The Friday interview: Science Ambassador Stephen Church is a newspaper systems administrator (sysadmin) and a director at Irish Micro Electronic Services. Here he talks about how he chose his career, what he studied at school and college, and what his work is like.
Our Science Ambassadors include newly qualified and well established Irish scientists. They work in science and technology, love their work and want to help others learn about what it’s really like working in their particular areas of research and innovation.
What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
In secondary school I chose to do engineering to build a practical and theoretical base for learning engineering, and I also took part in the BT Young Scientist competition in 2006 and 2007 as well as DCU’s CTYI Programme (the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland)
When I was 14 I registered my first company, making small money repairing computers and unlocking mobile phones locally.
I attended NUI Maynooth to do electronics engineering, which interested me the most.
Describe a typical day
Typically I work answering emails and phone calls in the morning while driving around doing calls for my customers at my own company, Irish Micro Electronic Services. At 3pm I start my other position at the Irsih Daily Star newspaper and assume a development and support role.
This will usually entail looking over the status of many servers and connections, and checking for updates or news from different hardware and software vendors to determine if there are any new or updated solutions that may assist in effective and efficient service delivery and maximise uptime.
What are your main tasks and responsibilities?
Overall it’s hard to define. My responsibility is to make sure business runs as smoothly as possible for everyone else while making my skills available as much as possible.
I suppose if businesses were to be bricks I would be cement. I fill any role as needed, which could involve anything from rebuilding a server RAID array to fixing an overflow pipe on an air conditioner, to bug-fixing a software package.
What are the main challenges?
The biggest challenge in the world of IT is definitely the pace at which it moves, from new hardware and software to changes in trends and in how the industry works. If you don’t take time to keep up to date on what’s happening, you’ll lose out very quickly.
What’s cool about the work?
Working in IT itself is cool, it’s an ever present industry that impacts all of our lives. As time goes on, computers are becoming more and more integrated into our work and home lives.
The best thing about working has to be that moment where you come across a problem that nobody else can fix, that perhaps a few engineers have encountered or it’s an unknown problem not documented anywhere, when you fix that problem and know that it’s over, all that hard work and those hours put in have resulted in success.
What’s not so cool?
The hours. I sometimes work some scarily long hours to fix problems. I once started re-patching a network cabinet at 11pm and wasn’t finished till 6am, and I had been working solid from 10am the previous day, but it had to be done.
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
I tend to keep an upbeat attitude and keep going until a problem is solved.
An excellent working knowledge of a variety of systems, combined with seeing how they perform in the real world, definitely gives me an advantage when tackling problems or recommending new solutions.
In terms of personal qualities I can be a bit blunt when I need to be, but in general I’m able to communicate effectively with clients who might not be technically minded, and explain their problem and the solution, and in between just have a general conversation.
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
For my Leaving Cert I took engineering, physics and construction studies. I also taught myself technical graphics. These have definitely helped me along my career path and let me gain a greater understanding of how our world works and materials and electronics as a whole.
I felt that all these subjects properly geared me for both engineering in college and a career in IT. If I had to do it all again, I’d pick exactly the same subjects.
What is your education to date?
Leaving Certificate, BE Electronics Engineering (on hiatus for the moment). I think my self-taught skills are the most important though. I have taught myself multiple programming languages, applications such as Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, as well as microcontroller programming, web design, auto electronics, car repair and a lot of general DIY skills.
What aspects of your education have been most important for your job?
A Leaving Cert is a good foundation to get onto the career ladder. After that I have found that some college experience and a lot of my self-motivated learning has helped me gain experience and move up the career ladder.
Do you plan to undertake any further training?
I would love to do a course on Adobe After Effects, as well as learn Objective-C# (programming language). Those are two skills that could help me turn some of my ideas into physical realisations.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
Turning a profit from my own business and building a reputation as somebody who can reliably get the job done when needed.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
I would consider myself a fairly ambitious person. I’m always on the lookout for new concepts and ways of doing things that I could bring to other businesses.
I think self confidence helps an awful lot with getting through the door and reassuring people that the job will be done properly. I’m a fairly sociable person and it helps to build a rapport with clients and make a job feel less clinical and mundane.
What is your dream job?
I’m sure we’d all love to be Ferrari test drivers or professional party-goers, but in the real world I would love to be head of a multinational corporation, influencing design and product trends across the world.
Why? Well mostly I just want to make my mark on the world and be remembered for something. I would like people to benefit from my ideas and progress technology as far as possible in my lifetime.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for your job?
Creativity, problem solving and being able to separate work and life.
You need thick skin to work in a stressful environment where tensions run high – you need to block it out, knuckle down and get the job done.
What kind of work experience would provide a good background for your kind of work?
I would recommend that anyone looking for a career in IT tries to get a part-time job in a computer repair shop or IT help desk.
It will give you experience and you can build up your troubleshooting and communication skills to set you up for your career.