Monday, August 10, 2009

Career Advice From a Networking Veteran

It’s hard to believe I’m a veteran of computer networking, but the facts are indisputable:

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Performed an IGRP to EIGRP Conversion on a Production Network

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Significant Work on a Token-Ring Network (Not an Ethernet Conversion!)

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Passed CCIE Lab When it Was Two Days Long

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Holding Shares of CSCO With $60+ Per Share Cost Basis

(Sadly, the Cisco shares are in my son’s account. I guess I’ll owe him a few dollars out of my bank account when he’s ready to spend the money to make up for that decision!)

While I don’t feel too old, I must have enough life experience to ‘give back’ to the next generation of Networkers. So here’s my attempt to help out.


Early Career

If I could make only one recommendation to early career network engineers, it would be to get certified. CCNA, CCNP, whatever.. The job market is too crowded to not have some sort of credentials attached to your resume. I’ve been on both sides of the hiring game. Without some sort of certification, you need an extremely strong social network to get your foot into most doors. There are too many HR-provided ‘resume filters’ in place now.

One of my most recent hires came to us without any certifications. In almost all circumstances I would have dismissed the resume quickly. Fortunately for us, the candidate and I had worked at the same consulting firm a decade ago. Although I didn’t know him personally, I was able to reach out to a former colleague, who contacted the candidate’s former manager. After an excellent recommendation, I was willing to put my trust in the candidate’s resume and after a series of positive interviews, we made a great hire. If it were not for the common former employer, I doubt we would have had the confidence to make the job offer. Our organization would have been worse off for it, but the costs associated with making a bad hire are such that I needed to be extremely confident to make an offer. My assumption is that if you are in your early career, you haven’t had time to build the necessary social network to overcome the lack of a certification.

A second recommendation is to immerse yourself in the subject matter. Create a structured study plan and execute it. When I began working in this industry in 1997, I knew very little about networking. I was put into a ‘sink or swim’ situation, as the two engineers who previously managed the company’s network had both left with little notice. I started in June of 1997, and went to the ICRC and ACRC at Chesapeake Computer Consultants within the first two months. With those courses as a base, I decided on a study plan of reading the (then current) IOS 11.2 Configuration Guides from beginning to end. There weren’t a lot of study materials available at the time, so I made the best of the situation. As a college student finishing up my Senior year, I would print thick sections of the documentation and bring it to my classes to read. I don’t know that this is the best study method today, given the abundance of targeted study materials available from Cisco Press and others, but it worked for me at the time. I ultimately passed the CCIE lab using this method. For a current example of a structured study plan, I suggest you follow Aragoen Celtdra’s Route My World blog. I used a similar method when I pursued the CCDE written and practical exams.

Mid Career and Later

The studying and reading only intensifies once you achieve your CCIE certification. If only someone had mentioned this to me in 1998! Like all successful CCIE candidates, I was on top of the world after passing the lab. I was sure I was an expert my field; after all, that’s what the ‘E’ stood for! I decided to interview for a position with Chesapeake Computer Consultants. That’s when I found out how much I didn’t know! While I did ultimately received a job offer, I was astounded by the depth of the technical interviews. It was at that time that I realized my chosen profession required constant study to maintain relevance. The CCIE recertification process reinforces this, and that’s why I don’t have any issues with sitting for a written exam every two years.

My recommendation is to constantly seek positions which challenge you, and hesitate before trading opportunity for money. I spent over three years in a lucrative contracting position, but during this time I didn’t learn very much. I sort of missed the MPLS revolution, and I’ve been catching up ever since. I even took the easy way out on my CCIE recertification by repeatedly taking the CCIE WAN Switching exam, which didn’t appear to change at all from 2000 until 2003. Money is an important thing in life, so while I would never advise someone to turn it down, I would highly recommend weighing a slight increase in current dollars to the impact a position will have over your career. I didn’t do irreparable harm to my career, but I certainly set myself back a bit by narrowly focusing on older technology. On the plus side, I worked with an incredible set of people and built wonderful relationships that eventually delivered me to my current position.

A more controversial suggestion is to strongly consider changing employers as you work your way up the salary ladder. I have seen first hand that it is extremely difficult for an employer to keep up with high performing employees. Most corporate salary structures are not designed to cope with the rapid increase in value delivered by such employees. I found it necessary to leave my corporate employer after achieving my CCIE certification for this reason. I ultimately decided that although it would be difficult to leave, it was unfair to my wife and child to work for less than market value. This was perhaps the most difficult professional decision I’ve made thus far, but in retrospect, it was clearly correct. This is less true in the consulting world, where it is easier to judge an employee’s value. Under most circumstances, bill rates are a strong proxy for value. Consultants can easily demonstrate their value by increasing the revenue delivered to their employer. For a fun example of this, take a look at this Game Theory view of salary negotiation: http://mindyourdecisions.com/blog/2009/08/04/how-to-negotiate-a-pay-raise-with-game-theory/.

Summary

So, to recap, get certified, study methodically and regularly, chase money and opportunity in your early career, but go for balance.. don’t overvalue either. Also, make sure you build lasting relationships along the way. It ultimately makes everything you do more meaningful, and adds a fun social component to trade shows and seminars. My favorite part of Cisco Live is catching up with friends and former colleagues. If you see me in Las Vegas at Cisco Live 2010, please introduce yourself!

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