Feature: No strings attached

If you’re looking for a job in wireless technology, then the message is clear: get some experience, head for the consultants and be prepared to travel. If you want some training, then you’ve got to try a little harder.

In your quest to gain some wireless credentials, your search begins with wireless technology courses. This could be your first hurdle. Many institutions are just coming to grips with the topic, so this may not be easy. A search on Computerworld’s training directory for courses on “wireless” (as at mid-March 2003) elicits the underwhelming response of four courses from one lone supplier. (Search under “Bluetooth” and you get no results at all.) Not exactly spoiled for choices.

It’s not quite this bad, of course. There are courses out there; the April 2003 issue of Computerworld's sister publication Australian PC World lists a handful of local and overseas course providers. But, as with the wireless industry itself, the course topics, duration and outcome are mixed and still largely in development.

Courses available

Some universities are offering wireless courses as either elective or compulsory units within undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses. Monash University has units in wireless technology within its Bachelor and Masters of Network Computing degrees, all of these units being electives. The university will be introducing a Bachelor of Network Computing (Mobile Computing) next year, which will incorporate six core non-elective units in wireless technology.

The current Bachelor degree is HECS-based, with full-fee programs available for those who do not qualify for a HECS place. The Masters degree is a full-fee course. The wireless technology units are also available as single subject units, usually on a full-fee basis.

Edith Cowan University is instituting a portable data systems unit within its Bachelor of Science (Internet Computing) degree course. This one semester unit (the degree requires four units per semester, with two semesters in each of the three years of a degree) begins in the second semester this year, and will become a compulsory part of the second year of the degree course.

The course “explores the theory and practice of accessing and deploying dynamic and timely information to portable data systems for portable information devices, such as 3G enabled devices, personal data assistants and notebook computers”. The unit also has a focus on wireless transmission, protocols, spectrum utilisation, mobile base station location and architecture.

Other universities, such as RMIT, offer wireless as an elective.

For those not so keen on the requirements of a degree course to fulfil their wireless interests, there is a range of vendor-based and independent short courses in a variety of wireless-related topics.

Sun offers a number of topics, including introductions to wireless technologies and J2ME platform, developing mobile and wireless applications (using, variously, the Java2 platform and WAP/WML), and other Sun-related technologies. It says these courses are suitable for architect/analysts and planners; mobile application developers and project managers; and admin and project installers. Certain of these professionals will need to show proficiency as a Sun-certified programmer for the Java 2 platform or an equivalent. In contrast to the months required for university-related courses, these take two or three days full time.

Illustrated Networks – the one supplier listed on the Computerworld site – offers Cisco Aironet wireless fundamentals and site survey, a hands-on four day class that covers the technologies used in wireless networking, as well as the equipment used for wireless communication. The site survey section shows how to utilise various types of antenna and wireless access equipment to provide adequate coverage for diverse environments. Wireless security “tailored to the Australian market” is also covered. All of these courses are full time and assume students have a basic understanding of networking.

D-Link is running a series of half-day hands-on workshops in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (possibly extending to other cities later). Designed for technology “recommendors”, systems integrators and installers, D-Link says the seminars are pitched at a technical, intermediate level and have attracted wide interest, including “cable installers looking at the opposition”, according to marketing manager, Maurice Famularo.

The Australian Computer Society covers wireless technologies as part of its standard certification courses, with students able to extend their learning through assignments “and so far, some have”, according to Gerald Murphy, the ACS’s certification program manager. Perhaps indicative of the ebb and flow of the wireless industry and its supporting educational infrastructure, Murphy admits that wireless topics were originally offered as part of a data communications course, but there was not enough demand to keep that course going.

The ACS conducted a series of Education Across the Nation seminars last year on the topic “Will the world go wireless”. Murphy says these events were very well attended, indicating at least strong interest in the area.

Virtually all of these organisations report an upswing in student interest in wireless topics, although none were able to offer hard figures. Chris Jaeker, director of Illustrated Networks, says, “We see a lot of interest from resellers looking to improve their skill sets to target wireless opportunities. Occasionally, interest is part of a corporate deployment project … Generally the interest is due to specific corporate need rather than individuals seeking to augment their resumé.”

Hot topics

Within these courses are a number of hot topics that are receiving greater interest from students and potential employers alike. Jaeker lists the following as worthy of closer consideration:

  • Wireless Hotspots -- These are built in shopping centres, coffee shops, airport concourses, and the like, and allow members and guests (who pay by credit card) to have wireless access to the Internet (and therefore their corporate networks via secure tunnels) while on the road. The development of hand-held and tablet PCs as well as traditional laptops and PDAs will drive this along. Jaeker says this is already offered at Greenwood Plaza in North Sydney.
  • Voice over Wireless -- As companies move into Voice over IP, it is a logical extension for wireless handsets to be able to access corporate voice networks, giving users the same facilities for making and receiving calls while they are moving around a building or campus. “The benefits are particularly apparent for the health, education and logistics markets,” he says.

Professor Elizabeth Kendall, head of the School of Network Computing, Faculty of IT at Monash, adds that mobile commerce, mobile applications development (.Net, J2ME, Brew), Internet devices and ubiquitous computing are all hot topics at the moment.

