I’ve reached a point in my professional career where I’m very happy where I’m at. Reflecting on my journey, I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge, tips, and advice from various people.
So when I reached out to these 10 professionals in network engineering, I asked them one question, What is it that you wish you had known before becoming a network engineer?
A single prompt to respond to. What you’re about to read is their exact words. Read them carefully and come up with your own conclusions as to how you view network engineering and what skills it takes to be in that role.
If you’d like to leave your own tips, please put them in the comments below!
Thanks to these 10 experts for providing their insight!
Thinking back at my career, there’s not a lot I would change. I’ve made mistakes, just like anyone, and we need to make them to learn. However, I did spend a lot of time learning the fundamentals and that turned out to be a wise investment of time. Anyway, here are some things I would like to have known before going into this career:
- imposter syndrome
As I mentioned, I did spend time learning the fundamentals but it would have been great knowing beforehand that this is wise, and to get encouragement to keep going when it sometimes feels like everything is moving too slowly. It’s easy to get into a mindset where you start comparing yourself to your peers and that may lead to you abandoning your principles.
Looking back, I didn’t really have a mentor when starting out although there are many, many people that have helped me throughout the years. I would liked to have someone to turn to for guidance and I would recommend people to try to find a mentor. Treat them with respect though and don’t use them as a replacement for doing your own homework. I also wish that I had known how important it is to mentor others.
A mentor could have told me how important it is not only to attain knowledge, but to grow a network of people, and to treat them with respect and give back to the community.Daniel Dib
Which brings us to the next point. The networking community was a lot different back then. Forums and blogs were not as prevalent as now and social media wasn’t even invented yet. A mentor could have told me how important it is not only to attain knowledge, but to grow a network of people, and to treat them with respect and give back to the community. If you receive from the community, you must also give back to the community. Thankfully, I have been involved in a lot of communities and I’m always passionate about trying to help others find their own path.
Imposter syndrome is something we all experience in our careers. It may be at different points in time and the magnitude of it may vary, but we all feel it. I didn’t really know anything about it when I started out. Today I’m comfortable with it. I know that I have a certain skill set and have come to accept that there is always someone that is smarter, better, or faster. And that’s OK. This is hopefully a discussion that could have been had with a mentor.
All in all, I’m very happy with how things have turned out but had I known these things starting out, it would have been easier motivating different choices I’ve made in the past. Good luck to anyone starting their career in networking!
It took me 19 years to get the network engineer title. I started out doing help desk and then moved to systems/network/telecom administration positions. So my first bit of advice is to never give up. There were countless times when I felt like I should just give up and stick to being a ‘jack of all trades’. What I didn’t realize was how all that broad experience and knowledge would help me tremendously once I became a network engineer.
To add to my ‘never give up’ advice, I want to say that even though I didn’t have a ‘network engineer’ title or responsibility, all the studying and labbing over the years helped me become a strong troubleshooter. Also, it’s been my experience that being able to troubleshoot network issues often makes you stand out at companies because so many people say they ‘don’t understand that network stuff’.
What I didn’t realize was how all that broad experience and knowledge would help me tremendously once I became a network engineer.Mary Fasang
My undergraduate degree is a BS MIS and I have an MBA IS. Back in the mid-1990s when I was in college, there were only 2 degree paths for IT professionals – Computer Science or Business with an emphasis in an IT-related field. I chose the Business route because I knew I wasn’t interested in becoming a programmer.
I feel like the coursework served me well because in addition to learning the basics of business, the MIS curriculum included entry-level courses in programming, networking, databases, and systems administration. After a semester of a subject, I knew whether or not I’d be interested in pursuing that career path.
I believe the BS MIS on my resume helped me get my foot in the door for my first interview but it was the extracurricular certification studying and labbing (I got a CompTIA A+ and MCSE 2000) that gave me the skills to successfully pass the interview.
Today, there are many degree options in the IT field. I would have loved to have been able to get a specialized degree in networking but that was not an option. But then again, if I hadn’t been exposed to the different IT areas and fallen in love with networking, my IT career could have taken a completely different path.
