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 11/27/2020
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been spending more time than I should this November at the ITCareerQuestions Subreddit to help answer whatever questions I feel qualified to answer. In all honesty, I should be spending this time getting better with Aruba NetEdit & Netmiko network automation stuff instead of blabbing on Reddit. That being said, it’s a long weekend, I could use a little brain break, and I think this post will turn out really well as a result! Unlike a decade ago when Reddit wasn’t much more than a way to waste time between college classes, these days you’ll find really good wisdom at places like the ITCareerQuestions Wiki, and I’m happy to see my favorite KrebsOnSecurity post is commonly posted on the subreddit too. A common theme over there is “Experience, Education and Certifications” as the three triangle legs to get an IT career started, which I very much agree with. I also feel that the computer networking field (and network-adjacent fields like network security, VoIP, datacenter ops, etc.) are a little bit different than other flavors of IT careers, and have a slightly different triangle for career growth in my opinion. Let’s explore why I feel Peer Reputation, Experience and Training might be a more accurate career triangle for those of us in the internet plumbing field:
What’s so bad about the “Standard IT” Education, Experience, Certifications triangle?
Hopefully I won’t be starting any internet comment fights saying this: I feel the standard IT Career triangle is great advice for all IT paths, but it just isn’t the best fit for network-centric careers. Things like behavior with your peers in the middle of fighting a network outage and experience working with difficult people blaming the network often carry more weight than they do in other IT career tracks, at least in my humble opinion. If someone goes down the path of obtaining all 3 legs of that education, experience and certification triangle, they’ll probably be just fine. Even if you don’t get all 3 legs, you can still work your way into many different entry level positions. Before I blab on about why I feel the Peer Reputation, Experience and Training triangle is a better fit, I’d like to review some of the shortcomings of the “standard” triangle legs first:
Education (aka College Degree)
I mentioned this at the start of my first CCNA Toolkit post, and I’d like to repeat that if you’re getting an IT Education strictly for money, not because you are genuinely interested, you’re going to have a bad time. Sadly many university admissions coordinators are quick to talk about all the money-making opportunities in IT to attract potential students, but are very slow to mention all the hard work you’ll need to put into practicing IT skills. If you’re heart isn’t in it, I’m sorry, but all the education in the world isn’t going to help you land a computer networking job. Sure, having that associates/bachelors/masters on the resume is going to open doors, prove to employers that you have the “BS tolerance level” to persevere in a degree program, and help make the case that you know the fundamentals. But it’s not going to be the sole reason you get a job either.
I was incredibly lucky to have attended a fantastic 2-year college that set me up for entry into a great 4-year program, culminating with me burning the remainder of my GI Bill benefits on a Masters in 2016. While these degrees certainly look great on my resume, the truth is most of the skills I gained during those education programs were from practicing on my own, not so much in the classes themselves (exception being Cisco Network Academy classes). There’s some IT career paths like Computer Science and Data Engineering where the quality of your bachelor’s degree makes a gigantic difference. Sadly, I don’t feel computer networking is one of those career paths: many of the best network engineers I’ve worked with either had no degree or had one in a completely unrelated field. Completing a degree helps, I recommend getting at least one, but it’s not enough to earn a leg in my triangle.
Morpheus couldn’t have said it better in The Matrix: “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”. This is where experience comes into play, and it’s the only part of the standard IT career triangle that I’ve copy/pasted into my network career triangle. We’ll talk about experience a lot more later on in the post, but for now, I’d recommend watching Katherine McNamara’s interview below if you have not done so already. She talks about the “repeating the same year of experience” problem far more elegantly than I could write about it here:
Make no mistake about it, certifications are a big deal in computer networking. There’s a reason why this part of the website is called CCNA Toolkit, and why CCNA is synonymous with early-career network professionals! I also feel that certs aren’t all they’re hyped up to be either. Cisco’s certs do a great job of convincing network people to buy Cisco things, myself included. However, their market share is decreasing daily due to the cloud, Juniper, Arista, Aruba, etc., and who knows if CCNA will still be synonymous with early-career network professionals 10 years from now. I like certs, they’ve certainly helped my career over the years, but I don’t feel they deserve a full leg of the triangle.
A recent PacketPushers podcast with Networking legend Russ White bought up some great points in regards to the legal things that occur behind-the-scenes of most expert-level certs, and I think it’s worth a listen if you find yourself dreaming of the CCIE. Certs do a fantastic job of testing someone’s ability to memorize things; I don’t think they do the best job of truly evaluating someone’s skills in a typical environment (i.e. one where you can Google & StackOverflow for answers). Russ proposes something along the lines of a “yearly challenge” as a supplement to certs on that podcast, and I sure hope that helps solve some of these issues in the future. In the meantime, we can remain entertained by an old Dilbert comic which has aged surprisingly well on this topic:
What’s so great about the Peer Reputation, Experience and Training triangle?
