As an assistant professor of computer networking and technical specialist in Hodges University’s Fisher School of Technology, Jim Nichols admits, “Learning this information isn’t easy,” but for students who are eager to learn and who are committed to the program, the skills learned will provide for greater career opportunities after graduation.
As a former adult learner, Nichols can relate to his students and their efforts to balance work and school, especially when facing information and skills that can be difficult to master.
“Students in the program need to not be easily frustrated and need to think logically,” he said. “It is definitely a time commitment, but it is important for students to seek opportunities for hands-on experience outside the classroom, even if that experience only comes from setting up a home practice lab or using virtual machines to simulate a practice lab.”
This lesson is one Nichols can attest to, serving as a part-time teaching assistant (TA) and lab tech in the Fisher School of Technology (FSoT) while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in computer information technology from Hodges. Having previous experience in the field of IT prior to enrolling at Hodges, Nichols spent three years working at IT Nirvana, a computer network consulting business in Southwest Florida.
Receiving on the job training and earning various industry certifications, including A+, Net+, Security+ and Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), Nichols decided that if he wanted to have a career in the IT field, he needed a formal education.
“I started at Southwest Florida College and spent two semesters there,” he said. Deciding it was not where he wanted to be, he found Hodges, saying, “It [Hodges] offered the applied technology courses I was looking for, in addition to the industry certifications.”
Enrolling in the computer information technology program in winter 2009, he specialized in networking, graduating in spring 2011. The experience and knowledge he gained during his undergraduate program led him to accept a full-time position as an IT specialist within the Fisher School of Technology, maintaining computers, reloading operating systems and working on servers, all while pursuing his master’s degree in computer network architecture at Capella University.
“The undergrad network specialty at Hodges is about understanding, building, configuring and troubleshooting networks. The master’s degree [at Capella] is designing the networks…at the master’s level you’re not in the trenches typing the code or configuring the network, but you’re understanding what you need for the enterprise to work, so going from the undergrad to that type of program was a great transition,” he said.
While pursuing his master’s degree, Nichols added a new component to his work at Hodges, teaching 1000-level classes as an adjunct faculty member, which he continued until 2015 when he accepted a full-time position with the FSoT teaching undergraduate courses.
I’ve had students tell me they landed a network administrator job because of the CCNA certification earned while they were at Hodges or because of a certain skill set – that’s huge and it’s a great feeling. – Jim Nichols
“Even though I’m teaching a lot, I’m still in charge of all the classrooms for the FSoT,” he explained. “I do enough tech work to keep my skills sharp and allow me to construct good labs in class and teach students relevant skills.”
While teaching and technology were never predestined career choices for Nichols, the personal interaction made with students is something he has always enjoyed.
A Wisconsin native, Nichols spent 12 years working as a martial arts instructor, and in 2005, when he and his wife moved to Southwest Florida, he discovered that although he didn’t miss teaching karate, he did miss teaching.
“I like the interaction and social part of it, which is why I enjoy teaching classes on-campus more so than I do online,” he said. “I figured out it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching, but it is the ability to engage students, keep their focus and attention, make sure you break it down into small enough steps they can comprehend it and then glue it back together into something functional they can use.”
In 2016, Nichols was tasked to oversee the implementation of an internal network for the Wounded Warrior Anglers of America, Inc. (WWA) at the organization’s’ Cape Coral location. Overseeing a team of students from the school’s Technology Society, the students installed computers, printers and Internet, as well as ensured all servers were running and equipped with Wi-Fi.
These hands-on experiences are ones Nichols strongly encourages, saying, “I tell our students to get your first IT job as early in the process as you can. With an associate degree and A+ and Net+ certifications, you can definitely work in entry-level IT, and continue to do that through your bachelor’s degree.”
While it is important that students learn the concepts through textbook-style instruction, Nichols primarily focuses on teaching students how to use the knowledge in a real-world setting, such as installing an operating system or configuring a network.
For students who obtain the theoretical knowledge and concepts, participate in hands-on learning opportunities and earn the industry-based certifications offered through the program, Nichols explains that when it comes to the interview process for a job, there is often another element IT people must “pass,” which is “prove to me you know what you say you know,” he said. “The hands-on labs we do in class not only prepare them for the questions they’ll have to answer in an interview, but it also prepares them for the skills set challenge they’ll face. Plus, the labs help to build their confidence.”
It is that confidence that Nichols enjoys most, especially when a student lands a job because of the skills learned while at Hodges, saying, “I’ve had students tell me they landed a network administrator job because of the CCNA certification earned while they were at Hodges or because of a certain skill set – that’s huge and it’s a great feeling.”