An Alternate Route to a Networking Career

Can I Ask You a Question?

As the social networking revolution enables increasing interaction between networkers and networking-wannabes the world ’round through vehicles like the Packet Pushers website, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even that old horse, IRC, one question seems to be asked frequently of the more experienced networking professionals:

How do I get started with a career in networking?

I think it says quite a bit about how hot the networking field is these days. It also supports my belief that networking is one of the more desirable fields in the IT industry that many IT workers aspire to break into.

It’s a difficult question to answer in a helpful way. Ethan Banks posted a great synopsis of the “usual” advice right here on PacketPushers.net a few months ago. This is essentially the path most experienced networkers recommend and even the path I have recommended when asked.

More Than One Way to Route a Packet

Recently, I was reflecting on this sage advice to get into a NOC and answer the phone for down circuits, failed routers, and the like. I realized it’s nothing like the path I took to become a (relatively) successful networking professional. However, unlike “recovering server admins” who moved into networking after years in another IT discipline, I’ve been in networking for my entire working career. As practitioners of the networking arts know, there’s always another way.

It All Started When…

Ten years ago, I was finishing a college degree in Computer Science and dreading my job prospects. My interest in software development had been lost to Standard Template Libraries and Big-O algorithm analysis. Fortunately my university began to offer a class on Cisco networking. Networking fascinated me immediately and before I knew it I was taking the offered Cisco courses, had volunteered to maintain the school’s lab, and was working on an independent study to also explore network design. In two semesters I had earned the CCNA, CCNP, and CCDA certifications (along with zero real-world operational experience) and graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. All I needed was a job.

I graduated in the spring of 2002, which at least here in the US was a pretty awful time to be trying to get into any career field, particularly anything technology related. The bubble had burst, some were even asking if the Internet had been a fad. I actually tried to go the NOC route, but couldn’t find a position that was going to pay anything respectable, nor that I would want to stay in for more than a few months.

Thanks to some meatspace networking, I landed my first job as a network analyst at a medical software development company. My job had exactly nothing to do with configuring Cisco (or any other) networking equipment. However, networking concepts and protocols were critical to the job role. I read Stevens’ TCP/IP Illustrated, Vol 1 cover-to-cover. Twice. And I dove in. I was analyzing TCP flows, application transactions, getting down and dirty with HTTP and other protocols and understanding the effects of network delay and bandwidth on all of it. I was performing analytical modeling of network applications using tools like Compuware’s Application Expert and OPNet coupled with good ol’ Excel spreadsheets. I spent much of my day with my nose buried in a good packet capture. I was working with developers to network-optimize their applications so they stopped developing based on the assumption of a 100 Mb/s, .5 ms LAN and started thinking about the impact of a 128Kb/s WAN link with 60 ms of latency on transaction structure, database calls, screen loads and more.

Now, here’s the part where the “usual advice” rings true: although my job had nothing to do with router configuration or network architecture, I would hang around the network design team (of 6 CCIEs) whenever possible. I made some good friends and learned a lot from them, and they from me. (After all, the CCIE exam requires little knowledge on topics like bandwidth-delay product and its effect on TCP window size!) I would find reasons to use the well-equipped network lab and learn the tools including a network traffic generator and a WAN circuit simulator. I even volunteered to fly around and support the company’s presence at trade shows (which always had WAN or VPN connections) a couple times a year. I also kept learning on my own and completed the CCDP.

After a few years of this I moved to another position in the company doing even less technical work, acting as a “product manager” for our resold WAN circuits. This, however, kept me working on networking-related topics and also forced me to learn some valuable business skills. I was making spreadsheets and Power Point presentations to examine and present the TCO of operating our own WAN vs. out-sourcing to a major carrier, examining CapEx and OpEx of MPLS vs. Frame Relay vs. discrete TDM circuits, etc. Despite this deeper foray into the business world, I continued to volunteer for the trade show support assignments. I also maintained my Cisco certifications when they were up for renewal. I quickly learned the business side was not for me, but I learned what I could and never lost sight of where I wanted to be.

Is the Grass Really Greener?

