Someone recently asked me to be a professional mentor, an occurrence that becomes more surreal the longer I consider it in its implications and entirety. So far the recipient of my educational transgressions appears content, but the experience has reminded me of several ranty moments I’ve had over the years regarding what new network geeks are taught and not taught.
Please understand that I in no way look down on new geeks for not knowing something; it’s more a critique of training curriculum. I have encountered far too many freshly-minted network geeks who can rattle off facts about things no sane person would allow them to start touching, like BGP, while having gaping holes in knowledge pertaining to what junior networkers generally do for a living. And they’re usually the exact same holes.
So with that verbose introduction behind us, your humble narrator will present a list of things he wishes more fresh geeks were introduced to.
- What a protocol is. As a newly-minted CCNA I dutifully read Jeff Doyle’s first definitive tome (his second wasn’t written yet), as well as Halabi’s great deep dive on BGP. Naturally I barely made sense of the material. What would have helped, and what made the material coalesce for me later on, was a basic explanation of what a protocol is. There’s a reasonable chance someone explained this to me, but I believe it’s important enough to club it into someone’s head, as opposed to presenting it like 1 of 47 facts they need to get through before lunch.
- When two people meet they say hello. They might then shake hands, smile, and ask a few simple questions. If you meet someone and punch them in the shoulder like some frat buddy, you violated protocol and the human version of a TCP RST is sent.
- Exactly how an interface is transmitting information. We all come up learning that there are different “Layer 2 encapsulations”, and varying interface “speeds,” but what does that mean where the rubber meets the road? At some point I realized that an interface made for copper wire, be it ethernet, POS, token ring, whatever, is sending out pulses of electricity in a precise order according to those boring packet diagrams in our books. The physical interface on the other end of the wire is programmed to interpret the electric pulses, and if they deviate from the programmed pattern it makes no sense.
- To continue the human greeting analogy, mixing interfaces would be like trying to shake someone’s hand with your knee. It will confuse the person and whatever happens, it won’t be what you intended.
- 1 + 2 = 3…. Not strictly a Fibonacci discussion, but basic networking concepts coalesce further when you combine what a protocol is with how interfaces work. Now you can visualize electrical impulses being generated by one interface, sent through a copper wire, and received by another interface that is expecting them in an “ethernet” pattern. If they arrive in a manner the recipient considers deviant, it severs all discussion, or in Cisco parlance, “show interface | include error” tells you someone is trying to shake a hand with their knee.
- Electricity for I.T. folks. There are more books on electricity than I’ll ever count, but the bulk of that information isn’t really useful for I.T. people. So not only is it time consuming to learn, we just forget it inside of a month. But at some point most network geeks will need to “spec out” a rack or a colocation facility, and they’ll need to know the difference between one- and three-phase power, amps and volts, etcetera. This includes at least an introduction to various realities such as having to choose a plug type. I remember being asked about these esoteric requirements and having no idea how to answer, so spending an hour less on routing protocols to introduce these topics and distribute a cheatsheet is almost an act of kindness.
- Patch panels and labeling. Another embarrassing moment was someone asking me, post-CCNP, if I could run something to a patch panel. I figured it out in a hurry after assuring him I could, an outright lie at the moment. This is another easy item that could be taught in under an hour, with a tour of any office, by simply pointing at a network drop in a cubicle and walking a group to a switching closet. The labeling component is almost an art though, and like most art almost no one does it except that one eccentric guy who always seem irritated.
- Finally, reading carefully. About once a month I hear something to the effect of, “Oh I could never work with computers.” As my mother used to say, bull twacky. I respond by asking them if they can read slowly, carefully, and patiently. Most say yes, at which point I congratulate them on their ability to work with computers.
Numbers 1-3 were genuine epiphanies for me. They were glaringly obvious in hindsight, to the point that I was almost embarrassed for not being born with the knowledge. And once I experienced these bursts of understanding I went back over much of what I’d learned prior, and I was tickled to find that I understood it on a new level. Either way, I suspect that learning proper cabling and labeling will carry a new network geek further than learning when Type 7 LSAs are used. OSPF and BGP aren’t going anywhere soon; if a fresh geek can make it through his first few months he’ll have plenty of time to read RFCs.
Now if I can just get senior networkers to stop dinging new CCNAs for not knowing MPLS during interviews ….