I’ve been meaning to write a brief entry about careers in IT. After reading Ethan’s CCIE vs Experience and First Job articles, and remembering Tony’s Dare to be Stupid article, I thought I’d rudely insert myself into the conversation. This is more of a rant than anything, so I may meander a bit…
I never finished my degree. I wish I had, but not in IT. Now that I’m older and looking backwards on the things I could have done differently, I would have finished a degree in anything but IT. I’ll tell you why: Even in IT, an IT degree is useless. Unless you are graduating from MIT, or Stanford, or some other school of similar stature then get a degree in anything but IT. Get a degree in business or education or some other engineering discipline… anything.
The very best folks in IT don’t strictly need certifications or degrees because, as a matter of fact, the curriculum for these things in most cases is never really current and doesn’t really teach you all the things you need to know to succeed. Certifications are slightly more useful than degrees I think, they can help you get started. Ethan covered some of this in his article though, so I won’t harp on it. Where I will diverge from Ethan is that there is one other thing besides experience you really need to have to be successful in IT: You need to “get it.” Specifically, I mean you should be fairly auto-didactic. You should be able to “figure it out” when you need to.
Look, the people that set themselves apart are driven to succeed in this field. They think about it constantly. They can’t *not* think about it. Some love it. However, they don’t all love it and sometimes they even wish they could walk away from it and never think about it again. They tell themselves that this year they won’t work ridiculous hours as much or they won’t come home and listen to some silly website’s podcasts or read blogs or blow another $50 or $100 on some O’Reilly, CiscoPress, or Wiley book. But they do anyways. Knowledge and understanding mean more points of analysis. Ultimately, there is supreme joy when balance is reached in the ant farm. There is a sort of unattainable Nirvana that we grasp for where the Rube Goldberg contraption is perfectly balanced at every point. When this kind of person gets a glimpse of that, it feels good. And it keeps that fire burning.
You may not be driven that completely hard, but if I’m interviewing you, I’m not going to ask you about whats on your resume. I’m going to see what you will do after you get hired to be a route/switch implementation engineer when someone asks you to work on a SQL database for the monitoring system. Or if they ask you to try and stitch some open source tools together with Perl so you have some semblance of NetFlow collection in your network. What will you do when path-redirection fails between a Callmanager and an Avaya PBX? I don’t care if you’ve never troubleshot a VoIP problem before, you are being asked to now. Sorry you didn’t get $10k in training for it… use the internet. Figure it out.
Some people would say thats just not fair, but your answer to this will determine if you get to (a) grind through low-level projects and issues or if you get to (b) work multi-vendor, multi-discipline projects and issues that speak to the overall design and architecture of the network.
Degrees and Certs can round out the picture. Unfortunately, I’ve sat through interviews with other “IE” level certified folks that just didn’t “get it.” The passion wasn’t there. I’ve had to work with folks that when asked to do something not in their job description would say stuff like “Not my job.” Its not pleasant. Sometimes it really isn’t your job or a good use of your time, but sometimes noone else is going to do it or even *can* do it. If you really love technology, if you “get it” than you should be excited by these kind of challenges.
This is where Tony’s article really is a good one. Read it. Dare to be stupid. If you get that “IE” the most important thing you should have learned is that you really aren’t an expert in anything. You should have realized that networking, let alone IT as a whole, is vast and its just not possible to know it all.
If you have the passion, if you like the challenges, than for the love of all that is holy… don’t get a degree in IT. You will teach yourself infinitely more that is infinitely more relevant soon enough. Besides you never know when that business degree will come in handy.
So where to start though? How do you get that snowball at the top of the hill on the ground and rolling? Wherever you are at, find something and become the “go-to” person for it. ANYTHING. There is always something, even if its not strictly related to what you were hired to do, that is neglected in the network. Maybe its DNS. NMS. Maybe its the SNA stuff that is never going away. It could be a database, a collection of scripts… who knows. Find these thing(s) and learn them. Think about ways to do it better. Document it. Own it. Learn how it relates to the business and the rest of the environment.
Second, you need to learn how to become an “expert” (realizing that you never really are) in anything as quickly as possible using the internet, books (Safari is great when you only need the two paragraphs from that 900 page $90 book), and whatever resources you have available to you. Learn how to read standards. Learn how to look at packet captures from multiple points in the network so you can see what those standards look like in action. Teach yourself the basics of programming and a scripting language or two. You may never use the ones you pick initially, but once you get the hang of it then learning other languages as required won’t take as long. Learning how to learn… learning how to think takes time. And humility.
Develop a “spidey-sense” for when things aren’t right. This will take time, but you’ll get there. Some people I’ve met… I swear they are witches. How they can intuit stuff borders on ESP. You should be driving towards that. You know what helps *tremendously* here? Learn other vendors. You know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter what your SE or that distinguished engineer tells you… it *does* help to know about other vendors. Especially if you are driven to understand technology. You will start asking all kinds of new questions when you go down this path…
Eventually as you progress in your career, your experience and your resume will start to speak for itself. When you speak, people will hear that you are the type of person that can assess a situation and can intuit technology. When I start asking you off-the-wall questions that have nothing to do with OSPF (I don’t care if its your favorite protocol, nobody aside from Russ White or Jeff Doyle really knows all the bits and fields in every packet type), you’ll be able to speak to how you would tackle that kind of problem and where your entry points are for gaining an understanding of it.
Its this kind of drive that shows me that when something weird in the network does break (you know.. the thing you did get hired to keep passing packets) you are more likely to understand the problem with the resources available to you and fix it.
You won’t be escalating with Cisco’s TAC for months trying to get multicast to work again… hopefully.