Careers in networking aren't just for recent college grads or those who are technology-savvy from birth. Case in point: Karen Compton, a divorced mother of four who found herself without a job and with little real-world work experience to speak of.
With her four children grown up and the divorce papers signed, Compton realized she needed something. She had worked in a local ministry with her husband of 30 years, but she left that job, wanting to pursue her own professional goals. In Harrison, Ark., however, options were few and far between.
"Unemployment wasn't much help because I lacked experience," she said. "I know a lot, but I didn't have anything to prove what I know."
While leaving the unemployment office, however, she spotted an advertisement for adult education. That sighting and advice from a counselor for the adult education program at North Arkansas College got the ball rolling. Still unsure which direction her education should take, Compton received a sign: Her old dial-up PC crashed, giving her error message after error message that she couldn't translate.
"I thought, 'If I knew what that meant, I would fix this computer myself,'" she said.
At that point, Compton decided to pursue a career in technology, specifically enrolling herself in the Cisco Networking Academy Program, a massive jump for a woman who said the most experience she had with technology was wiring the entertainment center and working on her spotty dial-up computer.
"Networking just sounded the best," she said. "I always liked working with wires. I thought it was fun. And before enrolling in the CCNA class, I knew nothing except for the on/off button on my computer and how to hook up the keyboard."
In 2003, Compton began taking Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) courses. She is quick to admit that it felt at first as if she was learning a new language. The class visited Cisco user groups and learned the ins and outs of network and troubleshooting tips.
"When I first started taking the Cisco course, I had the opportunity to meet networking professionals in the industry," she said. "I was impressed by their work, even though at the time they spoke a different language. I somehow just got it, and it seemed to feel like that was what I was meant to be doing."
Compton said she didn't even pay attention to the fact that she was entering into a field typically dominated by men; even after many of the women in her courses started dropping out, she forged on.
By 2006, she completed the CCNA course and received an IT associate's degree.
"When I was walking down the long path to receive my degree, I knew that I was heading in the right direction," she said. "It was a feeling I have never felt before."
Shortly after graduation, Compton's instructor recommended her for a position at Lead Hill Schools, where she was hired as technology coordinator, focusing on the schools' network. Now, she works full-time maintaining the network and teaching three computer technology classes.
"First thing I did at the schools was redid the entire network," she said. "It was out of line. It was out of shape. I came in, took inventory and realized this isn't what we were taught to do. It was affecting the whole campus."
Along with her job, Compton is going after a bachelor's degree in IT at North Arkansas and is enrolled in the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) course. From there, she hopes to complete instructor training to bring the Cisco Networking Academy Program to the high school.
And though she's entrenched in the field, she said every day presents new challenges and new lessons.
"I don't think you can ever be in the field I'm in and not keep learning," she said.
The only drawback, Compton said, was that she enrolled directly into the CCNA courses without first taking more basic prerequisites, like A+. Still, she kept her head above water, she said, and was able to master the lessons and put them to practical use.
"I'm a hands-on person and it's a hands-on field," she said. "I was just a natural with it."
As for advice to any budding networking pros, young or old, Compton offered these words: "If you like anything to do with computers and you like the hardware side, and if you get the basics of networking, it's a great fit."