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‘Behind the Screens: The People of OIT’ is a series that features the people working hard behind the scenes to make OIT run.

Position: Senior Network Engineer – Lead Wireless Engineer

Time spent with OIT: 24 years in total

With every email you read, Teams message you send, and Zoom meeting you attend—if you are on Duke’s campus or in a Duke administrative building, you are most likely connected the “Dukeblue” wireless network. You can thank James Nesbitt and OIT Network Engineering for that.

With a kind, easy-going demeanor, James works hard to keep Duke students, faculty, and staff connected to the networks.

The path to OIT:
James got his professional start when he served in the Marine Corps from 1985 to 1989. During that time, he served as an avionics technician and conducted component-level troubleshooting on radio equipment in helicopters.

After his military service ended, James worked in the cable TV industry. While working as the Chief Tech of Helicon Cable in Roxboro, the office manager left and started working at Duke. Soon enough, James found his way to Duke when Helicon Cable’s former office manager referred James to Thurman Hilliard (the operations manager for Telcom) in the summer of 1994.

After spending some time working in Duke’s cable TV station, James moved into a desktop support role within OIT, supporting the 24/7 call center. Through this role, he developed an interest in networking, and in January 2000, he moved into a role with the OIT Network Engineering team.

“I’ve pretty much been doing the same type of job throughout my entire career,” James said. “It’s all been one evolution of the same technology, basically.”

What he does for OIT:
Now, as Senior Network Engineer, James and his group are responsible for connecting the university to the Internet. They manage the switches, routers, and firewalls, and James specializes in wireless networking.

“I’m responsible for architecting, designing, and looking at new technology for wireless and getting it implemented,” James said.

As technology constantly evolves, James’ work must evolve along with these changes.

“With 802.11 wireless in particular, the Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has made some ground-breaking advancements in wireless with the ratification of Wi-Fi 6E in 2020 and the expected ratification of Wi-Fi 7 this year,” James said. “As technology has evolved, wireless has become faster and more efficient. With the changes in 802.11 wireless technology, it is becoming more on par with cellular technology.”

James and his team are facing an end-of-life cycle for their current equipment. In anticipation of this, the team is preparing to replace the current wireless controllers with the latest model.

“It’s a big shift for us because the operating system is changing,” James said. “It shouldn’t even be noticed by the end user, though.”

What he enjoys about working at Duke:
James loves the beauty of Duke’s campus. With landscaping being one of his newer hobbies, Duke’s beautiful grounds provide inspiration for him.

“I find myself taking pictures of flowers and trees on campus all the time now, and I want to duplicate that at home,” James said.

Along with Duke’s beautiful campus, James appreciates the university’s work culture.

“It’s a great environment to work in,” James said. “This is probably the best place to work in the Triangle.”

What he hopes to accomplish:
James’ goal is to automate many of the processes he does manually for the wireless networks. By developing more automated processes, he could create a more streamlined workflow.

“Given that Python is one of the more popular programming languages for network automation, I’ve been working on improving my skills in that area,” James said. “I feel blessed to have Dr. Will Brockelsby as a resource and mentor.”  

Advice for those new to OIT:
James is on his second stint at Duke, the first lasting 16 years. During his combined 24 years at the university, James has had some days when everything did not go perfectly, but he has had far more good days than he could count.

“If you have a bad day, don’t let it get you down, because OIT is a great place,” James said. “There are a lot more better days than bad days.”

Friends reunited at DKU:
In fall of 2019, James traveled with a group of OIT’ers to Duke Kunshan University to assist with the wireless design of DKU’s Phase 2 campus.

“With Phase 2, there were a lot of buildings that came online and a lot of equipment that needed to be configured and set up,” James said.

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The DKU campus in 2019 during James' trip.

During his month-long stay at DKU, James was reintroduced to Anne Beckwith, one of his OIT colleagues.

“Through that experience, we became really close friends,” James said. “I had known her since I started in 1994, and after hanging out with her in China, we became close friends again.” 

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James and Anne eating a meal at DKU.

The difference network connectivity can make:
James plays an integral role in connecting Duke University to the Internet, but it was not until about two years ago that James finally received high-speed Internet access at his home.

“I live out in a rural area, and we never had true high-speed Internet,” James said. “Since then, there’s been an explosion of technology and wireless devices that I’ve bought for the house.”

Fully embracing this change in Internet connectivity, James now uses Home Assistant, a free and open-source software for home automation, to upfit his home devices. From light switches to security cameras to the hot water heater, James is working to automate everything he can in his home.

What he’s doing when he’s not at work:
While at work, James spends his time designing and building Duke’s wireless network. At home, he enjoys a different type of designing and building.

“I built my own house, and now that the kids have graduated college and moved on, as I update and remodel areas, I can take my time and make things perfect,” James said. “It’s a continually evolving project.”

As a woodworker in his free time, James has made a lot of the furniture in his and his wife Casandra’s home. Although his home renovation projects take up most of his free time, he looks forward to having more time to focus on building new pieces.

“I’ve made end tables, our main dining room table, chairs, and more,” James said. “That’s what I would like to get back to—making our furniture.”

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A wooden side table that James built.

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Know someone in OIT with a story worth sharing? Nominate them (or yourself!) by emailing kaylee.wilkinson@duke.edu.