When I first got my CCNA in 2009, I foolishly thought after getting the certification, all I needed to do was finish my degree program, keep getting part-time job experience, apply for some jobs online, and I’d be fine. Ultimately that strategy worked for me, but it doesn’t for everyone, and I probably missed out on some cool opportunities because I didn’t put much effort into my reputation amongst peers. Later on at my 4-year college, my only peers were:
- West Michigan Cisco Users Group
- Boss at the small IT support company I worked at part-time
- USMC Reserve unit members
I didn’t really bother trying to “build a professional network” back then because I didn’t think it would matter until I had true full-time coworkers. I regret not spending more time to build relationships with computer networking peers in college, especially at usergroups, as those kind of places do a lot more for career growth than I realized. I think I’m pretty decent at technical job interviews, but if you don’t consider yourself a good interviewer, these usergroups or in-person socialization at the closest computer security group to you might be your ticket to that first computer networking related job. There’s other worldwide virtual groups like Routergods and CSNP which I love, but I feel like you can’t re-create that local in-person group environment over a Zoom/Webex call. Fingers crossed we’re out of this pandemic mess soon, as early-career people benefit from those in-person events far more than any other attendees in my opinion.
I’m specifically not calling this leg of the triangle “professional networking” or “it’s not who you are, it’s who you know” on purpose because who you know doesn’t matter if you’re a terrible person to work with, or if you don’t care to learn new technology skills. It’s still imperative that you’re pleasant to work with if you’re an individual contributor, imperative that you’re being a kick-ass boss if you’re a manager, and imperative that you’re staying current with the latest technologies regardless of your title. While there’s no one-size-fits-all manual on how to build peer reputation, if you’re going the extra mile at work like you’re Brent the heroic IT guy in the Phoenix Project, you’re going to have a very easy time, possibly having recruiters pressing you to apply for their postings on LinkedIn! If you’re behaving more like the villainous project manager Sarah in the Unicorn Project, you’re going to have a much more difficult time remediating a negative peer reputation. Your behavior during a network outage matters a lot more than you’d think, one of the junior engineers you’re firefighting with might be your boss someday at another organization!
In hindsight, I think one of the main reasons I didn’t bother to build up a great peer reputation early-career was because of wanting to get my first full-time job “the hard way”, applying through job boards online because I felt like I got my first part-time job “the easy way” through a family friend. It was like I needed personal validation of being qualified for a networking job via applying online, without knowing anyone at the organization. There is no fancy award for getting a job through an online application compared to getting a job through your peer reputation, and there should be no shame in it either! By no means am I encouraging nepotism or corruption, I’m very much not a fan of someone getting an internship or entry-level job only because of their family ties. However, if you end up getting an opportunity not available to the public because of your family members having a great peer reputation, you better make sure you work hard to keep that reputation up. If you do find yourself making those imposter syndrome-esque statements I used to say like “The only reason I’m successful is because I got that computer repair job because of a relative” or “I only got that interview because of my security clearance in the military”, stop yourself from saying these things, because they’re false.
Sure, I did get my first part-time job largely because of my awesome relatives, and I did get my first full-time job largely because of the military, but those just helped me access more opportunities. If I was a crappy technologist, I never would have lasted at those first jobs. If you ever find yourself in a place like I used to be, constantly putting yourself down because it feels like your success is indebted to opportunities that were not available to the public, that’s fine. You can pay off this debt by helping those who didn’t have access to your opportunities break into the IT industry, and it feels amazing too! I’m just a mere mid-level technologist these days, but I don’t let that stop me from helping people I don’t know obtain their first IT jobs, telling friends in hiring manager roles to consider hiring from YearUp or GenesysWorks whenever possible. I’m a big believer that a community college student working their tail off to learn CCNA level stuff can dig their way out of a network outage faster than a CS degree holder from a top-tier school would! Peer Reputation isn’t something that ends after you get that first job; it’s constantly going to shape your career, and earns a long side of my triangle.
The other longer leg of my triangle is Experience, which I feel is just as important as peer reputation. Training is important too, but it’s only the base of the triangle, we’ll talk about why that is later. The big problem with experience is the belief that you can only get it working a job, and I don’t think that is true at all. Honestly much of the experience I got early in my career was from fiddling around with server operating systems in my parent’s crawlspace, and repairing computers for family friends. Sure, when I did go to my part-time job helping small businesses with computers, it was doing similar stuff. However, I could not have done all the things I did at my part-time gig back then without all the practice in homelab. Things are very different nowadays compared to the mid-2000’s, but one thing that’s stayed the same is the fact that homelabs and nonprofits in need of IT support are fantastic sources of experience, no job required!