When it comes to the certification versus degree debate, I don’t believe there is a singular one-size-fits-all answer. Like degrees, certifications are ultimately letters printed on a resume. From my point of view, the value is in the journey – the growth and knowledge you acquire along the way.
From my point of view, the value is in the journey – the growth and knowledge you acquire along the way.Mary Fasang
With that being said, if you have no IT experience and are interested into breaking into the field quickly, entry-level certifications are a good way to learn the basics and add letters to your resume.
Be okay with not knowing something because that’s how you will feel the majority of your journey.
It’s okay if you don’t know something…embrace that feeling and use it to drive you to learn more.Chuck Keith
There will always be a problem you don’t know how to fix, someone who knows more than you, someone who seems better than you…that will never end.
No matter how hard you study or how many hours you spend labbing, you will encounter these moments of self-doubt and start dogging on yourself.
So….it’s okay if you don’t know something…embrace that feeling and use it to drive you to learn more. Realize that EVERY network engineer goes through this and it’s just part of the job.
Many things occurred in my first years of network engineering, I have learned so many lessons, most of them the hard way (yes, I am writing this while laughing and smiling).
For instance: I wish I would have known that soft skills are as important as technical skills. It’s not about the message you are communicating (unless you are an asshole) but the way you do it. I had many discussions where my delivery was poor, something like: “That’s a very stupid choice” instead of “I would advice against that” or “Would you mind reconsidering?” – many times I was right, but as my delivery was poor, my message was utterly and undoubtedly dismissed. And yes, a tragedy occurred after that 😀 On top of that, nobody likes an engineer who is a dick 🙂
Nobody likes an engineer who is a dickDavid Peñaloza
I wish I would have known that politics are everywhere, including huge organizations. It wouldn’t matter if you are right or wrong, many battles are better lost or avoided. In some situations, losing you also win.
I wish I would have known that you are never too sure about preventive measures when performing a change. Once I was too relaxed and confident, and the whole data center in China was disconnected for hours. It was a bug in the software image, and I only realized after it was pushed to all the leaf switches, turning the DC into a multi-million dollar potato. By the way, I didn’t check the release notes of that code version and the gotcha was right there #meaculpa
Many times I was right, but as my delivery was poor, my message was utterly and undoubtedly dismissed.David Peñaloza
Some shorter ones that don’t require lengthy explanations:
- I wish I would have known that not all routers would be able to hold the whole Internet routing table without crashing.
- I wish I would have known that debugs are dangerous and only ideal in a lab – “debug ip packet” could mean suicide
- I wish I would have known that not everything is fixed with a reboot – at least not in the middle of a massive upgrade 😀
- I wish I would have known that the “add” keyword for the “switchport trunk allow” command is KEY when adding a new VLAN
- I wish I would have known that calling TAC doesn’t make you less of an engineer; the support contracts are expensive, use them!
- Even if I would have known these and many other things that are not coming up when writing these lines, I would have done it the same way. Being a network engineer has been the best choice of my life, and although many lessons were hard (and many more to come will be), its what makes it worth it. Most of those events bring memories and laughter, of course, many years later 😀
Ask for help: you don’t always have to know the answer, but you need to know how to find the answer. Sometimes that’s reference docs, sometimes it’s blog posts, and sometimes you have to be brave enough to ask the question.
Ask for help: you don’t always have to know the answer, but you need to know how to find the answer.Amy Arnold
Always read the release notes. Always. The hidden gems found there will often determine if you pull off a successful upgrade or it’s a long night with TAC.
Never assume just because a switch port lights up. that the cable is working properly. Layer One rules all.
Schooling and Certifications only get you so far. You might feel confident with your degree and even some certifications as you step into your first network engineer job, but there are so many things that you have not been exposed to. Labs that are used for studying are often somewhat controlled environments. Running a debug command in a lab is good to learn and be exposed to, but do it at the wrong time on the wrong device, such as the network core, can result in cpu spikes and or expected downtime. Coming into your role with confidence is awesome, but a good level of respect for the new (to you) network environment is important as well. You’ll still have a lot to learn!
