Careers: Interviews
Cisco and Microsoft networking expert, MS Office master

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Joe Habraken, an international IT expert, consultant, best-selling author, trainer and educator with more than 15 years in the industry.


Joe is an assistant professor at the University of New England teaching a broad range of information technology (IT) courses. He also holds industry certifications from Microsoft and Cisco. Amongst his book credits, he has authored, Microsoft Office 2003 All-in1, CCNA 2.0 640-507 Routing and Switching Cheat Sheet, Practical Cisco Routers, Microsoft Office XP 8 in 1, Sams Teach Yourself Microsoft Server 2003 in 24 Hours, and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide To Networking Fourth Edition.




Q: Joe, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview.


A: It's my pleasure, Stephen, thanks for providing me with the opportunity to discuss my new book.


Q: You have a most interesting background. Detail the challenges you faced and your many successes plus valuable lessons learned that you can share with the audience.


A: I have been lucky in that I have worked in the information technology field and also had the opportunity to teach in both adult education and at the University level. This has really helped me in determining how to best present computer technology topics in a book.  I have also learned that the IT field, whether you are writing books or not, is extremely demanding in that you have to keep up with the latest technologies. This is a challenge for any IT professional.


Q: What has made your Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Networking series so successful? How is it unique? Why would someone want to read the book?


A: The book is unique in that we take pretty complex information and present it a manner that even the novice computer support professional or help desk technician can really expand their knowledge of networking including network infrastructures, security basics, and some of the popular network operating systems available. I think someone would want to read the book because it provides a primer on pretty much all the different aspects of working on networks that network administrators deal with. The book is also unique in that it tackles concepts such as subnetting, which is something you don't normally see in this level of book. I think the coverage of material and the depth of information would both be good reasons someone would want to read the book.


Q: Can you share five useful tips from the book?


A: Network security starts at home. Have a solid plan for how you assign passwords and user accounts.


Train your user-base. Informed users will help cut down on user-error problems on the network.


Don't buy everyone in the organization a PDA. The ability to access calendars, email, and other network resources through VPN connections is still a better way to approach working in the field. I'm not saying that everyone needs to lug around a lap top, but PDA technology is changing so rapidly that it might be an area where you sit and wait and try to take advantage of other connectivity possibilities to the home network using RAS and VPN.


Look closely at your network needs before deploying a new network operating system. This includes upgrading. Weigh the new benefits provided by a change or new release and whether these benefits overcome the shortcomings of end-user training and other rollout costs. I'm not saying don't ever upgrade. I'm saying take a good look at what you are getting into. New technology is very seductive; I think you have to identify compelling reasons for a change.


Don't try to build your own clients and servers. That's crazy!


Q: Any additional tips you would like to share from your other books?


A: The theme in all my books is to have a good plan before you implement any kind of computer technology. Make sure your plan is in line with the overall company goals and can be justified when you have to present or justify your budget. Finally, maintain a good sense of humor. If you don't have a sense of humor, get one. It will serve you well.


Q: Contrast the latest offerings from Microsoft, Red Hat, and Novell; pros and cons of each and situations where you would recommend them.


A: This is a tough one. Microsoft Windows Server 2003 has a number of pros, including the fact that if you want to run Exchange you have to deploy the Windows Server platform. I like the fact that the more recent versions of Windows Server (2000, and 2003) moved to the concept of the snap-in so that all the various tools and utilities share a common interface. New innovations like Shadow Copy and the robustness of Internet Information Server along with Group Policies make the Windows NOS a good choice. Security issues related to deploying the Microsoft NOS and Microsoft clients continues to be a big headache. Also dealing with trusts relationships even though most are now implicit between domains is something that I have never really enjoyed.


The last couple of versions of Novell NetWare have been real dynamite and Novell has been getting a lot of good press. The addition of Apache Web Server and the new eDirectory to the platform are certainly excellent editions. NetWare also seems to have much fewer security issues. However, I think GroupWise still is a con when working with the NetWare platform. And SQL Server and some other specialized services are still easier to deploy in the Windows environment.


Linux is becoming much more user friendly and powerful. One of the pros has to be the cost even for the specialized and more expensive versions that are being offered from distributors such as Red Hat. As far as the user desktop goes, Linux distributions such as Lycoris are almost at the point where even home users may see Linux as an alternative to Windows. The biggest pro related to Linux is that many very creative developers are working in the Linux environment. A big con is that the tools that they create come and go like the seasons. Consistency from release to release is still an issue with Linux. Although, I do think it is a NOS to watch and I can see why it makes Microsoft nervous.


