The Face Of Tech Support

Project chief, network architect or owner, they can put in long hours and high mileage keeping the data moving and systems quiet.

April 27, 2005|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Provident Bank's Joe Barbera is a network architect, or one of the top-level computer wizards who keep information safe by creating and monitoring the system on which it travels.

It's a hectic job racing against the speed at which information travels to ensure it flows along a flawless path. Absolutely nothing can interrupt the bank's operations, he said. Even the slightest hint of potential problems can send him and his colleagues into a frenzy.

Working at one of the state's biggest financial institutions, Barbera knows a single glitch can cost a lifetime's savings, a home or worse.

"It's always a challenge," he said.

Information technology workers toil long hours in high-pressure jobs to keep all the things we take for granted going - such as keeping money safe and unsnarling e-mail viruses and Internet traffic.

While most office employees probably won't need a tech expert unless something goes wrong, a computer specialist's presence during an electronic crisis often helps calm nerves and saves - or finds - the all-important files or e-mail. Here's a day in the life of several computer specialists around town and how they move to tackle or prevent the electronic troubles their companies can experience:

Barbera officially starts his day at 8 a.m. by scanning logs that show potential roadblocks - downed circuits or problems with the company's telecommunications provider. If a problem crops up - and no disasters have occurred under his watch, he said - Barbera reroutes the bank's sensitive information through the complex network of computer hardware.

Barbera carries a pager and laptop, and watches two monitors on his desk. He can work long into the night, as he and his co-workers did over the past few years as they upgraded Provident Bank of Maryland's system.

But their sweat paid off, he said. The new system has held emergency calls to his home to a low roar.

Everyone needs information technology employees, said Tom Carter, managing recruiter at Delaware-based Red Mill Group, which draws employees from the Baltimore-Washington area.

"Short of sitting on the porch and watching the grass grow, there's little one can do that doesn't involve computers," he said.

While the days of triple-matched 401(k) plans are over, companies will pay well for IT employees they really need, said Maria Schafer, a program director for META Group Inc., an IT research company based in Stamford, Conn.

Although business can't function without them, demand for IT employees crashed when the tech bubble burst in 2000.

"They aren't giving out the cookie jar," said Neal Fisher, president of Towson-based PPS Information Systems Staffing.

Hiring in Maryland has grown slowly over the past several years, keeping pace with national trends. The state boasts more than 160,000 IT employees who earn a yearly average of $66,500.

Larry Johnson and Mike Mills of The NERDS Group in Silver Spring assist Montgomery County in building and backing up its internal networks. One project the group coordinates is the county's public bus line.

Johnson said he intentionally dubbed the company NERDS - for Network Engineering & Resources Development Specialists - because clients seem to find it reassuring.

"It makes them think we're science and math people," said Johnson, who with his wife, Cheryl, owns the company.

Coordinating public transportation systems is a highly sensitive, almost secret job, so Mills, who said he was "sort of geeky" in high school, spends most of his time in a locked room in front of a computer, monitoring systems, scouting for security breaches and updating software. He is a system network administrator for the company.

His schedule reads like bankers' hours, but in truth he works far more. He, like most of his company's employees, is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Montgomery County employees even know his vacation schedule and relatives' telephone numbers.

On a recent afternoon, Constellation Energy's Aimee Wieber managed her 15-member team scattered across the country using her BlackBerry and a laptop.

Wieber, 46, was making a stop at her Baltimore office before jetting off across the country. She is charged with reconnecting the NewEnergy division of the $12.6 billion company with software that would make data storage faster and easier. Constellation owns Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

She needs both business and people skills to keep costs down, morale high and information flowing smoothly, she said. There's no time to be holed up in an office with a computer.

Wieber never dreamed her job would take her this far. She graduated from what is now Towson University before "information systems" became a major. She drifted into computers because she wanted a stable schedule so she could raise her family. And it allowed her that - for a while.

Fifteen years later, she heads a project team for Constellation NewEnergy, which operates in 22 states and in three Canadian provinces. Travel makes up 70 percent of her time.

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