When a small private school in the US was struggling to keep its computer network together last year, an 11-year-old student named Jon Penn stepped in as network manager.
Penn did it to help his mother, Paula, the school librarian who had computer support added to her workload a week before the school year started when the existing IT systems overseer suddenly departed. For Jon - who says his favorite reading material is computer trade magazines - it's been the experience of a lifetime, even getting to select and install a gateway security appliance largely by himself.
"This is kind of a small school, and I'm known as the computer whiz," the sixth grader says.
"We spent US$2,158," says young Penn, describing how he picked out the McAfee Secure Internet Gateway Appliance after evaluating it in a 30-day trial. He also looked at the Barracuda box - a tad more costly - and tried the Untangle open source product, which he said didn't meet the school's needs as well.
His school needed a gateway to protect against attacks, filter viruses and spam, and block inappropriate sites. Keeping costs down is important since the school is operating on a shoestring budget to keep its 60 aging computers, a donation from years ago, working for the roughly 200 students permitted to use them, along with the teachers.
The first thing Jon found as he leapt into the role of network manager was that he had to map out the network to find out what was on it. He bought some tools for this at CompUSA and realized there was an ungodly amount of computer viruses and spam, so he pressed the school to invest in filtering and antivirus protection.
"These computers are so old they don't support all antivirus programs," Penn says. The school took advantage of a Microsoft effort called Fresh Start that offers free software upgrades for schools with donated computers, switching from Windows 98 to Windows 2000.
One reason to do this was the hope of one day centrally managing the school's computers so Jon doesn't have to change them individually. To install Windows 2000, he removed obsolete network interface cards, Ethernet, video, print and sound drivers with the intent of having a better computer base by next spring.
While Jon says he spent some time evaluating antivirus products - he admires Kaspersky Lab's software especially because it's "lightweight running." In the end the decision was made to get a gateway appliance to filter and block viruses and spam. For his technical recommendations, Jon has had to present his suggestions to the school's management for approval ("Because he's not an adult, I've been hovering around," his mother says.)
Along with school staff, the younger Penn has gotten involved in contributing to school policy on Web access. While blocking access to social networking sites such as MySpace wasn't popular with many fellow students, he had to agree the school really didn't need it.
Penn is now the technical support much of the time on everything from printer jams to setting up an external drive to backing up the school's most important server. He was allowed to give a few lessons to his class about basic computers, having his classmates pull out a few components from old machines.
His father, Dave, a civil engineer, says: "I knew when Jon was three and could boot up my laptop, sign in and open Paint, that he had a knack for computers. But I never dreamed he'd be a network administrator at the age of 11."
Penn's parents both believe that technical people must have "integrity and character," and should use their skills for beneficial, not malicious purposes.
Her son is precocious when it comes to computers but Paula says in the final analysis she hopes the experience with the school's network helps him realize, "It's his job to fight the bad guys."
As for Jon, he says he loves testing virtualization software like VMware and wants to obtain "A+ certification" by passing the computer-technician exam by that name developed by trade group CompTIA. "Hopefully, I can do that this summer," he says.