This question came in from the Twitterverse a couple of weeks ago.
“If you had to give one piece of advice for somebody looking to break into the networking industry what would it be?”
I don’t have “one piece” of advice, because landing any job, networking or not, is not so formulaic that the successful execution of any one task will land you a gig. The work force can be a bugger to crack, so let’s talk through it step-by-step. (Sorry to non-US readers, but I can only speak to the job market I’m familiar with.)
Know the job market.
- Networking is a hot skill right now. Very hot. IT skills in general are in demand, but specific hard skills like networking are truly on fire. The opportunities are so hard for recruiters to fill that I would have to publicly fake my death to get them to leave me alone. And that’s the case besides the fact that I haven’t checked the “I’m looking for a job” box on LinkedIn, and that I tell recruiters on my LinkedIn profile that I won’t respond to e-mails or voicemails. So, if you want a networking gig, the market is in your favor.
- Be willing to move. Metropolitan economies expand and shrink over time. Pay attention and keep up with what’s going on. You don’t want a gig in Detroit right now, right? OTOH, LA, San Francisco / San Jose, Indianapolis, and Boston are much better. So if you have an opportunity in a hot market, you might need to be willing to move there.
- Watch industry trends. Think you want to work in the environmental industry because greening the world seems awesome to you? Be careful. Some of those companies are failing. OTOH, the healthcare industry isn’t doing too badly, and consulting for the US military is pretty busy. Get an idea of the successful companies in your area, then get familiar with where they post their jobs. A little Googling around should get you there.
- Be active on social networks. Twitter is where it’s at for trends, topics, and culture. LinkedIn is where it’s at for job opportunities and recruiters. G+ is heading for fail, and Facebook is for other people (not you). Follow people. Interact with them. Figure out what they’re talking about. Envelop yourself in the packet universe. For most of us that are active out there, networking is a way of life, not just a job. Hanging around with the packet nerds might help point you in an important direction or turn you onto job opportunities.
- Blog. And by “blog”, I don’t mean write a bunch of narcissistic navel-gazing no one wants to read. Leave that for the junior high kids and folks who like their Internet dumbed-down to a Facebook status update. Write technical blogs that describe in detail things you’re learning. You might find it hard to find topics to write about if you’re not actively employed in IT or networking, but that’s why you read and research. Read RFCs. Read other blogs. Read vendor documentation. Go down the rabbit holes, try to make sense of them, and then write about your findings. While perhaps not many people will read your blog, especially at first, blogging forces you to have some idea of what you’re talking about. That’s important. The process will arm you with technical knowledge for interviews and will also serve as something you can point prospective employers to as a demonstration of your chops. This is helpful if you lack experience.
- Consult independently in your spare time. See if you can support some friends, family, and small businesses doing their IT. The work won’t be glamorous and will push you towards insanity on certain days, but it’s legitimate experience you can put on your resume. You’d be surprised at just what you can learn setting up wireless access points, small firewalls with NAT and forwarding rules, and Windows servers. Remember that anything you do in a small setting is knowledge that will apply to larger environments. For example, a Windows file server is a Windows file server whether it’s serving 10 people or 1,000. Yes, there are many technologies that get bolted on as extras when you scale up, but the foundations are truly the same.
- Read. Read a lot. Read whenever you can. Don’t stop reading. Keep up on trends as well as emerging technologies. The networking industry is changing. There’s been a slight pause in the last couple of months while we wait for the world to solidify around some sort of SDN paradigm, but overall, the way networks are designed, implemented, and maintained are seeing radical changes. Don’t get stuck with whatever they taught you in college. That data is already stale.
- Stop watching TV. If you want a job herding packets and don’t have one presently, then you don’t have time for TV. If you do, you’re doing something wrong. Get organized, get focused, get serious, and get determined. Make it happen. The television is a mind-sucking sinkhole of a way to waste your time when you have better things to be doing. The same goes for other pointless entertainments like video games. Tell the guild you’ll be back when you’ve got skillz that pay the billz. When you’re actually paying some bills, you can go buy yourself an amped up gaming rig and blow them all away from your sweet pad while they’re still hanging in their parents’ basement.
- Work on every bit of equipment you can get your hands on. Even if it’s old. Someone you know throwing out a working router? Grab it. Old fast ethernet switch that does VLANs? Snag it. Best Buy having a sale on a Netgear wireless access point / Internet gateway you’ve heard about? Buy it, then flog it within an inch of its Chinese-manufactured life making it do everything the book says it can do. Then see if you can root it and install an open OS on it to make it do even more. You get the idea.
- Get some certifications. Tough. Expensive. Time-consuming. Do it if you can. Back when I was trying to break into the IT business, I refinanced my car to get the money for some IT training. Shortly thereafter, I wrecked that car and was upside down on the loan – a terrible scenario. You know what? It worked out. I got a certification, landed a contract gig because of it, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve nearly always been working on some certification or another throughout my career, and I have my eye on a couple for 2012. Why certifications? Because in IT, a certification is a (potential) demonstration that you have a proven level of competency about a specific product. Businesses use specific IT products, and need people that can make them work. Don’t give into the temptation to take a shortcut to certification, i.e. memorizing braindumps or buying test question databases. You don’t learn anything, and people like me will crush you during the interview process.
- Build a secure Internet-facing web server using Linux. Take a bare-metal server, get Linux running on it, configure Apache, and add PHP and mySQL support. Then get a small web site running using web pages you created yourself. Then stick an Internet-connected firewall in front of it and configure that firewall to allow the Internet to access the web server on the Linux box. Then configure a second web site on the same server. Use DNS names to access the sites. If you’ve never done this before, you will learn a ton of information that will help you in more ways than I can describe here. Once you’re happy with the Linux bit, do the whole thing again with Windows & IIS. Then do it again, except virtualized.
Start at the bottom. Sad but true is the fact that you’re not going to walk in the door as a n00b and take over a large network. And frankly, you don’t want that, even if a company was crazy enough to throw you into the data center and hope for the best. Reality is that you need to be willing to start doing tedious tasks and work your way up.
- Internships. Great if you find one and land it, an internship gives you the chance to see a production network in action and work with some people who hopefully have a clue how it all works. You can learn a lot, and if you’re lucky, the internship will act as a gateway to a permanent position.
- Help desk. These gigs have a good bit of turnover, so there tends to be a number of these positions available. So go getcha one. Then do your work extremely well. Be responsive to customer needs. Be reliable. Be responsible. Take the position seriously. If you’re that person, as opposed to the one who’s late, calling in sick all the time, hanging up on customers, or predictably hung over on Monday mornings, your seniors will know and will have their eye on you. As opportunities for advancement come up, say into the networking team, you’ll be at the top of the list. Yes, it often works that way…if you’re patient.
- Consulting. Value added resellers (VARs) and related types of consulting firms need IT folks at all skill levels. If you can get into one of these places, you’ll have the opportunity to learn a lot in a hurry. In fact, VARs really want you to know as much as you can as fast as you can. Why? Because then they can put you into more customer situations and bill you at a higher hourly rate. If you can tolerate drinking from the firehose, working for a VAR is a good place to start your career (at least, it worked for me). If you like the lifestyle, consulting is the fastest way to rock stardom for the capable in my opinion.
What about the rest of you? What advice would you give to someone trying to land a job as a network engineer?