Your Life Before Networking

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - Talk to Clint Miller about traffic and he'll ask you which kind: network or highway. An expert in both, Miller likes to punctuate his daily grind as IT director at TIS Insurance Services in Knoxville, Tenn., with tales about his days driving a semi.

Miller, being an ex-trucker, may seem an anomaly. But today's insatiable need for IT professionals is letting job candidates show up on corporate doorsteps with resumes that look like patchwork quilts. These rich dossiers point to the growing trend of switching from one career into networking. And once outsiders break into IT, it seems unusual expertise helps move them quickly through the IT ranks.

Life on the real-life superhighway

In the early 1990s, Miller worked counterintelligence for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Having no formal computer training, he got the job through a stint in the National Guard helping create and maintain a joint U.S.

National Guard-DEA database of drug dealers. "I was doing troubleshooting and being a techie," he says.

But boredom soon set in, and in 1994, Miller quit the DEA. "I left the computer realm to chase a boyhood dream of driving a semi," he says.

Miller started out his adventure as a mover driving a flatbed. Then he switched to operating big rigs. He spent countless hours on the road, driving between New York and California. "I drove an express route, which meant only stopping for fuel," he says. "I carted anything that had to be there in a few days. I went back and forth twice a week."

Miller spent two years on the road, then realized it was time to grow up. With his first child on the way, Miller headed back to college. But rather than finishing his degree, he taught himself networking and studied to be a Certified Novell Inc. Engineer. He landed an entry-level job at TIS in 1997 and worked his way up to the director position last year.

But Miller says he wouldn't trade those driving days for anything. He even says that experience has helped him be a better network engineer. "There are so many things to maintain on a truck," he says. "You have to balance your load, know your weight limits, track the life span of parts and know what needs to be upgraded when. You also have to be detail-oriented and be able to multitask."

And what about the traffic? "While you're hauling 80,000 pounds at 85 miles an hour, you have to be aware of everything around you - the cars, the traffic," he says. The same applies for computer environments, he adds: "You have to know your load, your capacity and what else is happening on the network."

The fingernail test

Past experience also comes into play for Jim Crump, who recently left his job as chief technologist at EDS Huntsman for a technical position elsewhere.

Whenever he had a tough network call at EDS Huntsman, he did the fingernail test. "I asked myself, 'Would I hang myself over a cliff on this one?"

It seems pretty drastic for a network call at the Houston petrochemical company, but this former professional mountain climber is used to extremes.

Crump first went climbing when he was 4 years old. "My father . . . didn't want to carry me, so I stormed the summit," Crump says. By the age of 5, he had camped in almost every major national park in the U.S. during family vacations.

By 10, he was "locked into the idea of being a mountaineer."

In his late teens, Crump settled into work as a guide at Enchanted Rock State Park in Austin, Texas. He had a range of tough peaks under his belt by the time he entered the University of Texas, also in Austin, to study physics.

Crump started his own climbing guide service at Enchanted Rock in the early 1980s, while he finished his degree. He managed a team of seven guides that serviced the Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio metropolitan areas. By his mid-20s, Crump had a successful guide service and a published book, Dome Drivers Manual: A climber's guide to Enchanted Rock, about his experiences. He had also scaled peaks in El Capitan, Yosemite and Baffin Island parks.

But a few years later he burned out. "I went through a divorce and needed a change," he says. So he signed on as a data entry clerk with Texaco Chemical's Austin Research Labs. Crump says he got the job by talking about climbing during his interview; his future boss was interested in the parks he traveled.

While an operations manager with Huntsman, which bought the lab, Crump says he was always on call. "That pretty much shut down my climbing," he says. Until then, he had taken every opportunity - weekends, holidays and vacations - to keep up with what was now his hobby, climbing. "I got to be the old man of the park," he says.

Although Crump misses his climbing days, he says skills he mastered high atop the mountains helped him do his job better. Huntsman outsourced his group to EDS in 1995, and Crump rose to chief technologist three years later. He was charged with building the infrastructure for EDS Huntsman's global business.

"I've had to get off a blowing peak in an ice storm," Crump says. "That certainly makes it much easier to stare down upper management."

Crump also says his ability to assemble teams to summit a mountain came in handy when creating project groups. "I shared my war stories to break the ice.

They gave me a personality other than my technical face," he says.

Best of all, his climbing has given him the fingernail test, which came in handy when recommending strategies and designs for the company's technical architecture. "When you're hanging by your fingernails over the void, you don't have time to overanalyze. You just have to make a decision," Crump says.

The culture of networking

John Daly, assistant manager of IT at Toyota Motor Corp., also took a circuitous route into networking. While he knew he wanted to be in computers one day, he went in a different direction when it came time to pick his major in college.

"I studied Japanese first," he says. His rationale was simple: "Languages don't get obsolete, computer skills do. I could catch up and learn about computers later."

Daly reveled in the Japanese culture, earning his degree in Japanese and Asian studies from Connecticut College. He also studied economics. He went on to Harvard University where he worked as assistant director of the Asian Studies undergraduate program, and then headed to Japan "to work on language skills."

Daly landed a job as international relations coordinator in southern Kyushu in the early 1990s. He was the only American among 1,000 workers at Miyakonojo City Hall.

Daly took on the lifelong learning program for residents. "I developed programs to help them learn English, cross-comparative history, cooking - everything," he says.

During his four years there, he brought the Internet to City Hall. "I got them online and helped get a city Web site going," he says.

This prepped him for his return to the states. Daly signed on with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETO), a worldwide nonprofit group that helps small to midsize U.S. companies invest in or export to Japan. As director of business development for JETO, Daly worked with companies to create technologies that would improve Japan's health care system.

His work with JETO led him to Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, where he took a managerial position in IT last year. "Toyota wanted to bring in someone who had a track record of understanding how things worked here and abroad," says Daly, who works in New York.

His time in Japan has proven invaluable. "An engineer who doesn't speak Japanese needs to communicate with the Japanese team on a level that's understandable," he says. "With my experience, I act as that liaison."

One of Daly's responsibilities is to assess IT trends in the U.S. and report how they could benefit Toyota. "High-level managers here and abroad don't have time to waste. They want to see case studies of how people are carrying out trends [such as business-to-business exchanges]."

Next up on Daly's agenda? A tech education.

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