Q: How will these operating environments evolve in the future?


A: How these operating systems will evolve is certainly a good question. So, without dragging out my crystal ball, let me discuss what I think these operating systems need to do. In terms of Windows Server 2003, security holes are still an issue and this is going to be a continuing problem for Microsoft. Group Policy provides an excellent way for an administrator to really control the network environment, but there are some glitches related to policies being overwritten when you update the server software. Microsoft needs to try harder.


In terms of Linux, the fact that it was a product of an open source initiative means that some very creative people have developed tools and add-ons that make it an extremely robust environment. However, open source software is problematic in that when a programmer loses interest in a tool or doesn't have time to update a tool; some very good Linux add-ons go by the wayside. Red Hat or one of the other Linux distributors needs to provide some development incentives for those programmers that are thinking outside the box and making Linux a real threat to these other NOS platforms. Also, there is still a need to make Linux friendlier at the desktop, even though it has become much easier for the average user to work with.


Novell seems to definitely be interested in embracing more Linux code to quickly upgrade their NOS. The addition of Apache Web server to the NetWare platform was an extremely good idea. We will also have to see if NetWare's eDirectory can put a dent in the move to Microsoft's Active Directory. 


Q: Describe the different media used to connect computers and which ones you would recommend.


A: I think connectivity really boils down to wireless technologies and the standard cabled network. I think any company building a new network infrastructure would be remiss if they don't consider a fiber optic backbone and the use of fast switches. Ethernet is certainly the most used architecture and it’s going to be around for a long time, meaning understanding switching and routing technology to protect bandwidth is essential.  Gigabit Ethernet will become fairly common place in the next few years. Pulling wire is still a pain in the neck, however.


Wireless networking is certainly coming into its own with the various access technology and NICs that are available. We actually have wireless capabilities at our University (the University of New England) and it provides students with laptops a lot of capabilities in "roaming" the campus and connecting to the network. Wireless still has some security issues but I think small business and institutions that keep sensitive information off of the public network can easily retrofit with wireless.


Q: What are the best ways to safeguard your computers and networks?


A: I think the use of firewalls and proxy servers is essentials. If you don't upgrade your virus software periodically, you are really asking for a network-wide infection. Since Windows is the most used desktop OS, I think that everyone has learned recently that you also have to keep the OS updated. Hackers are obviously working hard and finding new exploits on an almost daily basis. Using strong password protection and actually having rules governing how users are to act on the network are also good ideas.


Q: Do you have any tips on troubleshooting computer and network problems?


A: Always check the physical connections first.

Don't immediately assume that it is user error.

Check the server closet to see if there is a problem and don't forget to check the various system and error logs that the NOS provide.

Keep good backups in case you have a major problem.

Keep your resume up to date if you don't have good backups.


Q: Any predications about Microsoft Office?


A: Microsoft Office is going to remain the industry leader. The only real alternative is Star Office from Sun. Office 2003 has some very interesting features related to collaboration and I think this keeps the Microsoft suite a strong bet for the near future at least.


Q: Where do you see Cisco in the marketplace in the coming years?


A: The dot bomb phenomenon hurt Cisco, even though the company continues to be strong and provides some great technology. I think Cisco will be around a long time. The hub is certainly a thing of the past. Switches, routers, and other connectivity hardware are going to continue to be extremely important. Cisco does need to keep pace with the fact that wireless technology is certainly a seductive possibility for many companies’ connectivity needs.


Q: Do you have comments on Web services: traditional business models and how Web services will impact on them, how new business models for Web services can be created, business model trends for Web services, and how one can build a long-term business model for Web services and what will be its impact on ROI?


A: This is a very good question in that I think we have seen a complete meltdown of the enthusiasm that the dot com era brought to companies in terms of Web services. I think this was really a result of traditional business models not providing a solid framework for how Web services can be an integral part of a company's overall approach to business.  So, I think we need a revival of confidence. I also think that security issues have scared some companies away. Building a long term business model is going to require, at least I think, a new type of information technology professional. The stereotypical network "expert" is also going to have to have a business background and possibly an MBA. This is one of the reasons that we have integrated the information technology courses that I teach into our Business Administration program at the University of New England. We are going to need a paradigm shift in both thinking and planning for companies to be able to really take advantage of Web services that do provide a ROI. Companies will have to develop processes that allow them to more quickly embrace new technologies and make them part of their strategic plan. I guess finally, if I had a more definitive answer to this question, I would keep it a secret and only sell it to the highest bidder.


