Five-Time CompTIA Certificant Views Volunteering as a Subject Matter Expert ‘Two-Way Learning’

by CompTIA | Jun 15, 2015

Tim Niles can easily remember the first time he got his hands on a computer. “My dad was into computers, and we were trying to install what was probably a ridiculously small amount of RAM onto our home computer,” Niles said. “From that moment on, I was always working on a computer.” Tinkering on the home computer, pulling it apart and seeing the small world of parts sparked Niles’ interest in IT and would ultimately lead him to managerial position at the University of Michigan. But not before he tried wiring a second phone line through the house. By himself. With no instructions. “I really got into telephones and ended up rewiring the phone lines in our house. It didn’t go too well at first,” Niles recalled with a chuckle. After some trial and error, he successfully got both lines up and working.

Although he had a strong interest in IT, Niles didn’t take a straight path to IT work. He attended Central Michigan University where he went through a couple of different majors before deciding on information technology. In 2009, he earned his MBA from Michigan State University.

Niles came on board as a subject matter expert (SME) with CompTIA in 2007. Having earned his CompTIA A+ certification some years before, Niles decided to complete CompTIA Security+ as well. Soon after finishing CompTIA Security+, CompTIA invited him to participate as a SME for the CompTIA A+ exam.

Niles has been helping CompTIA develop exam content ever since. To date, Tim has worked on CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+, helping to create objectives and developmental exams. He himself holds CompTIA A+, CompTIA Security+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Project+ certifications.

Niles said he gets a lot out of volunteering as a SME. A great part of the experience, he said, is “getting to work in a room full of fellow tech nerds for a week.” But most important to him is the two-way learning. Working with fellow IT professionals is always a learning process for Niles, who takes in all the different viewpoints, opinions and knowledge of his fellow SMEs. It’s part of what helps him convince his bosses to allow him the time-off to volunteer. At the same time, he’s contributing his own skills and knowledge to designing the exams, to “help shape the future of IT.”

According to Niles, helping to design the exams isn’t about writing obscure questions with trick answers. He stressed that they’re there to help design a test to help demonstrate knowledge and skills. “It’s hard work,” Niles said, “but leaving on Friday and looking back – it’s a good week with a great group of people.”

Niles currently works at the University of Michigan for the Enterprise IT organization, where he serves as manager of enterprise content management. He has oversight on all the digital signage, electronic document imaging and video distribution on campus, which, when you think about the size of U of M’s campus, is pretty daunting. “Basically it’s an enterprise live platform to deliver seamless video to a variety of devices like computers, tablets, phones and even televisions across campus.” Niles is the guy who makes massively open online courses (MOOC) possible for the university. “It’s my job to help people find technology that makes their lives and jobs easier. It’s about automating processes and delivering content to people in a seamless way.”

During his time off, Tim is quite the reader. He tries to read one IT-related book for every “fun” book he picks up. Also an avid sports fan, Tim can be found playing sports as often as he watches them. During the week, he plays on a softball league and on weekends he likes to check out the thriving craft beer scene in Ann Arbor while watching some games. “I have plenty of teams to watch,” he said, with a laugh.

Niles has advice for people considering volunteering as SMEs “If you’re thinking about it, give it a shot.” He goes on to say that a majority of SMEs opt to return after their first session. He’s been working with some of the same SMEs for almost eight years now. “Coming in with an open mind is the best thing you can do,” he said.

Tim also had some sound advice for anyone considering a career in IT: “Certs can both get you prepared for a certain task, like Security+, and also readily demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. As an employer, I know that when someone has multiple certifications, he or she is serious, knowledgeable and has the desire and ability to stay current.” Another deciding factor is a person’s enjoyment of technology. This might seem obvious considering the amount of technology that we all enjoy in our lives. But Niles points out that to succeed in IT, you need to deeply enjoy “tinkering and building.”

The entry barrier for IT is lower today than it’s been in the past, but Niles warns that easy entry doesn’t translate into easy success. “With a lower barrier, it’s a lot harder to climb,” he said. “You might get your foot in the door with one cert and some experience, but competition is much fiercer once you’re in.” The key to success? “People who are motivated and keep at it are plucked to move up and take on greater responsibility.”

Want the proof? Well, take a look at the kid who was determined to rewire his entire telephone system. He’s now a successful manager at one of the country’s top universities.

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