003 – Alex Huthmacher, Manager of Network Infrastructure, 21st Century Fox

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[In This Episode][Guest Bio][Additional Notes][Text Transcript]

In This Episode – 10/02/14

 Today on our podcast we will be talking with Alex Huthmacher. Alex is the Manager of Network Infrastructure at 21st Century Fox where he Manages projects, configures network devices, firewalls, switches, load balancers, etc. Before working at FOX Alex was network engineer at Sandia National Laboratories where he focused on security in network integration. Alex has also worked at the Xerox data center in San Diego where he helped them migrate the infrastructure to Texas. We like to tease Alex that he can’t keep a job for longer than a year… but the reality is that with his skills, he is constantly in demand for increasingly complex positions requiring his level of expertise. With all this experience you might expect a much older man, but Alex’s determination, hands-on experience, and insatiable curiosity have served him well at his young age. 

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Guest Bio

Alex Huthmacher is an IT Professional who specializes in Networking who has taken a somewhat unconventional path towards success. He began college classes at the age of 16 and quickly identified areas of strengths and interests. Those interests led him to self-study an IT certification sequence (CCIE, CCNP, CCDP, CCNA: Security, CCNA: Voice, CCDA, JNCIS-SP, JNCIA, COMPTIA: Secutiy+, Ciena Carrier Ethernet, Microsoft Certified Technical Specialist, Microsoft Certified Professional) that has been the backbone of his educational experience. He has been exposed to many environments, making him experienced with a vast array of technologies. Alex has led multiple projects from conception to implementation. This experience has allowed him to master the skills of managing people, tasks, deadlines, and technical constraints. He proves myself through constant studying, sharing knowledge, and consistent leadership. He sets himself apart from the typical engineer with strong interpersonal skills, and extreme patience with customers. 

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Additional Notes

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Text Transcript

Intro: Do you dream of a classroom where learning is natural? Can we inspire students to lifelong learning? What exactly is the purpose of an education? Inspiring students to be curious, independent, creative, innovative, deep-thinking, confident, pro-active, collaborative, determined, educated. Rise to the challenge of changing the world. This is teaching, this learning, this is who we are. Welcome to the Table Top Inventing podcast.

Steve: Today in our podcast we will be talking with Alex Huthmacher. Alex is the Manager of Network Infrastructure at 21st Century Fox, where he manages projects, figures network devices, firewalls, switches, load balancers etc. Before working at Fox, Alex was a network engineer at Sandia National Laboratories where he focused on security and network integration. Alex has also worked at the Xerox Data Center in San Diego where he helped them migrate the infrastructure to Texas. With all this experience you might expect a much older man, but Alex is determination, hands-on experience, and insatiable curiosity have served him well at his young age.

Alex: Well, you know I’m the Manager of Infrastructure but I still do a lots of hands-on technical work, so a lot of people will be a little bit more familiar with the role of a Network Engineer, so I do that kind of stuff at work where I help manage and build the network that a lot of TV production content flows over in order to be sent to broadcasters like your cable company, satellite company, and that kind of thing which then make it to your TV.

Steve: That sounds like an important job.  (Alex laughs)  I remember the first time I watched a couple of things on Google and I thought this is interesting because it’s kind of a step up from the YouTube videos that I’d been watching for awhile.

Alex: Definitely, definitely, and it’s crazy how the broadcasting side of the world has really gone away from all this analog, you know, video, you know like from your video camera to the TV to more of a IP based technology where you know everything is done over the network and you don’t use all these analog signals anymore.

Steve: So how big is this network that you guys use? Like where does it stretch and what are the kind of things that you manage?

Alex: Well it’s definitely across the country, there are many sites, basically anywhere there is a sporting event there are pieces of network equipment that will connect back to our main sites which are one here in Los Angeles at the Fox Studios and then another one in Woodland, Texas, which is just north of Houston. And those are the two main sites, and we’re actually building a new data center in Las Vegas which will be kind of like a backup site for the other two sites. But there are thousands of devices and you know we have a large extensive base across the country just to report news and sports and that kind of thing.