Arthur Richardson, partner manager for Sun Services, says, “Software development seems to be the big push, especially in relation to mobile communications.”

But one topic they all agree as leading the field is that of network security.

The combination of the Privacy Act and the technology’s current inherent vulnerability to interception means that security has become both a corporate governance and a technological priority.

Kendall suggests that network security is one of the top employment opportunities. “I’m sure that someone specialising in wireless security would be very employable.”

Job prospects

So where might wireless experts find likely employment?

First of all, you have to realise that it is likely there will be few, if any, opportunities for “wireless specialists”.

“Wireless networking as a profession may never arrive,” Jaeker says. “It’s more likely that the elements of wireless networking will become mainstream to networking technologies.”

Associate Professor Zahir Tari, senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science & Information Technology at RMIT, agrees. “You need to look at which aspect of wireless you intend to follow. You need to specialise; you can’t do ‘wireless’ as such.” He suggests you consider the following areas:

  • Networks, where employment opportunities will probably mean a position as a “networks specialist who knows about the security and wireless aspects”
  • Systems administration
  • Applications development (“lots of aspects; this is a very big field”).

Kendall agrees that applications development is promising, particularly for small, handheld devices. This will require knowledge of J2ME, .Net, Brew, and the like.

However, Duncan Amos, contracts manager for recruitment and contracting firm Hays IT, says that the market for software developers in wireless technologies is down on last year. He says that network implementation is currently stronger on opportunities, with this area likely to increase in the future.

Most organisations are not large enough to warrant a full-time wireless specialist, Tari says. Job opportunities for those with wireless experience and/or qualifications are likely to be the telecommunications companies or IT consultancies.

But telcos have been going through a hard time of late, he adds, so there are fewer job opportunities there, although “the market should pick up”.

“It’s not automatic that you will work in the wireless field,” he warns.

Arthur Wilson, senior lecturer and course coordinator at Edith Cowan, is slightly less downbeat: “A 100 per cent wireless specialist? Not now, but it will come.

"Wireless is going through a transition stage where it is no longer an option; that’s the way industry and government are heading.

“Technological skills are the basis, but it adds value to also have business expertise.”

Amos thinks experience is the key. “There are full time jobs available in large organisations, especially those that need to secure their data. You could be doing feasibility studies, security assessment, which means you need to understand the business requirements as much as the technology. But at the moment, more employers are looking for experience rather than qualifications. Know-how in security is particularly valued.”

That is why contracting and consulting are seen as key employment areas.

“Contractors normally have the best and most varied experience,” Amos says. Those with experience in telco software development, and hardware backgrounds, will have better chance of finding the best jobs. He also adds that a number of organisations, particularly smaller consulting firms, are finding that the work is overseas, and teams of specialists, including wireless specialists, might find themselves in Asia, for instance, rather than staying in Australia.

That might be true of all jobs. A quick search of the Career One site mid-March revealed only 13 wireless-oriented jobs, of which 10 were in New Zealand!

Jaeker sums up the situation thus: “The theory and practice of radio is rightly a tertiary study. Wireless networking is the practical application of a small part of that broad discipline. Any networking professional needs to be up to speed on wireless networks now, and should in any event be skilled enough to design or implement a network within the next 12 months.

He definitely thinks the world is going wireless.

“Over the next three years, wireless will evolve in much the same way as Ethernet did during the nineties. Already standards are being laid that will take speeds up to 50 or 60Mbps. Laptops and mobile computing devices routinely include wireless access, and coverage will span to include commuter trains, aeroplanes, coffee shops and conference centres.

“Homes will include it as more of the family seeks to share broadband services. Mobile phones will offer it as a cheaper alternative to WAP and 3G. The price of mobile telephony services (3G, WAP SMS and GPRS) makes them prohibitive, but the marketing is compelling. More and more Web sites will service mobile users and wireless is well positioned to take up the slack.

The drivers for the technology will be newer (faster, more secure) standards, he says. Already a home can be unwired for less than $500. Small combined switches, firewalls and wireless access points cost about $300. “All you need is to buy an unwired laptop and ‘plug’ it in and you've got a network.

“The main issues for companies will be access, coverage and security. We are seeing an upswing in interest as the technologies become more mainstream and therefore less risky for corporate and institutional customers.”

Swotting the topic

McGraw-Hill Osborne has just released a study guide for the Certified Wireless Network Administrators.

The vendor-neutral 540-plus page book, published for the Planet3 Wireless, has the endorsement of the US-based Wireless LAN Association. It contains numerous illustrations and is the official study guide for the association's exam PWO-100 objectives.

Chapter headings start with Introduction to Wireless LANs and include Radio Frequency Fundamentals, Spread Spectrum Technology, WLAN Infrastructur devices, 802.11 Network Architecture, Troubleshooting and Security Site Survey Fundamentals.

As well as more than 150 practice exam questions and answers, step-by-step exercises, chapter self-tests and margin notes, the book has extensive glossary and indexes.

Available in Australia now from general booksellers, it retails at about $125.

* The first five IT managers to e-mail with 'Book' in the subject field, and who include their name and title, company name, address and phone number will receive a copy of the study guide.