The softer side of network administration

Many times when we think about what makes a good network administrator, we limit our thinking to technical knowledge. Do they understand Ethernet? Do they have a firm grasp of 802.11? Can they make practical use of the OSI Model? Yet, it's often the soft skills that make or break us in the end.

This week two things are on the minds of a lot of technologists -- the release of the Apple iPad 3 and March Madness. There are a lot of articles being written about how network administrators can deal with the hordes of new iPads showing up in their environment and what features of the new version of IOS may be especially troubling. You'll also find articles talking about the national college basketball championships, lovingly called March Madness, and how network engineers can deal with the extra, non-essential network traffic that employees will generate by watching these games from the office.

Most of these articles will focus on the technical aspects of these problems. For the iPad this will involve securing your Wi-fi connections, validating VPN configurations, and worrying about bandwidth consumption of high resolution video. With regards to March Madness most people will focus on QoS policy definitions, ACL updates, and the like. That's all well and good, but what may have a larger impact upon your success as an IT manager during the next few weeks is how you deal with the softer side of these situations.

How do you explain to one of your executives that by watching four simultaneous basketball games from his office while the accounting team is trying to do end of month reporting causes application performance issues? How do you tell the CEO that her daughter's new iPad 3 really shouldn't be connected to the corporate wireless network due to PCI or HIPAA regulations? I'm betting they didn't talk about things like this at that CCNA boot camp you attended, did they?

Soft skills are often neglected in the training of technical people and in many cases we assume that because we're in IT we're not supposed to have good people skills. I myself have been compared to Dr. Sheldon Cooper from CBS's The Big Bang Theory on more than one account and I can promise you that it isn't because I'm a world renowned physicist.

Your abilities to stay calm under pressure, use tact when explaining technical and compliance oriented facts to neophytes will likely determine how successful you are as an IT administrator. Being able to recite Cisco CLI commands from memory and do variable length subnet masking (VLSM) in your head is cool, but I doubt that your boss will remember you for it.

Last but not least, I can't stress enough how important it is to have solid negotiating skills. Not only will this directly impact how you are compensated, but in today's IT workplace many of us are brokering IT services as often as providing them ourselves. The services that are being offered by cloud providers, SaaS companies, remote backup facilities, and even data center hosting facilities are often cutting edge and offer a tremendous amount of flexibility in pricing. The new EC2 offering from Amazon is a great example. Not only do you need to be able to read between the lines and determine the value to your organization from a technical perspective, but you'll have an integral part in the price negotiations. This is a great opportunity to step up in a way that is very visible to your CIO and the rest of your management team.

Have a cool story about how soft skills saved your bacon? Know any horror stories about especially non-social IT pros? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

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Josh Stephens is Head Geek and VP of Technology at SolarWinds, an IT management software company based in Austin, Texas. He shares network management best practices on SolarWinds’ GeekSpeak and thwack. Follow Josh on Twitter @sw_headgeek and SolarWinds @solarwinds.  


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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