Steve: So what kind of things do you do in your sort of day to day? What does that look like from a typical day’s activity?

Alex: Well, you know in my day to day I spend probably about thirty percent of my time planning and architecting new networks that are being brought up. That goes down to building network diagrams, figuring out how certain data in one location is going to make it to another location the fastest way and also building that network infrastructure in such a way that, you know, if the internet goes down one place we still can stream the contents through another internet connection and that kind of stuff. And then another thirty percent of my time is probably spent helping maintain the current infrastructure so if people have issues or if there are any kind of upgrades to what are already existing then we need to manage and facilitate that and make sure it doesn’t impact you know production stuff, the live TV and that kind of thing. And then another thirty percent of my time is probably more managing the future projects and how the process is going to flow and how they are going to be laid out and make sure that, you know, the time lines are met and that kind of thing.

Steve: Interesting. So how big is the infrastructure? Like how many people does it take to keep something that big running?

Alex: Well, I mean the core people so like the people that we would consider here at the Fox Studios at Woodland that kind of oversee the whole gig basically is about five network engineers and a couple of admins and a couple, you know, of like window server administrators and that kind of thing. And then, you know, of course there are all sorts of teams that do like development of programs and building interfaces like web interfaces, like Fox Sports and that sort of thing. But for my team it’s pretty small, but of course at each site there is always local technicians and that kind of thing that help do the hands on stuff.

Steve: Interesting. So now that we know a little bit about what you do let’s switch gears a little bit. Now I’ve known you for quite awhile and you and Debby and I have certainly had many late night conversations or other sort of interactions, and I’ve been really curious just to watch as you went from this student at the community college to where you are now. And I’d like to kind of walk through that history a little bit so that our listeners can understand a little bit more about the core of what we try to ask in this podcast which is what is the purpose of an education and at some level how do we work that out on a practical basis? So the first time I met you was probably in a robotics class that we had at the community college. What were you working on at that time to kind of aim in the direction that you are right now?

Alex: Oh, well I of course just purely out of my interest alone signed up for a lot of computer science classes just because I enjoyed being on the computer and I played a lot of video games and that kind of thing. But I really wasn’t 100% sure as to what I was going to be doing. But I knew it was going to be technology related so, I was just trying to get a little more familiar with technology and, you know, when you are brand new to the workforce and that kind of thing and trying to figure out what you want to do it’s hard to figure it out. Ok so if I want to do this, what kind of knowledge do I need and, you know, there’s kind of all these of generic things you can go after like computer science and programming and that kind of stuff, but those things may not directly relate to what you end up actually doing so I was just kind of doing the generic computer science kind of and trying to learn how to program a little bit and that kind of thing just to get me in the right direction because I knew I wanted to be in a technology focused role when I, you know, joined the workforce.

Steve: So you were just doing things that were interesting to you. That’s what it sounds like. You kind of  liked programming. You liked video games, and all that sounded interesting so you took some programming classes, etc. Now there were some other things that we’ve talked about that I didn’t hear you mention. There’s some certifications and things like that. How did you prepare for that?

Alex: Well luckily I had a really good mentor, and I think that’s like the key to get into a lot of job roles and that kind of things is having a really good mentor.  Someone you know that I worked with at a small doctor’s office actually put me onto the certification track, and so there were some classes in the community college but not a whole lot when it came to networking. Nothing super focused on that, but my friend and my mentor who was actually my boss at the time convinced me that certifications were the definitely the path to go down in order to, you know, get into the field that I was really interested in into which was networking. So the certifications really, I mean once I started studying for them they really helped me focus what I enjoyed doing because, you know, I started with the Cisco certification track and those are highly focused in networking and that’s when I really started to get a passion for what they actually do. And the certification process is really non structured. It’s really just go out and study and if you can pass this test then you get certification and, you know, it’s on your timetable and you spend as much as you want to on it. And once you have it you basically have proven that you’ve gotten a certain skill-set that now can be applied in the workforce.