Training doesn’t stop when you get the job. A lot of people think gaining a certain level of skill and or certification is enough to get them a job and then that’s it. That could not be further from the truth. Networks are changing as rapidly as training material can be produced. The fastest way to get left behind is to stop focusing on training and personal development. Always try to be the engineer that leads the network into the next generation and not the engineer struggling to play catch-up.
A lot of people think gaining a certain level of skill and or certification is enough to get them a job and then that’s it. That could not be further from the truth.Kevin Blackburn
There’s no such thing as being over-prepared. Depending on the environment you are working in, you might have nightly maintenance windows or even once-a-month maintenance windows. There is nothing worse than going into a change over-confident, hitting a roadblock you were not expecting, and then having to roll back and delay a change. This is something that was drilled into my head during my current network engineering job in healthcare because of how not-often our maintenance windows are. Write out and script your changes ahead of time, test them in a dev environment if possible, and be prepared for possible “what-if” scenarios. Putting in the time before making changes to the network can be just as important as making the change itself.
Learn how to code. You don’t need to be at a software developer or programmer level, but spend some time learning how to code. It’s a valuable skill to have under your belt. I’ve had an unfortunate or fortunate, depending on how you look at it, where I haven’t needed to code because of the available resources – people or software. Though, I wish I learned it a long time ago.
You don’t need to be at a software developer or programmer level, but spend some time learning how to code.Andrew Roderos
Don’t be afraid of Linux. If all you’ve used is Windows, do yourself a favor and install and play with Linux. There is so much free and open-source software out there that only runs on Linux. You don’t have to get any Linux-related certifications, but at least learn the basics.
Be humble. You may think that you know everything that there is to know about something, but most often than not, you don’t. That said, practice humility because it will, in turn, offer you the gift of being a better listener, learner, and introspectively be aware of your strengths, weaknesses, etc. that will help you grow both personally and professionally.
Perhaps I wish I knew how much I would learn as it would have been exciting to see that mountain before me, yet at the same time that mountain would have seemed daunting. Perhaps I wish I knew of all the great people I would meet over my career, yet at the same time would that have made it as exciting? Perhaps I wish I knew of all the failures I would have so that I could have avoided them, yet they are what helped me succeed as well.
There is one thing that I did learn over the years as I was guilty of it, and I keep seeing it happen in many new engineers. It is simply “Don’t be the Hero.” Engineers who want to be the hero and fix everything wind up being the most miserable people to work with. They are usually tired, complaining, and obviously overworked – yet they love it as they are looked at the hero of the department. They think that the business needs them because they are the hero, but they are just holding themselves back from learning new things. You need to let others try to fix things so that they can learn and understand and move forward. This then allows you to learn new things and continue to be challenged, thus creating a cycle of learning and growth for everyone.
Engineers who want to be the hero and fix everything wind up being the most miserable people to work with.Jeffrey Fry
Few other things I have learned over the years include:
Certifications are actually a starting point, not an end-point. Obtaining a certification is a help in any career and does help get you noticed by employers/recruiters. You need to drive yourself to continue to learn and study, continue to push yourself even further. Even after obtaining the xxIE level certifications, they are just a starting point to even greater knowledge as you progress since your knowledge base is that much larger.
Certifications are not a demonstration of knowledge in any means, they just demonstrate that you can pass a test. While this might sound contradictory to the above statement, it is not. If you just pass the test to get the certification, you missed the point of the knowledge gained. I know a ton of people who do not have any certifications, they are the smartest people I know. Use the certification as a milestone if you want, but always be learning and understand what you learned.
Don’t be afraid to fail. We all fail and we all will fail at something, it shouldn’t stop you – maybe slow you down while your lumps heal, but keep moving on. If you are afraid to fail, you are afraid to try. Trying things is how we learn, and failure is just part of our learning experience.
If you are afraid to fail, you are afraid to try.Jeffrey Fry
Motivation is hard to maintain at times. Finding the motivation to keep learning can be hard at times – we all have other priorities in life and can easily make excuses. The trick is making the time and knowing how this helps us to achieve our goals. I find that I do best when I have a deadline to work towards. I usually try to schedule a test as that helps me find the focus to study to meet that date.