Eventually, I moved on to a a role at the US division of a major German software company, part of a diverse and talented enterprise network support team. Still, I wasn’t touching the Cisco routers I had trained so hard on. I got thrown into managing another name brand WLAN system for North and South America. I was also involved in new project initiatives, using those business skills from my previous roles to examine TCO, ROI, and all those other ugly business terms that many engineers try to avoid.

After too short a tenure at that company, I jumped again to a major PBX vendor, where I was supposed to be working almost exclusively on IP telephony products. Instead my role was 3rd-tier field escalation support work for all manner of voice systems, IP (H.323 and SIP), TDM, Call Center, voice recognition systems, and on and on (and on). Aside from some QoS work to support the VoIP systems I did not do much more network device configuration. What I did a lot of, though, was recalling my old packet capture analysis skills to tear apart those voice conversations and quickly isolate and resolve problems. The network analysis skills from earlier in my career served me well. I trained team members who were not network-savvy on these techniques and general networking. I also got a lot of experience dealing with irate customers and some truly ugly install/support situations that require quick thinking, good communication, and grace under high stress.

After about two years at the PBX vendor, I moved to my current position as a Sr. Network Engineer/Consultant doing exactly what I want to be doing: driving projects from the pre-sales stage through deployment and post-sales support, consulting and guiding customers on their networking technology roadmap, and generally being the “go to guy” for dozens of companies that need outside networking expertise. I’ve been in this role at my current employer for just shy of four years, and I love it.

So the Lesson Is…

After looking back at my career path, I’ve realized a couple of things that prospective networking professionals should keep in mind if the “Start in a NOC” path doesn’t suit them:

  1. Be flexible. Not every job in the networking field is as a router jockey operating brand X routers. That’s OK. It’s an incredibly broad field with dozens of niches. If you branch off into another sub-field for a bit you may discover a whole new range of technologies that excite you. Don’t be afraid to poke around in different corners of the “networking” field to see what it has to offer. The breadth of the term “networking” still surprises me.
  2. Keep learning. All those stepping-stone positions will give you a wide range of responsibilities and each one can be a source of valuable experience for the future. It so happens that during the process of drafting this blog post, a customer of mine suddenly needed me to don my old first-job hat and help them troubleshoot network performance of a healthcare imaging application just like I used to do 10 years ago. The skills and experience from that first job are applicable even now. In fact, they made me a premium resource for that engagement. My past life with voice technologies has also come in handy more than once in my new role.
  3. Keep your eye on where you want to be, not where you might be right now. If you can’t get the position you want in networking (or any field), consider how the positions you may have available to you will help set you up for that dream job. Develop skills within your role that will help you get where you want to be. That might be documentation, presentation, sales, or crimping Cat-5 cables. No matter what, you can find skills to develop in this role that will help you take the next step. I’d have done well to heed this advice earlier in my career where I often got antsy quickly if I wasn’t doing exactly what I thought I should be.
  4. Own your career. This idea was very well covered just recently here on the Packet Pushers site. There’s not much more I can add, but the idea that it’s up to you to keep working toward your desired role/position including earning and maintaining relevant certs has always seemed “right” to me in my career progression. I’ve often volunteered to take on responsibilities outside of my primary job role to develop or retain skills that are part of my overall career plan.

Hopefully this post will inspire someone out there to keep heading toward the place they want to go even if it feels like they got started on the wrong foot. Maybe it also prompted you to reflect a bit on your own career history and what you’ve learned along the way. If you’ve got some unconventional tips for getting into a networking career, please share them in the comments!

Bob McCouch
Bob McCouch, CCIE #38296, is a network engineer/consultant with over 12 years in the data networking industry. He has experience with network application analysis, wireless, voice, security, route/switch, and more. He is currently the senior consulting network engineer for a small, high-end network consulting shop in eastern Pennsylvania, USA. You can find Bob on LinkedIn, Google+ and as @bobmccouch on Twitter. Bob also blogs at HerdingPackets.net.
Bob McCouch

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  • http://twitter.com/ioshints ioshints

    +1000 to every single one of your “lessons learned”

  • http://www.rowelldionicio.com/ Rowell Dionicio

    Really great advice! I especially like “Own your career”. In some way or another you can tie your current job into networking. Also hanging around the network team is a good idea.

  • http://thenetworksherpa.com/ john harrington

    Fantastic post Bob. I missed it first time around but found the link on the packet-pushers forum.

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