.
Currently, most professionals swapping to CRM have backgrounds in database or systems programming, but that should not deter keen network staff from exploring the possibilities.
Sergius Kemelmager, managing director of recruitment company Artemis, which specialises in CRM opportunities, says demand is booming not just for CRM staff but for all ebusiness jobs, and that network professionals are well placed to make the move into these new areas.
"We want to hear from anybody with Cisco skills, for instance," he says. "There is a synergy between the Cisco skills and ebusiness, and anybody looking at ebusiness will find their career taking off."
Climbing a new ladder
Kemelmager's enthusiasm is tempered by a more realistic note from Phil Winter, Microsoft training manager at ICL training subsidiary KnowledgePool. "Network professionals have a number of ways in which they can choose to go. If they are already working in the NT world, they can go further on up that ladder - there are exciting times ahead with Windows 2000," he says.
"There are a lot of skills and concepts in Windows 2000 that will build on NT skills, but the pain for larger companies will be the need to get the Active Directory design absolutely right. Anyone with design skills in that area is looking at a promising career path."
Branching out into the internet world requires careful thought, says Winter, mainly because of the greater emphasis on development work. However, network professionals with Microsoft Exchange skills will have one foot on the ladder already because of the database, internet and directory aspects of Exchange.
"But there is only so far one can carry those skills into ebusiness, where the emphasis is far more on people with development and programming backgrounds," he says. "But the smaller the company, the more likely a network technician is to have picked up these kinds of skills already, and if they like those areas, this is a hot way to go."
The training advantage
Winter's advice network professionals looking to enhance their appeal to internet employers is to focus on their TCP skills, get some general internet experience - such as understanding firewall and proxy servers - and, in particular, get some experience in HTML and XML. "To get into ebusiness, you need to pick up a fair range of skills, but a lot of larger organisations need people in this area now, and are willing to take on someone with no experience, but with some training and enthusiasm to differentiate themselves," he says. "It is a big hill to climb, but it is a good view from the top."
One thing to bear in mind is that employers are unlikely to want to retrain staff in skills that are designed to get them new jobs elsewhere. Network professionals who are serious about a mid-career move will need to consider making a personal investment in training, and will have to consider both the financial and the personal cost of setting aside time for training.
There is also a risk involved. Despite increasing demand for staff in areas such as ebusiness, where vacancies have increased by more than 100 per cent since last October, there is always the danger of the Catch 22 situation whereby companies demand both experience and training - doubly difficult for network professionals moving into a new area. In this situation it is vital to be clear about why the move is being made. A singular desire to earn more money is unlikely to impress potential employers, who will be looking for people with not only the right technical skills but also the right attitude and personality, such as the ability to support customers in an ebusiness or call centre environment.
Some network professionals may be looking for a more radical move, and may feel it is time to get out of the IT business altogether. As with a sideways career move, such a radical step should not be undertaken lightly.
"My gut feeling is that if someone has gone as far as they can with their technical skills in networking, they will not necessarily find it easy to take up some other discipline," says Winter. "But on the other hand, I have a good friend who made exactly that leap, moving from technical sales and marketing into the financial world. He is now working very happily as a financial advisor on a very good salary for a small firm, and because he knew about technology, he has also revolutionised their IT."
Leap of faith
Winter says this is one aspect of a radical career move that IT professionals may find appealing. "There are many smaller firms, which cannot afford to pay a dedicated IT person, that will take on a professional with those skills."
From this perspective, a networking background can be an attractive feature of a CV. Of course, this is the case only once they have qualified for the new job, and providing they don't mind using their IT skills base to benefit their new company in addition to new responsibilities.
More common these days is a move the other way, with many professional people looking to train in IT. That should not deter those determined to make a radical career move, given the huge increase in the use of networking in both commercial and public sector organisations.
Some people make bigger career leaps than others. Peter Hart, director of the Haringey Advisory Group on Alcohol, which provides counselling for those with alcohol problems, used to work in IT, but finds more job satisfaction from his present post. His main frustration now is trying to raise the funds to enable him to implement new IT systems - in the voluntary sector, that's a tough proposition.
Not everyone would want to make such a drastic switch, but there are other jobs outside IT where the logical, technical qualities that attract people into networking are equally useful. The financial sector is one such area, as is the media. The business press is one of the largest UK publishing sectors and IT-related magazines and newspapers abound. Technical knowledge, allied with the ability to express complex ideas clearly, is of great value to publishers.
Everyone has bad days at work, but if the bad days are starting to outnumber the good, it could be time for a move.
J1043+2408 was observed for more than 10 years, and its radio light curve exhibited a periodic signal repeating in about 563 days
Success of Unity's test flight means Virgin Galactic is now close to taking its first paying tourist into space
V3 puts the pro-level football GPS tracker through its paces, and asks if it's more than a gimmick
Finding refutes many earlier studies that suggest that galaxies don't have much dark matter at the time of their birth