Steve: So what kind of things do you have to read or study to get the right types of information. Do you have to do any hands-on training? What do you need to do to prepare for these types of certifications?

Alex: Well, you know, they always had tiers from like the, you know, from the easiest to the hardest. And you want to start at the easiest and from the easiest certification you can pretty much read the provided books which Cisco provides or whoever is doing the certification usually provides some kind of press book that you can buy and read. And also there’s, you know, a plethora of video training out there that you can watch. Phoebe King is one of them and that’s the one I’ve learned my very first certification through, and they were amazing.

And then also I just actually sat down with some equipment that the books were referring to. I actually purchased some equipment and started practicing and playing with it and trying to do the examples the book would give and that’s how I basically was able to pass my tests is through the book learning which is actually you really need to learn a lot out of the book, basically the theory and how things operate and that kind of thing. And then you use the videos to kind of convert that over to practical knowledge, and then I would use the practical knowledge to actually try out my own little labs with the equipment that I purchased.

Steve: So you started off with books, internet resources. Now, I did have one short question about the videos you watched, Were those like YouTube type, go log into a web site somewhere, or is that like a subscription base?

Alex: At that time, there weren’t a whole lot of YouTube resources or anything like that. It wasn’t free, that’s for sure. But they’re fairly affordable now, and usually now it’s a web site subscription you would get.  But back then I actually was borrowing them from a friend. So, that worked out for me, but you can go online and find, you know, video training on basically how to pass your certification, but if you can pass that certification then you definitely attained enough hands-on knowledge to actually start doing stuff in the workforce.

Steve: So you started by reading the books and getting the theory down and then the videos to kind of transition from this etheric knowledge to something practical and then you put that as you’re watching the videos I assume you started pulling up the network interfaces and you know hooking up physical devices and things like that. How important was that last step of actually putting your hands in the technology and trying it?

Alex: Well to actually achieve the certification I can’t say that it’s 100% applicable because a lot of the certifications don’t really require you to do an easier portion.  The easier certifications don’t require you to do a hands-on kind of situation. But I mean honestly I probably learned more from doing than I would have ever learned from watching a video or reading a book. So the doing aspect really kind of solidifies everything that you were thinking about while reading the book and then it also gives you a little bit more experience when you run into problems and things that you didn’t expect.

Steve: I’m going to take a left hand turn on you here. Just taking that last comment you said, have you been to a maker space before?

Alex: I have been to a maker space before. The one up in San Francisco, I stopped by for an hour or two.

Steve: So one of the things we talk a lot about in our Table Top Inventing is this idea of educational maker spaces, so very passionate about that because of exactly what you just said. This idea that you can do the book learning and the theoretical investigation to put the knowledge into the head, but then the knowledge doesn’t really become valuable until you put your hands on the technology your hands in the situation and start building or making something. So did you find that the hands-on experience that you got you know playing around in your little lab at home helped you get jobs or helped you worm your way into places you couldn’t have gotten with just the knowledge from the books?

Alex: Yeah definitely I think doing that it gives you a different, it’s better than just knowing how to do something if you actually walk through it and then you do it yourself. It gives you the ability to almost explain it to someone else, and that’s usually what they ask you in interviews, how do you do this, how do you do that. If you went to the book and you just spit out what the book said it would be very obvious right out of the gate. But if you have done it before then you would know all the little intricate steps that it takes in order to achieve certain things, and that’s what they are really looking for inside interviews. So the hands-on experience is absolutely key when it comes to, you know, showing that you didn’t just read a book and pass the test.

Steve: So for us, you know, we focus very much on the educational side of this. How do we bring this into schools, particularly to middle schools and high schools? And the question that comes up or that doesn’t come up but should come up more often is this question. What is the purpose of an education?  Debby and I have been thinking about that and batting it back and forth and asking lots of people. So from your perspective having been, you know, through all of this and what is the purpose of an education?  

