On the job: Engineering our daily experiences
Carl Heikel (Network Engineering Technology '06) was 10 years old when his mom brought home his family's first computer, a white Macintosh SE. It was the mid-90s, a time when dial-up internet was all the rage, and household encyclopedia collections were still used because Google hadn't yet been realized. At the time, of course, Heikel couldn't have guessed he'd pursue a career in information technology (IT), but when he reflects back, he says he isn't totally surprised he ended up in network engineering either.
As a kid, as much as he loved sports and playing outside, he also loved taking old electronics apart and was fascinated by how they worked. And then, a grade 10 introductory networking class introduced Heikel to the emerging world of digital architecture and design. Today, the 33-year-old leads a team of 11 network engineers from the comfort of his home office. While he reflects enthusiastically about his SAIT education being fundamental to his career, it's clear his success has been driven by the same childhood curiosity for how things work as well as the challenges that come with keeping pace in a dynamic and ever-evolving digital world.
How much do our daily lives rely on a network engineer?
CH: There's so much core infrastructure in a city and it's all run on software — that's why there is so much emphasis on security. I'm consistently surprised with the amount of IT infrastructure behind a service. Whether that's going to a hospital and they look at your records, going to a dealership and getting a Carfax, or you look at a water company — how their pumps work — and then you look at your own house, cell phone, Wi-Fi, Netflix — all of that is riding on some type of network infrastructure — wireless, copper, fiber optic or whatever — there is a network engineer involved.
How does the threat of hacking and internet security impact the work you do?
CH: Security is an interesting sector and there are organizations that are 100% dedicated to security. My employer, Optanix is not a security company. It's not like we ignore it — you can't ignore it — but it's not our primary service. With that said, the services we provide are intrinsically related to security because everything requires it. The value we bring is more monitoring and intelligence to predict problems, to optimize systems and to condense 100,000 events to one event that the client actually needs to pay attention to.
What would be an example of this?
CH: For example, if we were working with a bank, they would have a central office and, let's say, 20 branches. All 20 branches would somehow connect into that head office and there's a variety of mechanisms or technology used to connect them.
Banking is very time-sensitive. The time you make a deposit should be very close to the time you get confirmation of that transaction. If there is too much of a delay between those, it might indicate that process was hijacked to a certain extent which presents a vulnerability. If the branch is having a hard time doing that because the communication to and from the head office is too slow, we need to fix that. So we would be looking at what type of traffic is flowing to and from the main branch, if it's too much traffic, and things like that.
Essentially, anything that impacts the core operation of a business — any business goal that is facilitated with an IT service — we ensure those things are operating properly.
In a world where technology is changing all the time, how do companies like yours stay relevant?
CH: It's not even a question of staying up to date, it's more about staying ahead. Our clients look to us as technology leaders. If we are going to design something for them, they may wonder how long it will last — they don't want it to be irrelevant in six months.
Technology and IT never sleeps, so we can't either. If something goes wrong, we need to be able to respond to it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We have enough process, scheduling and resources in place so people aren't being woken up every night. At the same time, if something goes down, it's all hands on deck, which is cool. To be able to respond as fast as we can is huge in our industry. It keeps things interesting and it can be very rewarding.