If you're new to this career in Networking I'm just letting you know that it's a bigger world out there. This is one of the most important things I realized when I moved from my first to the second job as a Network Engineer. If you already have a few years experience as a Network Engineer then perhaps I can provide you with some ideas to consider (possibly rethink your career) based on what I’m about to talk about here.
I always share that it’s best to learn Networking in general because Networking is mostly based on standards. They speak through protocols that need to be compatible and interoperate with each other. I don’t say this just because it’s good advice, I say this because it's what I learned from my real world experience.
One of the best decisions of my career was to become vendor agnostic. I didn't plan to do so in the beginning but the roles I got into brought me to this direction (and I'm grateful that it happened this way). The point is routing is routing and switching is switching. I found myself doing the "more important" thinking and problem-solving, which is good. Because as humans, this is the best use of our precious resources, namely time and energy.
We can rely on Google and vendor documentation to handle the specific line by line syntax. Because why not? Isn’t that why they are there for? We can treat the Internet as an extension of our brain. All the vendor specific stuff are saved on the Internet and vendor documentation, why let it consume our precious brain memory? It's totally possible to "learn it when you need it" or use the Just-In-Time Learning (JIT) method. It almost always happens that way when you’re on the job. We spend a lot of time researching things that we don't know or looking up specific details that we don't have on top of our head.
As a side note, whenever I moved to a new company, I start out empty. Then while on the job, as I learn the ropes I figure out what I need to learn. I still can learn in advance and prepare myself for what lies ahead. But this decision also comes from what I foresee I will need in the future, based on my current analysis of where things could go at that point in time. It's worth noting that, while I came in empty, I come out full of new knowledge, skills, and experience from that organization. I believe this is what you call "maximizing your time and opportunities" based on where you are.
Moving forward.. It's a good practice to document our research work because if we spend a lot of time looking them up, then we might as well take notes when we do so. Sure, we'll remember them for a few days, maybe even weeks. But time moves fast and there can be so many things going on with our tasks. So what we can do is create a sort of "cache" which we can pull up whenever we need it. So first, we've done the research which can take a lot of time. The next time we can just look for it in our "cached" notes or document.
I cannot stress this enough, but doing the "more important" thinking and problem-solving is where the value is. In practice, we are measured by our ability to solve problems and deliver solutions. The bigger the problem you can solve, the more value you can offer. And the more value you can offer, the higher the returns.
What I realized is that there's very little value in trying to advance my career by focusing on every little knob or tweak on a specific network OS or specific vendor equipment. Don't get me wrong, they never go away, but they're usually the least of the problems. I found that there's a lot more to gain by picking up all these little pieces to come up with something really useful, a solution to a problem, and the biggest one - an asset to the organization. In my case, I combined my Networking skills with Programming which is how I got into Network Automation. This means I made things run significantly faster and less error-prone.
If you try to analyze these two things, these are things that actually matter to a business. It sounds simple, but there's actually a lot of weight placed on these factors. When the network is growing on a large scale, these are the kind of things that you'll need to deal with. This is just an example based on my experience and for sure you are capable of creating something for your own.
To expand on the example I provided, try to look around you and see what are the successful services doing. You will see that they are either making it fast, or they're making it easier or less complicated (sounds familiar to me). Now see if you can take that kind of thinking into Network Engineering and see what kind of value you can deliver. Because these are usually the things that matter and these are the things you can take with you wherever you go, more than the specific details. Skill portability is something a lot of people don’t really pay attention to that much. However, this is actually one of the key factors that can define your career. We need to be putting more weight on skills that we can bring with us as we move.
When you learn something, it's good to treat it as an investment. When I say investment I mean like making sure that if you learn it today, you’ll be able to use the same skill many more times later on down the line and regardless if you move companies or whatever venture you move on to. This ties back perfectly with learning networking in general. Imagine learning a very specific proprietary technology and investing significant time in it, only to make little to no use of it after.
As a suggestion when making decisions, here are some example questions to ask yourself before going deep into some product or technology.
- If I go down this path, what are the chances that I’ll be able to use the same knowledge and skills for 5 or maybe even 10 years later?
- Is there any reason for me to spend more time and energy on this even if I don’t see myself making use of this knowledge for the long term?
This is what I mean about treating learning as an investment, and this is also why we need to think carefully before going too deep on specific vendors or vendor technology. Ideally, we want to make sure that our time and energy spent on something is worth it. By doing so means we value our time and energy and I think you would agree that we need to spend them wisely because we only have a limited amount of them.
Some vendors may rise, some vendors may fall. But it doesn't matter because Networking isn't about one vendor.. but all.
As a real-world example, I got into a project involving a proprietary product. It was quite on the cutting edge when it comes to networking technology. However, I realized that I'm most likely not going to see this product when I leave the company I was working for back then. Even if I did, I probably won't encounter it again for years. Please take note that this was purely my own analysis and is based on my personal views and insights on the Networking industry. So what I did is I learned only what I had to know to do the job. But here's the trick. I focused more on the concepts and what made the technology work. These aspects of the proprietary product were transferrable and I know I'll encounter the same concepts later on down the line. So as you can see, in this approach, I filtered out the things which I believe brought only little value to my portfolio of skills and only took what I think had good value.
That's it for now and I hope I’ve given enough ideas and examples that you can take and see which ones you can use for your own strategy. Thank you and I hope you’ve found some value in this post.