shutterstock_79327567 Remember Nick Burns, the Computer Guy on SNL? He was the computer geek who knew a lot about PCs, and embarrassed computer users on a regular basis; he made people feel bad because they didn’t understand why something didn’t print, or why their PC froze. Proclivity for embarrassing people aside, could a guy like Nick get a job today at a small business, or are sysadmins and their ilk in danger of losing out even more to automated systems and the cloud? When I got my start, the real-life version of the Computer Guy was essential if you wanted to add a user to the network, or even fix a paper jam. (Eventually I ended up building PCs, adding document management, and so on; after I got a handful of certifications, I left for a team at a larger firm.) To set up a new printer fifteen years ago, you needed to create a print queue, a print server, and a printer in Netware; today, it’s plug and play—and even the most technologically inept can always consult Google and YouTube for advice when things go wrong. In other words, the dedicated sysadmin is potentially out of a job if a business owner uses a consultant to build the network and check in for occasional maintenance. Ever since the gig economy came to the tech industry, an office can turn to Geek Squad or Geekatoo to connect a printer or install a workstation. Despite that flexibility, however, networks are more vulnerable than ever. And therein lies a significant challenge for those businesses that think they can manage without a tech pro (or a team of them) in-house.

New Challenges and New Opportunities

The needs of the network are far different than fifteen years ago, simpler in some ways but far more complicated in others. Now there are threats such as zero-day exploits, malware, and ransomware. The effort of keeping a network running today is just as much about making sure it isn’t compromised, and developing a contingency plan for if the worst happens. Security represents a collection of services that the gig economy has a hard time providing. An in-house person can:
  • Develop a Plan: What will your business do if the network is attacked with a DDoS, or if a user clicks on a malware link? The plan should define the roles of each stakeholder in responding to the attack.
  • Educate Users: Users represent the network's greatest vulnerability. Users need tech pros to help them change their mindset about emails, and become more questioning about suspicious messages.
  • Create and Maintain Backups: A network is important, but the data is priceless. A dedicated sysadmin or other tech pro can make sure that data is backed up.
Today’s network failures often come from external attacks that are posing an existential threat to the business. According to Symantec’s recent Internet Security Threat Report, 45 percent of small business found themselves spear-phished in 2014—up from only 19 percent in 2013. (Spear-phishing is especially pernicious because the hacker has taken the time out to learn something about the people working in the company, making malicious links very tempting to click.) For many tech workers, becoming the in-house sysadmin is a particularly promising career route, as a lack of a higher education isn’t necessarily an impediment for obtaining a position; last year, The New York Times reported that half the IT workers in New York do not have a college degree. Citi, according to the article, has “a huge team,” many of whom weren’t formally trained as computer scientists or engineers. Hackers willing to put on a white hat can also find a job waiting for them at a firm, even if they have no previous corporate experience. In other words, the in-house computer person is very much needed today—just more in a security role.