South Australian, Phil Kernick, a former SAGE-AU President and current cyber security specialist, has been a member of the organisation now known as ITPA since 1995 and he gets just as much value out of his membership today as he ever has.

For Phil, involvement with the then SAGE-AU organisation all started when he was employed as an IT Manager at CSIRO’s Adelaide-based Division of Human Nutrition.

“Back then, it was standard practice for CSIRO’s IT people to join SAGE-AU so I followed my colleagues and started attending meetings and conferences,” Kernick said. “It was a good thing to do at the time and I still get value from the membership.

“That was a long time ago now but it was an exciting time to be in IT and working at CSIRO was great. There were really smart people doing interesting research and collaborating with their scientific peers from all around the world.”

All those years ago

Of course, 22 years ago, IT as a tool of trade was very much in its infancy and so too were the organisational structures and roles of the tech people that managed it. Kernick said that back then, each division of CSIRO had its own IT people, or person as was the case at Human Nutrition.

“I was the only IT person in the Human Nutrition division which included about 75 people,” Kernick said. “We only had one server that did everything and there were about 150 desktop computers with a mix of Apples and PCs.

“That one Solaris box operated as a file server, a mail server, a print server, authentication server and web server. It was an everything server. From an IT professional point-of-view, the 1990s was an interesting time.

“In those days being a systems administrator meant that you had to look after all systems. So, you had to know how to run the server but you also had to install, configure and manage all the software for all the users as well as build and maintain the network.

“There were no specialists as we know them today. Everybody was a general IT person and everybody had to know everything about every piece of kit. This is when people at CSIRO started doing real science on PCs and they were at the forefront of it.

“There were machines that ran a mass-spectrometer or some other form of testing gear related to doing scientific research and it was also about that time that the scientific community started using the internet for knowledge sharing and collaborative effort.

“It was a good time to be at CSIRO and I learned a lot.”

From operations to consulting

After being in that sys-admin role for about three and a half years, Phil’s career switched away from operations and into consultancy. He started out working for Price Waterhouse Coopers before having subsequent jobs with Camtech and Vectra Corporation over a six-year period.

“In 1996, I went from being an IT operations person into being a consultant,” he said.

“I started using my knowledge and experience to advise other people how they could be better building and running their IT and this eventually evolved into specialising in IT security.

“My role moved from a very tactical hands-on approach to an experience-based consultant with a high degree of strategy planning and business process re-engineering.”

As demand for security grew dramatically, in 2003 Kernick partnered with three other people and together they founded CQR Consulting, a business that has since grown to employ 60-plus people with operations in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Oxford (UK) and New York.

He now likes to tell people that he is “a reformed techie”. His work has no relation to hands-on operations but all along the way he has found it valuable to remain involved with SAGE-AU which is now the ITPA. A member since 1995, he has held a range of executive roles culminating in a three-year stint as President (from July 2004 to June 2007).

“There are a lot of smart people involved with ITPA and together, they represent an impressive collective of acquired knowledge and experience,” Kernick said. “I like to think of this body of knowledge as being ‘better than Google’.

“You can ask Google any question but you often don’t get any sensible answers. When you ask knowledgeable humans a question, then you will get a sensible answer.

“This organisation has always allowed me to get those sensible answers when I need them most. I think all of us who have been involved have found that to be really valuable in our careers.”

How the industry has changed

Having been around for so long, Kernick’s history in the industry pre-dates the internet so there are no surprises when he nominates that as the greatest milestone in the evolution of technology but affordable access and the mobility enabled by smart phones ae also big game changers he has seen.

“When we started accessing the web in 1993-94, it facilitated a type of communication that we had not even imagined before,” he said. “However, I also think that the arrival of ADSL in 2001 was a really key milestone as well.

“Prior to that, everybody was dialling-up on those squeaky modems. We only had that slow connectivity and it was so expensive that it was only businesses and public institutions that could afford it.