Q: Writing is an interesting profession. How can a novice get into writing, what important lessons have you learned, and do you have shortcuts to speed up the process?


A: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. I meet a lot of people at conventions and other events who say, "Oh, I'm a writer too," but they haven't really written anything. And that's not to say that everything you write has to be published. Writing is a craft, you have to practice it.


I think that I have been lucky in that my writing really began as a necessity because I worked at an institution a number of years ago that provided computer training and we couldn't find any satisfactory course materials. So, we wrote our own. That allowed me to practice the craft and apply it to information technology. So, there is some truth in that you should write what you know. You need to find a niche and then write. Also writing courses are a must. I've taken them and I still don't write as well as I would like. We consult experts when we deploy IT, so writing should be no different. Get feedback any way you can and keep writing.


Q: What new books can we expect from you?


A: I have a new Microsoft Office book, Microsoft Office All in One that will be coming out in October.  I'm also looking at some Web connectivity topics and of course network infrastructures. Either of these areas may be fodder for upcoming books.


Q: You must have both interesting and funny stories to tell from your many rich experiences—please share a few.


A: I think a number of my stories relate to stupid mistakes; for example spending hours troubleshooting a network connection problem on a coax Ethernet network, where the problem turned out to be a t-connector that fell off one of the computers. 


Another interesting experience was when I appeared on Tech TV for an interview. I was in San Francisco for the interview, which turned out to take less than 20 minutes. Before the interview, however, I probably spent 45 hours in the makeup chair as they attempted to take all the shine off my face and forehead (my hairline just isn't what it used to be). I didn't realize until I left the studio and jumped into a cab that I still had the makeup on.  I was wondering why people were looking at me as I strolled around San Fran.


Q: Which ten resources do you find the most useful?


A: 1) The Web, which is really a number of resources rolled into one. It gives you product information, case studies and keeps you up to date on issues affecting the IT world.


2) The SANS Website (although this is the Web, again) at Everyone in IT should be concerned with security and this site provides a huge resource.


3) Conferences, particularly Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas. Walking the convention floor will certainly get you up to date on the newest products and innovations. And you can always drop in few quarters in a slot machine if you need a temporary diversion from all the high-tech stuff.


4) Books, books, and more books. You have to read to really keep up with IT. The fact that I teach it and write about it means I have to do a lot of reading.


5) Beta and demo software, there is no better resource than trying a product in a test lab.


I think we have 5 resources here, so if this was a test question, I obviously wouldn't get this one right. Oh, I probably forgot a very important resource: people. You need to join and attend IT organization meetings, even at the local level. It's important to share ideas and find out what the other guy (guy, not being gender specific) is doing.


Q: What drives you to do what you do?


A: Primarily a very keen interest in computer technology. Also I love to teach and have been lucky to teach in a variety of educational settings. I write primarily because it gives me the chance to teach beyond the classroom and reach a far wider audience.


Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?


A: 1) I would ask, "What is the capital of Assyria"?  Sorry, that is an old Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference and I just couldn't resist.


2) Do you think technology is inherently good or bad in terms of the human condition?

I hope that people understand that we are really dividing the world into the technology haves and have-nots and this is going to affect developing countries as they attempt to become a part of the world market place.


3) What do you think people did at work before the Web?" The problem with a strong IT infrastructure is that it can become a novelty to the employees. A lot of that spam is because of hits on questionable sites by employees; it's not totally a result of how smart the spammers have become.


4) Where do you see IT careers going in the future? I think IT professionals will have to be generalists more than specialists. You won't just be able to be a router expert or the LAN guy. As the technology becomes cheaper and more robust, companies that can only afford a small IT staff will want to implement more of the technology available. And the ROI on this technology stuff is always questionable. Outsourcing may become more popular even for basic LAN management as the cost of keeping an employee in-house sky rockets. At least in the United States we have a real crisis related to providing employees with adequate health care and retirement options.


5) What was your first computer? I had a Tandy 100 portable. It had a separate "chipmonk" drive and a 300 baud modem. I also had an Adam that Coleco made. It had the noisiest printer ever made, but you could play cassette tape games on it. What more could you want from a computer other than printing and gaming?


Q: Do you have any more comments to add?


A: I think we have covered everything.


Q: Thank you again for sharing you valued knowledge and experiences.


A: You are very welcome.


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