But what kind of nonprofits need IT support, and how would I apply to help? Well this is a fantastic question that I can’t easily answer online. If you’re seeking the answer, you’re going to have to spend some time seeking out opportunities to help in your local community. Obviously with the pandemic still very much a problem, it might be awhile before some of these avenues for experience open up again. Here’s some ideas that might help once things are more normal (whatever normal means…):
- Rummage sales for a local nonprofit (I had a great time repairing machines at St. Vincent DePaul Society Rummage Sales myself!)
- American Legion or VFW post if you’re prior military (or have family that’s a member)
- Moose/Elks/Rotary/Lions/etc clubs
- Old Folks Homes and acute impatient rehabilitation facilities
- Any faith-based charity, Salvation Army, or other nonprofit you have a personal connection to
- Volunteering or competing in Cyber Defense Competitions
One of the proudest titles I’ve achieved in my career is Substitute Bingo Caller at American Legion Post 854 in Evergreen Park, IL. Helping out with their wifi & Android tablets used for Sunday night Bingo was unexpectedly some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a volunteer, there’s times where it doesn’t even feel like volunteering! I deeply miss helping all my bingo grandmas out, and can’t wait until the first post-pandemic bingo. I’m sure many of you might be thinking by “Well that’s great Tom, but I’ve been homelabbing and volunteering IT skills for years with zero results when applying for IT jobs.” Unfortunately given the pandemic economy situation and trend towards automation, I feel like there’s going to be a lot more people that fall into this bucket than ever before. Sadly getting an IT job is difficult no matter how you slice the cake, and if you find yourself continuously striking out, it might be time to seriously revisit the base of our triangle: training.
One of my biggest pet peeves in technology is when I see advertisements saying something along the lines of “You’ll make big bucks if you take our expensive training course today!” Expensive training curriculums, especially at for-profit institutions, are seldom acting in the best interest of entry-level IT students. I think you should avoid these, especially if you’re paying on your own dime. Once you get that first IT job, by all means press your employer to spend big bucks on getting you all the for-profit training for the skills you & the organization need. However, if you’re paying your way through IT training, I feel like the resources on the NIST list and community college are the best value-for-money you’ll find. If things go well on the NIST list and community college, then consider transferring into a 4-year school or dropping the hundreds of dollars required to take certification tests. Just don’t start on the expensive stuff day 1. Training is the base of the triangle, you need it to build anything in your career. Just don’t treat it like the only thing that matters in your career either!
A very common question seen on that ITCareerQuestions subreddit is something along the lines of is getting my degree worth it? Well, sadly this question is near impossible for us internet strangers to answer perfectly, there’s just too many unknown variables to answer correctly. If you’re in your early 20’s and can pull it off financially, I’d say you should tough it out and complete your degree, regardless of the major, because it will help you stand out amongst the sea of other applicants. This isn’t just for your first job, it’s for life! Whether your degree ends up being “worth it” within a few years, or 20 years from now when you’re up for a promotion, is hard to say. I feel like my degrees have generally helped me greatly when competing for positions over the years, but they’re just one part of the triangle. Life situations are different for all of us, especially if money is tough. Joining the military is a viable option to get IT skills, but that’s not for everyone either, and IT training + security clearances should not be the main reason for enlisting! I’ve seen a large number of Marines greatly benefit from their IT training, but I’ve also lost far too many friends far too young due to military related factors as well. If you’re considering the military as a means of getting technology training, talk to someone who actually has the technology job you’re signing up for, you’ll be glad you did.
Community Colleges can be hit or miss, I was incredibly lucky to have attended one of the best ones in the country for computer networking, and I’m well aware that most 2-year schools in the US aren’t as awesome. Even if you’re not in the best school district, straight A’s in a 2-year school can really help when it comes to transferring elsewhere. The ITCareerQuestions Wiki on Reddit has a large number of great ideas in regards to training options, so I’ll end this post with another reminder about how much I love that wiki page, make sure to check it out for other education ideas. Training is the base of the triangle for a reason; whether it’s formal education at the start of your career, or an expensive week-long course about an SDN solution mid-career, you always need to be picking up new technologies in the networking & networking-adjacent career fields. The day you stop learning is the day your career starts to end, stay curious, and keep that training up to date!
Special thanks to Dino, PJ, and the countless others who helped me with computer stuff at a very early age.
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