“Of course, when the iPhone was introduced in about 2007, we had a whole new world of mobility. It was a revolution that changed everything. Up until then, we did have internet-enabled mobility platforms - big clunky laptops- but up until that point, people still thought that you could keep your data secure and your world safe by building a big, chunky firewall and tuning it up.

“At that stage, people thought about cyber security as a product that you buy and that would make you safe. The answer to that is that you can’t and you never really could. People in shiny suits tried to tell us otherwise but the truth is that you never could do that.

“In reality, cyber security is a people problem. Everyone wants access to everything, all the time.

"Once the onset of smart phones and tablet devices took hold, we entered a new world in security where we have to worry a lot more about our people than we do about our technology.”

Stalking controversy or ahead of his time

Phil is well-known amongst his long-term ITPA colleagues for a presentation he gave at the 2007 national conference where he declared that the role of systems administrators as it then stood was dead and buried.

“It was a confrontational approach at the time but the point I was trying to get across at the time was that there was no longer a place for the ‘generalist’,” he said. “Suddenly, technology had evolved to the point where you could no longer do everything for any system of any business of any size.

“There was now so much complexity in the deployment and application of technology that it was no longer possible to just say ‘I am a systems administrator’ because the reality was that we now had Windows administrators, SharePoint administrators, Exchange administrators and network administrators.”

Kernick said that he first became interested in IT when he when the high school he attended bought its first Apple II computer in 1981. He had always loved technology and had a history of pulling things apart to see how they worked and then reassembling them but the concept of personal computing was foreign.

“I had never touched a computer before that but the impact on me personally was immediate,” he said. “I just thought this was the best thing ever and from then on knew that this is what I wanted to do.

“Of course, there was no real defined jobs working with these systems at that stage but somehow I knew that it was my future.”

Sage advice for career starters

Kernick has some, dare I say it, sage advice for people that are currently undertaking IT studies and just starting to make their way in the industry. He is confident that getting involved with ITPA is a good start.

“The first thing I would say is that you should learn all you can,” he said. “Nothing you learn is wasted so always keep training your brain and adding to your education stocks.

“Another suggestion I would offer is to not be a bigot and I mean that in a technical sense. Just because you might prefer Linux or Apple or whatever, doesn’t mean that everyone else must as well. Just because you like Macs doesn’t make everything else bad so be inclusive because I think that is important.

“In addition, don’t think that because you understand IT that you are smarter than other people. You are smarter at IT but they are a lot smarter than you on a lot of other things that are just as important to the business. So, don’t talk down to the people you are helping. There is too much of that in this industry and it is not helpful.

“Finally, the other thing that I think way too many people ignore is that you need to be part of the community. Join ITPA or some other interest group or work organisation. Be a human, not a machine. Don’t just be a lurker on the outside looking in.

“Immerse yourself in the community and get involved with like-minded peers. If your area has user group meetings, attend them. If they don’t, get involved in the knowledge sharing mailing list and contribute in any way you can or just soak up the collective knowledge of others.

“It is a much faster and more reliable way to find answers to any questions you have by asking someone who already knows than it is to go looking for the answers online.

“I like to compare it to say any random trade of the past or present - let’s say boot-making, for example. When you start out as a boot maker, you don’t know anything as an apprentice. Someone takes you under their wing, helps you and teaches you the tricks of the trade. As your knowledge and experience grows, you eventually get good at making boots.

“IT is still a lot like that. You can get a lot of theoretical knowledge but you still have a lot to learn at the coal face. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know. There are people who will help you along the way.

“A lot of people hesitate to ask because they believe that if you ask people will think you are dumb, whereas the reality is that people will think you are dumb if you don’t ask questions and stumble on.”

A closing thought

Phil wanted to leave people who are Associate members of ITPA and reading this profile with a closing thought.

“I encourage you all to become professional level members of the organisation,” he said. “I would not have stayed a member if I had not been deriving value from it for over 20 years.

“I’ve been in this industry way longer than most others and I still find the ITPA useful to me as an IT professional. I am a keen supporter of the organisation, what it stands for and what it is trying to achieve.

“You should too.”