Alex: Well, I mean that is a really broad question, but I mean if I would narrow it down I would say that. Because if you’re getting educated to do something you don’t enjoy then it’s really not an education in my perspective.  It’s more of like a requirement. So I feel like an education is giving you the ability to achieve the things you enjoy and to find other things that you enjoy and ultimately that would be the purpose of it.

Steve: You’re probably the first person I’ve interviewed so far that actually said that, but I think I completely agree with you that idea of loving what you do and education being a vehicle to do more of what you love to do. So what was the role that sort of classical education played in your education and sort of self learning?  How big were those roles in preparing you for where you are now?

Alex: I’m a pretty vocal person when it comes to classical education. You know I didn’t complete even my Associate’s Degree. You know I have I think like 70 credits or something at that community college, but I never did complete any kind of degree because honestly I did not enjoy the things I was learning at all. Not that there weren’t a lot of things that did interest me, but being forced to do the things that didn’t interest me really turned me off from the whole process itself. So classical education I think is just wasting a lot of people’s time. Not everybody, but a lot of people that need to you know explore their own hobbies and that kind of thing, the things they enjoy. I feel like it really prevents people from doing that, because they are stuck with this overarching feeling that they need or have to go to school and do the things they don’t enjoy, so that they can get a job and then enjoy something.

When it comes to self education I’m such a fan. You know, even now I spend every day learning something new, because you know I enjoy learning so much about the things that I enjoy. So I’m 100% dedicated to self learning and self teaching because it just makes sense to me. It makes sense to, um, spend my time, it adds value to my life that I spend time on myself. Whereas if I go to school I don’t feel like it’s adding value to my life, ah when I have to learn things that I don’t enjoy.

Steve: That’s just a little bit inflammatory, and I’ll try not to take offense since I have a PhD and (Alex laughs). But what I will say about that is that I think you’re more on to something than we like to admit in education. I mean personally after having been through you know a long line of classical education I was always interested in building and making things. I’ve always loved to build something, the more complex the better. I start off by taking things apart and seeing what was inside, and over time I got better at taking things apart and that gave me a schema for how to put things back together again. I started really enjoying the process of building devices, and I thought that meant that I should go be an engineer or you know a scientist, specifically a physicist which is what my classical degree is in. And, I went through all the, you know,appropriate, classical training to get a PhD and then went off to work for the Navy which is actually met you here in California.

Just looking back at that, you know, seeing where I am now, what I actually was probably an entrepreneur, which is a little bit different than a scientist. It looks a lot like a scientist because, you know, there are the same type of elements and there’s failure and persistence and you know continuity and creativity. But the motive behind them are a little bit different, and the amount of rigor that you take to your conclusions is significantly different. I mean as a scientist you really have to dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s, and make sure that you’ve come up with this water tight case when you present some theory or your idea.

As an entrepreneur you attack this from a completely different perspective, you know you first look at it and then do a little bit of research just enough to be dangerous to where you have a framework for where things are and then you start learning by trying stuff and when you get done you’ve built this experiential edifice that is based upon a sort of practical outworking of some underlying theory. And there’s probably some theory that could be written about your business once you finish you know putting it together. It’s not quite as rigorous and so you know you talk about you know self education and in doing a fair amount of education by self in business, for the last couple of years I would have to agree with you. The types of things I would have chosen for myself now looking back would have probably have been different, and I would have chosen different classes and different experiences if I had been more in control of that. You know, but I guess I wasn’t quite far enough out of the box to realize that I didn’t have to you know check off all those boxes.

Alex: Yeah. Well. I feel like you know just touching base on the scientific versus the entrepreneur. I feel like being a scientist and being more scientific in your process is really just an efficient form of being an entrepreneur. I mean I feel like the only reasons those scientific processes exist and scientists exist is because entrepreneurs wanted to get thing done as efficiently and accurately as possible.  

Steve: That’s an interesting way to look at it. I don’t have enough data to refute that at the moment. (Alex laughs) But I’ve just enjoyed the process of watching different people grow through you know their different educational pursuits. I’ve just been very impressed lately that those people that really look at their education and own it, you know some people actually own their classical education. They are taking their classes more intentionally. I actually know a guy who went through and all of his classes were in biology, and his degree was in biology but all of his practical experience was in engineering which was kind of interesting. You know, he wrote up this kind of weird sort of custom curriculum from south and managed to get a PhD from it. For me I kind of did what was suggested to me and I’m not sure that was the best path at the time, you know, and I’ve had to grow into this a little bit differently. You on the other hand started off from the very beginning saying these are the things I’m interested in, who cares about you know whether or not I finish these classes or not.

Alex: Exactly.

Steve: And evidently there are enough people out there, some very important people out there who believe that you know what you’re doing, you know, because Fox trusts you to manage their network infrastructure. I mean that’s kind of a big deal.

Alex: Definitely and trust builds off much experience and you know a lot of trial but honestly it’s something that you don’t need a degree for, but I think that the degree definitely helps when you trying to pursue those kind of things.

Steve: So of the other people who you work with in your, you know, sort of group of network managers there how many of them have a classical education and how many of them did what you did and then there’s a kind of in between path for some of them?

Alex: Well, I’m kind of out of the norm almost everywhere I go, but my current position I think everyone either has a Masters or a PhD.

Steve: Wow.

Alex: I’m pretty certain of that, but my previous job everyone had their PhD.  So I’ve always been kind of like sticking out as a sore thumb, but I think it’s more of the type of technology we work with there aren’t  lot of people that find that passion without going through the classical teaching and that kind of thing.

Steve: So essentially what you’re telling me is that you kind of took a PhD without the dissertation.

Alex: Yeah, pretty much.

Steve: I mean (Alex laughs) because I imagine a lot of the books you read, were quite technical and covered some networking in pretty deep detail.

Alex: Exactly. I spent countless hours just studying. I mean there were, you know, months and months I spent, you know, more than six hours a day just in a book or watching videos or practicing certain technology just so I could become an expert as fast as possible, and I think I’ve read that in order to be an expert you need at least 10,000 hours of experience and some kind of field.BUt I basically wanted to do it in 5,000 hours, so I stuck to my guns and focused really hard so that I could, you know, shine above just ordinary and definitely take a lot more responsibility in my own education and, you know, learn as much as possible and as fast as possible.

Steve: Wow. Well we could probably keep on talking for hours about this, but I think that is a good place to end our conversation for today. Thank you Alex for taking time to talk to us. Normally at this point I ask how we can keep in touch with you in case people in our audience are interested. Is that something you’re interested or willing to do, willing to share your information for people to get in touch with you, ask, you questions, etc.

Alex: Absolutely, absolutely. I do have a website where I kind of talk about some of these things and I blog my daily activities and that kind of thing and, you know, people can go through, like you know mine.

Steve: Share with us how to get in touch with you.

Alex: Yeah, yeah it’s www.netstatman.com and there I kind of blog and you guys can comment and that kind of thing and I think some of my contact information is on there. So there you can, you know, see a bunch of videos that I’ve posted on kind of my daily activities and it hasn’t been updated quite frequently enough but I’m definitely going to get back into it.

Steve: Well now that you live closer we definitely have to meet up soon, but thank you for taking a few minutes to talk to us here on the podcast and we’ll catch up with you later. Thanks Alex.

Alex: Absolutely. Thanks also to you.     

Outro: Thank you for joining us for the Table Top Inventing Podcast. Where we are seeking to answer the question, What is the purpose of an education? You can connect with us at Facebook.com/TableTopInventing or on Twitter at @ttinvent. To learn more about Table Top Inventing visit our website at www.ttinvent.com. Join us again next time when we will again seek to answer the question, What is the purpose of an education?

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