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Secrets of a Successful Firewall Administrator

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As business demands increase and network complexity grows, it’s easy—and dangerous—to get overwhelmed as a firewall administrator. With all the security risks facing networks today, the last thing your business needs is for you to be so distracted by the hundreds of little things that pop up each week that you miss the critical responsibilities of your job.

As an information security consultant, I see IT and security professionals every day who get bogged down in minutia because they treat every task as equally important. Whether it’s a firewall rule change, a system upgrade, a zero-day vulnerability, a colleague poking his head in your office to ask a question, or even a network outage – they often give everything their full attention and think that’s what the business demands. In fact, not only is everything definitely not equally important, fully focusing on matters best delegated or even—gasp!—ignored, is bad for the business and your career. All of us in IT want to be problem solvers – but we have to choose which problems really need our expertise to solve.

From my experience, having little “systems” – ways of working –can help tremendously. Here are some tips to help you manage your day-to-day work that can help you stay on top of the really important things, get more done, and keep your sanity:

  1. Know your environment. Document your firewall and network environment. This includes design/layout, devices, traffic flows, rule bases, etc. You can do this manually in the form of a Visio diagram or a spreadsheet (though for a large or complex network, you’ll spend more time on updating these than actually working) or you can use a firewall management tool that automatically generates a self-updating network topology mapAutomatically generating maps also have the advantage that they are easy for your replacement to understand when you’re promoted or move to another company.
  2. Prioritize. Whenever issues arise, ask yourself: Is the issue important – such as a firewall OS upgrade that resolves a lot of problems? Is the issue urgent – as in the firewall is down? When you’re swamped, your primary focus should be on issues that are both important and urgent. Focus on the 20% of the efforts that will deliver 80% of the value of what’s expected or needs to be done and then get to everything else if/when you can. You’re likely to find that many things are neither important nor urgent. In fact, it’s quite likely that a large percentage of the issues that cross your desk don’t really matter at all.
  3. Document. Make sure to list and document all firewall management processes that you don’t repeat frequently but are important and time-consuming enough that you don’t want to have to recall what you did each time. Alternatively you can bake them into your firewall automation processes, so that they are performed automatically when needed, without you having to remember each step. And, as you focus more on the urgent and important matters, these documents and automated processes will make delegating other tasks easier for you and the person assigned to do them. In the best case, they may allow you to fully automate work and free yourself and staff to do other tasks that require intelligent human involvement.
  4. Record ideas. If you’re like me, your best ideas probably come to you when driving to the office or in the shower. Take a second to write down (not while driving!) or record voice memos of these ideas. Otherwise, they’re likely to go down the drain or out the window. Committing  them to paper or your phone will help keep them top of mind and reviewing them weekly until you’ve implemented or delegated them will make sure they don’t get lost in the daily shuffle.

At the end of the day, people who succeed as firewall administrators (or any similar role in IT) have a routine and methods that streamline their work and a way to sift out what really needs to be done and what needs their personal attention. They have the ability to focus on first things first. They’re not people pleasers and are comfortable with saying “no” or “later.” They know their own limitations and get help where it’s needed. Because they have documentation and automated processes, they can responsibly delegate or eliminate work and maintain a schedule for implementation and changes that allow them to maintain quality and ensure security.

The other advantage of following these tips? Having a life.

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