As always, opinions in this post are solely those of my own, and not necessarily those of any organization I am currently affiliated with or have been in the past.
First posted 11/2/2020
Before we open the CCNA Candidate Toolbox, I think it’s worth spending a little time to ask what am I getting myself into as a CCNA candidate in the first place?!? Better yet, let’s also ask who would even be a good candidate for a career in computer networking? Topics like these put 2008-era me into a state of analysis paralysis: should I spend my time studying for the CCNA? Should I get a Microsoft cert? Should I play more Xbox and just focus on passing community college instead of certs?
It can be overwhelming at times deciding what IT skills to study given all the different IT career paths. I think this will continue to get worse as new things like 5G and Cloud Computing become a larger part of corporate IT. Most importantly, this stuff isn’t for everyone, if you’re getting a CCNA strictly because you want to make money, you’re probably going to have a bad time. I’ve seen first-hand people that were lied to by college/military recruiters about if they’d just pass training, they’d be guaranteed a good paycheck, and that simply couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a firm believer that the day you stop learning is the day your career is over in IT, it’s a continuous quest for knowledge that doesn’t stop after formal education. Assuming that hasn’t scared you away yet, let’s dive head-first into some traits I’ve found to be common amongst great CCNA candidates!
Trait #1: Computer Networking puts you in a state of “flow”
Ever do a task that might take a few hours, but it only felt like you spent 10 minutes laser-focused on it? I experienced this quite a bit when I started doing computer repair in grade school, but I didn’t know until very recently (thanks to my favorite coursera class) that there’s a word for that: Flow. Check out the Ted talk above, and then ask yourself: Do I experience flow when tinkering with network settings on the computer or smartphone? Do I really get a kick out of trying to optimizing my network connection for computer gaming or teleconferencing quality? If you do experience flow on the not-so-sexy topics like how internet protocol works, you might be a great candidate to study CCNA topics!
But what if you don’t experience any flow at all when it comes to computer networking? Don’t worry, sometimes it might take a deep-dive into some other flavor of IT career before you find yourself warming up to CCNA-level studies. I was incredibly lucky to have had Bryan Cairns as my first boss after finishing my undergrad studies, and he’s made a number of videos that explain some of the other pathways to IT careers, such as the following:
Bryan’s above video from 2014 is a tiny bit dated at the time of this writing in 2020, but that’s perfectly fine as he’s spent a large amount of time creating his entry level IT job course on Udemy. I have not purchased the class myself, but I do know Bryan well enough to say his advice far exceeds mine if you’re considering an IT career path that isn’t CCNA, hence why I’m shamelessly plugging his content. Gaining a foothold into the IT career field is difficult, even with a good internship or military experience. If you don’t get “flow” from working with technology, or at minimum from watching DEFCON’s YouTube Channel on a technology you like, I’m sorry but you might not be an ideal match for Information Technology work.
Trait #2: You exceed at Googling your way through high-stress situations
One of my biggest complaints about certifications such as CCNA and job interviews is that they only assess your skillset without the resources you’d normally have at your fingertips in the real world. The brutal truth about most IT jobs is that success is not achieved by passing certifications & interviews: success is getting thrown into a firefight and utilizing every resource made available to keep the organization happy. I would not bet against a Junior Network Engineer that’s good with Google, Stackoverflow, and knows the organization’s network topology vs. a seasoned CCIE that’s not familiar with the network topology any day of the week. Nothing against CCIEs, I’ve worked with a number of amazing ones, but having that zen to learn things quickly via Google in the middle of firefighting through a stressful outage is key in the computer networking field.
Whether it’s googling your way out of a tough homework assignment in school or zillowing your way to the home of your dreams, I sincerely believe the ability to find the information you’re looking for ASAP is one of the best things you can have for any career in IT. Remember that as a CCNA candidate, your value isn’t in what you know, it’s about your ability to learn things quickly through whatever resources you have available, especially though search engines. I’ve found over the years that simply watching other well-versed-in-googling people work an IT job, whether it’s actually at an employer or some type of capture the flag event, may result in learning a lot more than you’d expect. For me personally, CCDC was largely responsible for putting me in situations where I learned just how critical this answer-finding skillset can be. If you’re a CCNA candidate that can work your way into one of those cyber competitions, and you learn how to thrive in finding answers during those high-pressure situations, I think you’re likely to be a kickass technologist. Especially when it comes to network troubleshooting.
Trait #3: You are comfortable with solving problems far beyond what’s in your job description
Do the phrases like “Network until proven innocent” or “There’s no way this is an application/server/user/etc issue, it’s clearly something wrong with the network” sound familiar? Well unfortunately, phases like these have been common at nearly every network-related job I’ve ever worked. What’s even worse is that I’ve seen many problems where someone blamed the network, and they were actually right! In the computer networking field, you are going to get blamed for problems that have nothing to do with the network, and finding the culprit will likely become your problem. Troubleshooting network problems quickly, without the help of another network engineer, is a skill that takes many years of experience. What really stinks is you can’t easily learn many of these skills in an academic environment either. Working with other technologists specializing in Linux/Windows servers, applications, databases, and even internet-enabled thermostats to identify why their stuff doesn’t talk on the network is a skill requiring a lot of on-the-job experience.
So how does one get this problem solving experience while they’re still a CCNA candidate, unable to obtain an IT job? Well, the following opinion might get me into some trouble, but I’ve found that thankless jobs helping difficult people, such as retail and helpdesk, are often the best environments to build a problem solving skillset. Yes, I’m fully aware how soul-crushing working a helpdesk or retail job can be, but getting experience with upset customers is going to pay dividends when you’re dealing with upset engineers & executives during a network outage. I really wish I put more effort into being assertive yet effective working through difficult problems involving difficult people earlier in my career, but that’s a topic for another post 🙂
For now, keep in mind that as a CCNA candidate, you’re going to be expected to fix things that touch the network which have absolutely nothing to do with your CCNA skillset once you’re a Junior Network Engineer. You may find yourself learning what may feel like useless skills to absolve the network as a potential culprit. I’ve even once attended a training session on mainframes to help troubleshoot IP printer problems getting blamed on the network. Sometimes the people using/managing these other things will do everything in their power to blame the network instead of their stuff, and it’s up to you to convince them otherwise. If you’re cool with that, and if you’re still reading this, I think you’ll be a good CCNA candidate. If you’re not, that’s totally fine, you’ll just never experience the satisfaction of what it’s like being the guy in this meme: