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Cool Jobs: Sysadmin at South Pole

Published in 2000

After a year on the ice, Antarctic techie Jason Holmes looks back on the special joys and challenges of his assignment

Name: Jason Holmes
Job: Systems Administrator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
Company: Raytheon Polar Services Company, an Englewood, Colorodao-based firm providing support service for the United States Antarctic Program.

Systems administration, or any tech job, in the Antarctic, demands flexible skills and attitude, says Jason Holmes, who's been on a yearlong assignment at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

The cast of the TV's Survivor has nothing on the South Pole crew. Fifty people endure the Antarctic winter, tempers sometimes flair, emotional growth is a daily thing, play is common, and death sadly can take a dear friend.

Replacing the network

Holmes, who learned about this job on supports scientific researchers from the U.S. National Science Foundation investigating atmospheric changes, astrophysics, meteorology, and geophysics. His work has kept the network running and improved its capacity tenfold.

"Our largest problem was the lack of performance in the network, which really hindered our client/server apps," says Holmes. In January 2000, a major upgrade to the base's networks - installing a Cisco 6509 Core Switch and Cisco 2924 Catalyst Switches to replace outdated 10Mb hubs - boosted the network performance. The job included re-routing network cables and placing a Packeteer 2000 behind a firewall, all resulting in more traffic capacity for the people Holmes calls his "scientist buddies."

The station's multi-platform network got a boost with the installation of a Samba server, Linux satellite modem controllers, upgrades to SMS and Exchange servers, and a base-wide upgrade from Windows 95 to Windows NT.

Support from the NSF, planned satellite upgrades, and a new collaborative approach to centralized planning between Raytheon Polar Services and far flung outposts should usher in a gigabit network in the coming year. 'You ever get sick of the way your old college buddy chewed his food? It happens here.' - Jason Holmes, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Personal downtime

It's not all work at the South Pole, though. Holmes' fiancee Jennifer Hassman, on break from her studies at Denver University, landed a job as the station's production cook. The two of them, along with an "elite group of maniacs" qualified for membership in the station's 300 Club by sweating in a 200 F sauna immediately before running 300 meters (about 329 yards) in minus 100 F - nude, save for shoes.

Holmes' favorite memories include doing a shot of tequila at a sunrise party in mid-September after enduring six months without sunlight. (Holmes' Web site,, includes pictures of some of the lighter moments.) But it's not all giggles. Last May, a South Pole-dwelling colleague, Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks died of a heart attack at age 32, bringing the crew closer together, says Holmes. "He was a really close friend of mine and it was a terrible loss." This was the second scare in a year. In 1999, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who discovered she had breast cancer while at the base, had to await hospitalization until rescuers could penetrate the severe Antarctic winter. Weather conditions can make travel to and from the base impossible.

Advice for those who would follow

Unlike a corporate job, where the tenets of professionalism rule, at the South Pole emotional and spiritual challenges arise. "You ever get sick of the way your old college buddy chewed his food?" asks Holmes. "It happens here." Holmes says his employer is looking for persistence, a well-rounded skill set, and the ability to solve a variety of technical challenges on the ice.

If you want to follow in Holmes' snowshoes, pack lightly, but bring enough DVDs and some language CDs, advises Holmes, who's ready to sign up for another yearlong stint, if his wife-to-be allows it.

Train broadly, advises Holmes

South Pole-based techie tells us how he broke into the business and what training he needed.

What training do you need to succeed at the South Pole? Holmes began his tech career doing graphic design in a remote unit in the African Desert. "We carried all of our extra and backup gear with us," he says. "Ever try to find a 1.5 GB SCSI drive in the African desert? Not fun." His six-year stint in the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command got him started in LAN/WAN connectivity and the basics of system networking and server administration.

Beyond a few classes that the military required (and paid for), Holmes did most of his training on the job and with books. As of fall 2000, he holds MCSE, CCNA, and Lucent Advanced Fiber Optic certifications.

"The biggest complaint that I heard/read from IT managers was the lack of cross capability in candidates," says Holmes. "For example, 'A-plusers' not understanding basic networking, MCSE's not understanding component level troubleshooting, CCNA's not understanding end-user software woes.

"I took this all into account when planning my career path. I wanted to be able to understand computers and their components [the A+ and MCSE helped with that], how they networked [MCSE helped with that], understand networks [MCSE/CCNA helped with that], and then plan and design networks [CCNA helped with that]. This allows me to effectively troubleshoot the entire network from numerous levels and angles."

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david southgate
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