Overall I am glad to now know what I didn’t know when I started. I have enjoyed my journey and continue to do so as even today I am still learning and striving to increase my knowledge – and love every minute of this journey.
This is a male-dominated environment. Not all people will treat you fairly. Some will belittle you every chance they get and some people will help guide you through. Avoid the assholes and the imposter syndrome, hold on to the people who provide positive input, and believe that you have something to bring to the table. Make friends with other people in the industry so you have someone to spar and commiserate with and bounce ideas off of.
Avoid the assholes and the imposter syndrome, hold on to the people who provide positive input, and believe that you have something to bring to the table.Kristin Kråkmo
Everyone has been a rookie at some point, you can never get too much knowledge so keep on reading and trying new things.
Say yes to projects if you are able as this is a great way to learn and grow.
Invest in good tools. Yes, it might be expensive but you are investing in yourself.
Programming. Because that makes life a lot easier.
I started the path of becoming a network engineer at the right moment in my life. I truly believe everyone has their own path through time and space and if we go back and change any little thing it could disrupt life’s entire trajectory and I might not be here writing this today.
The “why” is more important than the “how”.Tony E. (@showipintbri)
I wouldn’t go back in time and give myself answers or insights to certification exams or anything that would disrupt my journey to becoming a network engineer but, I would give myself some strong advice on how to make the things I learned the most effective during my journey:
During our journeys, we often are reaching for the next certification. In pursuit of a certification we spend a lot of time studying protocols and commands and focused on the “how”; ‘how do I configure this?’, ‘how will the device respond if I do this?’, ‘how will this affect my traffic?’
While these are important questions this might be enough in the academic sense, to meet requirements for a certification, the real-world application of the topics we learn is how we begin to answer the “why”; ‘why should I use this protocol vs. another?’, ‘why backhaul traffic instead of a local breakout?’, ‘why have we always done it this way?’
There isn’t always a technical reason ‘why’ something is done this way vs. that way. Sometimes the ‘why’ comes down to people, policies and processes. It’s okay to question these and challenge them.
The proof is in the packets.Tony E. (@showipintbri)
One of my favorite idioms related to PCAPs is: “PCAP or it didn’t happen”. While that saying is mostly referring to network forensic analysis for security events that same can be true for non-security events. “The network is slow” or “I can’t get to google”. In my journey of being a network engineer, I’ve taught many networking and security classes. I love it when I pull a PCAP up in front of 30 network engineers and ask them all to tell me something about it and what information the PCAP is telling us about the network.
I’ve seen so many network engineers look at a PCAP and say “SYN-SYN/ACK-ACK… looks good to me”. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The TCP protocol is a pretty incredible thing and most of the worlds network traffic uses it to reliably send and receive data segments yet, only a fraction of network engineers and analysts can actually break down TCP beyond SYN-SYN/ACK-ACK.
My advice to myself is spend more time learning TCP fundamentals. By doing so, you’ll be able to wow everyone at any technical interview and be a top network engineer.
Perfect is the enemy of good.Voltaire
I’ve now spent a lot of time in front of a CLI, countless and countless hours. I’ve done more labs than most of my peers and colleagues combined. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to make things perfect: the perfect access-list, the perfect redistribution, the perfect prefix-list, or route summaries. Studying for my CCIE and taking the exam 4-times has taught me: do what you need to do to get it done and move on. No one will see value in the fact that you made all the user variables across the network ALL CAPS but, everyone will see the value in you completing your task functionally and ahead of schedule.
Learn to code, learn to code, learn to code!Tony E. (@showipintbri)
Had I started learning to code the whole time I was learning to run protocols and packet deep dives earning my way through certifications I would be really advanced right now and way ahead of my peers, not to mention all the efficiencies I could have employed and how much time it could’ve saved me. Every day I’m learning more and more python and thinking ‘why oh why didn’t I learn this before’.
Even though we’re hearing from 10 network engineers, they each have their own experience, their own journey, and various tips/tricks/advice they’ve picked up along the way.
One thing is evident, they are passionate. They put in the time to improve their skills.
There’s also another thing that stands out. It’s not always about being technically the smartest person in the room.