Doing IS at the bottom of the world

Doing information technology stints in Antarctica can be the most daunting - and the most fulfilling - experience of a career. But according to those who have done technology stints in Antarctica - and those who have hired them - it takes a very special set of skills to succeed.

Currently at the U.S. Antarctic base, called McMurdo, is Keith Conrey, the assistant manager for information systems with the U.S. team. He has spent many summers at "the ice", with the upcoming season being his third winter. Fewer than 1% of Americans will ever get the opportunity to go to the ice, Conrey says, and when the situation arose, he jumped at the chance.

"There seem to be two sorts of folks when it comes to deploying to Antarctica. One sort, the larger group, thinks the idea is preposterous. The other group thinks it sounds like a unique experience that just can't be missed. I'm in this second group," said Conrey, a former IS manager at a large defense contractor.

Hermione Binnie, an electrical engineer who has worked with a wide range of technologies, is just beginning a yearlong excursion as a technologist on Antarctica with the New Zealand contingent. Binnie said that getting down to the ice has been a goal of hers "since I was very short. My dad was snow mad and, apparently when I was 3 months old, I was out in the snow."

Both Binnie and Conrey, their bosses say, have what it takes to succeed in a place where many don't even wish to visit, much take leave of their families for an average of five to seven months. The hours are long, six-day weeks aren't uncommon, and a wide range of hardware and software expertise is essential.

Jim Johnson is responsible for hiring IT employees for McMurdo. Johnson is based in Denver and works at Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) as assistant data manager. Johnson said about 65% of successful candidates reapply the next year for another slot.

The U.S. has one of the largest bases on the ice and a correspondingly large IT department. In the quiet months of winter, only 18 people look after the system, but that swells to about 75 in the busy summer season.

There are negative aspects to the job. Conrey said the base is a very closed community, as many people return season after season and form long-term friendships. The nature of the accommodations means that often you will have a shared room, with the accompanying loss of privacy.

And adjusting to life on the ice can be tough. Conrey said that, like a lot of first timers, when he arrived, he kept a journal. "When I re-read that journal now, my first reaction was about what you'd experience if you left the planet and landed somewhere else. ... I had to learn everything from scratch - how to open the door handles, how to dress for the weather, where to go to eat, everything."

However, it is those conditions that combine to make the Antarctic a unique place to work, and Conrey said that results in a special type of people working at the ice. "The kind of people down here are the same type that will be on the first big space station," Conrey said.

Antarctica New Zealand, the government agency that runs the country's research program at the ice, operates one main facility called Scott Base.

"It's quite important to find out why people want to go down," said Paul Woodgate, movements controller for the New Zealand crew. It is part of his job to select IT applicants for Scott Base. Some applicants go for the unique experience of living in Antarctica, he said, whereas others may go to escape relationships and other pressures at home.

In addition to Binnie, the other New Zealand technician going down over the summer is Grant Redvers.

The effect of the experience on the ice can't be denied. Conrey said that the Antarctic is now in his blood. "I will keep coming back here as long as I can, which means as long as my family can stand the long separations."

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