Like many of you, I’ve spent the last several years in an enterprise as the friendly neighborhood Network Ninja. And, like many of you, I became acutely aware of the downside to being the enterprise’s Network Ninja. I spent (way too) much time pondering if the grass was any greener on the other side before starting this year at a local Cisco partner. Since, despite my best efforts, I didn’t find many direct comparisons between the two sides of the industry, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned after some time on the other side.
In the enterprise, scope doesn’t really come into play. The lucky Ninjas have a somewhat defined job role. Either they fix problems when they break, they implement new stuff, or they design/plan new stuff. The unlucky Ninjas do all of the above, every day. In any case, it can be hard to finish something, because there’s no beginning or end. After enough time it can become difficult to experience a sense of accomplishment because you’re never done. On the other hand, it can become clear to everyone how important a good Ninja can be. They seem to be involved in every problem. When there’s nowhere left to turn – ask the Ninja to do a capture!
VARs are on the opposite end of the scale, and it’s a big scale. Because money changes hands, neither a VAR nor their customer wants to be unclear about where a project starts or ends. I can explicitly count the number of projects I’ve successfully completed…and what each project entailed. Better yet, each project can be completely different than the previous one. Of course, this kind of scope can also feel limiting. When you reach the finish line, you’re done. I hope you’re happy with how that implementation went, because you can’t spend the next week tweaking it.
In the enterprise, the Ninja’s learning is heavily, sometimes entirely, dependent on the employer’s goals. If your employer just outsourced the SAN support 3 months before you arrived, you can forget about SAN training. Is your boss perfectly content with those 3500XL switches in the closet? There probably won’t be an OpenFlow or QFabric seminar in your future. I’ve heard too many stories of employers that don’t bother sending Ninjas to training because it might lead them to quit. Consider yourself lucky if your boss understands that training is what keeps IT people happy.
I think this is the one area where VARs unequivocally win. In my first month alone I received excellent training on IronPort appliances and Cisco’s ONS platform. Throw in the information you can glean from your expert coworkers and every day becomes a class on packet pushing.
This one is similar to learning, but latent knowledge is not the same as having a $500,000 pair of core switches in your data center that you can play with for the next several years. I expected VARs to win out in this category hands down, but the line isn’t so clear. At an enterprise you won’t be seeing new gear roll in every week, but you’re more likely to see equipment that costs big money. If your boss is serious about a 3-year hardware refresh cycle you might be going cold turkey for 24 months. But Christmas will come every three years.
VARs deal with a lot of small- and medium-sized companies, the kind that don’t need VSS/vPC magic or redundant data centers. You’ll get to play with a much larger variety of equipment, and you’ll probably get to work outside the traditional network silo. But the companies purchasing 20U chassis switches probably don’t need your help installing it – they’ve got their own guys.
After Hours Work
My previous employer grew quite a bit in recent years, so my team was fortunate enough to have built out most of the current network ourselves. If you gave me any source and destination address, I could easily tell you the make/model of each device your packets passed through. Most of the time I could give you the addresses of the interfaces involved. And sometimes I could tell you the color of the cable your packets were flowing through. There’s no doubt about it – having an absolute knowledge of your network is pretty awesome. But there’s a price involved, and it’s paid (almost) every time something breaks. How often were you called after 5pm last week? And how many times have you told your spouse “it’s almost over?” A Ninja can’t do everything, all the time.
But let’s not pretend after hours work only exists for enterprise employees. You simply can’t install a new pair of core switches during lunch on Tuesday, and every customer will have their own change control policy. At a VAR, you still have to work within those boundaries. Fortunately, partly because the scope is so well-defined, the cutover time can usually be negotiated well in advance. Working until midnight is a lot more manageable if you know it’s coming two weeks ahead of time. Support calls in the middle of the night won’t disappear either, but you might get to be part of a larger rotation. With an engineering staff of 14, I only have to carry the pager every 14th week. For me, that was huge.
If you’re curious about crossing the fence, I hope this will give you something to think about. For those that have seen the industry from both sides, have your experiences been similar? Am I right or wrong? What do you think?