Advice to Beginning Network Engineers

I often get requests from people starting out in the field asking what they should learn, or how they can grow their career.  Here’s my advice.

The first part applies to any field, but is not taught in school:
Know what you want out of life: set written goals, and review them regularly.  Think about what you want your life to mean on a regular basis, and make sure your activities are in line with your vision.
Do what you love.  It takes dedication and passion to be good at anything, and you will be able to sustain the needed focus and learning best if you are doing what you love.  Life is too short for anything less.
Get to know your strengths. We all are better at some things than others. Manage your skills like you were managing a baseball team – position your strongest assets where they will make the most difference, and train for the skills you need.
Learn how to learn.  Particularly in IT, the effectiveness with which you can learn will determine your value to employers.

Start with hardware, and the Workstation OS. Get you’re A+ Certification, and know how a PC works.  Get hands on experience till you feel confident you can solve most any PC problem.
Then learn networking fundamentals. The material in the Cisco Academy, and what is covered in NET+ certification overlap.  Learn how networking protocols work.  The OSI model and the details of TCP/IP are core materials that will serve you for the rest of your career.
If possible, take an assembly language class. This teaches the inner workings of the CPU hardware and will give you the foundation for understanding programming.  The goal here is to build your mental model of what goes on inside a computer or network device.
As you are learning, get familiar with the most popular products and software. A big part of being a network Tech or Engineer is being familiar with specific brands and their quirks.  Do whatever it takes to get some actual hands-on experience.

Pay attention to the Internet.  Get a good grasp on how it works (particularly DNS), how email is delivered, how the web works, and what the common protocols and ports are.  Learn how to search the web, find solutions to problems, and develop habits to stay current with what interests you.  Know all the main web tools and services, particularly Google and Microsoft.  Get familiar with portals and RSS. Sign up for newsletters. Try out web services and tools.
Start early building your online brand.  Put up a (tasteful) website, and if you like to write, start a blog.  Think about what you want your employers to see in 2 or 3 years, and start building your credibility now.  Be genuine, and talk about what you love.
Start building relationships.  These are what will drive your career. Develop the skill of networking with people. Systematically identify key people in your chosen field, and start following them online and in your local community. Look for opportunities to interact in a positive way with people who can influence your career, or lead you to potential employment or learning opportunities. Learn to use social media to help your “personal brand”.

Once you have the fundamentals, decide what you like best – there are a lot of areas in computing, and you will have to specialize.

If you are interested in Windows servers, there are several sides to learning what you need: getting familiar with the management tools; and knowing how things work in the OS; and understanding server hardware. Don’t try to skip over understanding networking fundamentals.  You can get pretty far by accumulating trivia, but you won’t be able to really troubleshoot without a mental model of what’s happening.
Take a class or get a good book on Windows Server.  It will take you through DNS, Active Directory, User rights, etc.  Get familiar with Windows scripting and command line tools. I encourage our staff to take the Microsoft Certification tests –  it shows you what basic areas of knowledge to cover.
Learn about server specific hardware, such as RAID.  Get familiar with the Dell and HP management tools for servers.
Learn about Virtualization, and get familiar with the major products, particularly VMWare and Hyper-V  (as of June 2011).
With an understanding of Windows Server, you can specialize further in server applications, such as SQL or Exchange.

If you are interested in routers and networking, start by mastering IP subnetting.   Revisit the OSI model, and make sure you have a thorough understanding of Packet structure, especially layer 2 and 3. Understand the packet structure of key services, such as DHCP and DNS.  Learn how routing tables work.  Learn about NAT, Proxy services, and VPN protocols.  Understand how a firewall works. Then get into the interfaces and management tools for specific vendors, such as Cisco.  Consider Cisco certification as a good benchmark in this area.

A lot of aspiring Techs want to become security experts, and learn about hacking.  Understanding security starts with understanding how things work. The same fundamentals apply.  Only by thoroughly understanding how things work can you understand how people abuse or get around them.  The best security experts have an understanding of both networking  and programming.

If you like Programming, there is no substitute for formal schooling.  Learn the fundamentals in as structured way – topics build on each other.

Another career path involves databases and data analysis.  This usually requires a foundation in programming.   You will also need an understanding of database servers and SQL.  It helps to be good with math.

When we hire, we look for non-technical skills first, as do most employers.  We look  for these things:

1.       Character and integrity.  This cannot be taught.

2.       Self-awareness and self-management skills – Clear goals, time and task management, the ability to see what is important.

3.       Passion and the ability to learn.

4.       Social skills – the ability to “get it” in a work environment.  Sensitivity to others. Self-awareness, particularly managing your own emotions.

5.       Communication skills.  The ability to work in a team.  The ability to read and write.

Whatever you know this year will need to be updated next year. I can teach technical skills, but it is harder to teach someone emotional and self-management skills.
Learn to see yourself as a work in progress, and identify what you want to work on.  Learn how to learn. Invest in speed reading and research skills.  Learn how to set goals and manage your time.  Learn how others see you. Learn how to communicate – especially how to listen.  These skills will make you successful.  To set yourself apart, get a basic understanding of business and accounting. If you are going to help businesses with IT, you have to understand how money is made.

There is a key moment in the lives of most successful people when they realize at a gut level that no one is going to do it for them.  You can become anyone you want to be, but only by managing yourself.  One author I like calls it “being the CEO of your own personal services company”.  You are always self-employed, even if you sell your services to just one customer (employer).

When teaching at COS, I often ran into smart and motivated students who had difficulty finding a job because they lacked experience. It’s hard to get experience without a job.  You may have to volunteer somewhere or take any job you can get – find a way to get the hands on experience that you will need to progress.

Torian Group offers internship opportunities – inquire if you are interested.


About Tim Torian, Torian Group, Inc.

Tim Torian is the owner and president of Torian Group Inc. He was recognized as Entrepreneur of the year for 2008 by the Tulare County EDC. He is a Cisco CCNA and CCAI, and a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. He has a BS Degree in Computer Science, and has been working with computers since 1973 (over 35 years). He is a consultant on technology for the Central California Small Business Development Center. He is has taught at College of Sequoias and Cal Poly Extension, and is President of the local Network Admistrators User's group. Tim provides network and design services to clients, and manages the company.
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1 Response to Advice to Beginning Network Engineers

  1. Terri Wolfe says:

    Very good advice! 🙂

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