Journey of a Network Engineer

Network DriveA lot of technology newbies want to be Network Engineers right out of the gate these days but there are valuable lessons that you can learn from starting out at the Desktop Support role and working your way up. The rewards of being a Network Engineer is great but if you don’t understand how a computer functions and talks to a Server, Domain Controller, DNS Server, etc. then how are you supposed to troubleshoot a potential network issue? I’d like to share some insight and take you through some life experiences I learned along the way to becoming a Network Engineer today.

Building Blocks for Success

To begin with, how many people who are Network Engineers have built a desktop from the ground up? I don’t mean popping a disk in and going through the pre-directed menus to set your preferences on time-zone, computer name, etc. I mean truly crack the case open and understanding the components that make up a computer. The RAM, hard drive, power supply, types of PCI expansion slots, and Video Card. Most Engineers that I meet and talk with start studying Cisco Day 1 and try to get certified to get a job. While there is nothing wrong with this there are valuable steps that are missed by not understanding how a desktop works, how a server works, how storage stores files, and how the network can affect all of this communication.

At the end of the day Network Engineers must be able to build and maintain the highway that all the components talk with. I like to use the analogy of a highway; I am going to build a highway, but to build that highway I must understand what is going to be moving over that highway. What if there are problems with certain cars that go down that highway? How do I fix their problems? Without knowing something about how that car drives on the highway and where it’s trying to go I am unable to fix any problems.

My Career

Let me take you back early in my career. Coming from a generation that started out with Windows 3.1 and having to understand that drivers for components really meant something as to how the computer functions you must really understand what you are doing or there is no boot process taking place. I used to think to myself this is horrible and why couldn’t the process of building a PC be any easier. What I didn’t realize at the time was that all the processes I was going through was a life learning experience in troubleshooting. It took patience (lots of patience) because with different processor chipsets you had different challenges. Hard Drives for example use to have pin connectors (Exhibit A) that were bridged together to specify if a hard drive was the primary, secondary, or stand alone.
(Exhibit A)

Then there was the process of building the machine with an operating system once it would boot properly. I remember the days that all you needed to install the operating system was to have DOS installed….yes DOS. Once DOS was installed then you had a set of Diskettes to load the operating system. Once everything moved to Windows 95 (A, B, or C) and before CD Drives existed the entire operating system (OS) was loaded with 25 Diskette drives….one after one asking for the next one to be inserted! You could only hope that one of the diskettes was not corrupt along the way!

Life Lessons Learned

So why am I telling you all of this? Well I want to share this because I think the time spent forcibly learning and installing all these components has stuck with me through the years. The tasks you think are the worst or the most cumbersome at times are the ones that later in life you look back at and realize are what has helped you the most in your career.

As younger generations enter the work force the pace is moving faster with everything expected to arrive instantaneously. The challenge for Network Engineers today is to solve the problem in minutes… not days or weeks. The progression of learning from the ground up builds a foundation of understanding how everything works in a connected World. No matter what desktop your talking about, server platform, Internet connection, storage platform, all the base connectivity with how each layer interacts between one another is still the same with some minor differences here and there.

What it means to be a Network Engineer

To be an efficient Engineer, a sound understanding of the interaction between the server platform, Internet connection, storage platform, and all the base connectivity are fundamental. An efficient Network Engineer can answer these essential questions:

1. What happens when one desktop can get to a network share, but others cannot?
2. What happens when all users can get to one website, and others cannot?
3. How do you approach figuring out the solution to the problem?

Having the comprehensive knowledge and ability to troubleshoot is what sets apart a Network Engineer. The time spent learning and developing skills to understand and troubleshoot the little things is what makes a World Class Engineer. In addition to being a World Class Network Engineer, it will make your job a LOT easier in the long run. Now I’m not saying that everything is going to be easy to figure out but as you figure out how to troubleshoot issues you will start to remember things you encountered along the way and everything will start to add up.

Disclaimer

I don’t want everyone to think that they MUST work in Desktop Support and then work their way up, but I just wanted to say that in my career I started out in Desktop Support, worked my way into understanding Servers, then built Servers (File Servers, Fax Servers, Domain Controllers, Print Servers, etc), after which I started my certifications into Microsoft (MCSE NT 4.0). From Microsoft I started learning about storage; specifically high end storage with Fiber Channel (McData Switches). I also mastered how mass storage drives worked on the network with Clarion, LSI Logic, and others.

After all this experience, I then decided I needed to progress to the network side to see what makes all this work; that is when I decided to start my career into Cisco. Understanding how all these components work with one another made learning networking very simple as a natural progression for my career. What was even easier was the ability to troubleshoot issues when they popped up which I attribute all my previous hands on experience with various systems that run and function on a network!

Final Takeaway

What is your takeaway from all of this? It’s not how fast you can get your Cisco Certification or industry Networking Certification and getting a job working in networking as a Network Engineer that will make you valuable. It’s the understanding, communication with the customer, and troubleshooting experience you bring to the table plus being able to get a network, email, Internet, or users back online with little hesitation. As a Network Engineer there shouldn’t be a DMARC for where you stop troubleshooting. Step out of your comfort level and troubleshoot whatever comes your way if the opportunity presents itself. You’ll be glad you did later down the road. Whatever you do don’t stop learning!

How Duplication Will Increase Efficiency and Enhance Innovation

A process is only as good as its ability to duplicate. This is especially true when it comes to the lifecycle of business. For example, if I was in the business of making sandwiches, I would want a process set up that would allow the max number of sandwiches to be made. I would want to run tests and analyze what would be the most efficient way to make the best sandwich possible, then duplicate the same way of making that sandwich to ensure peak performance.

This would mean I would have a predetermined amount of ingredients that would stay consistent for every sandwich. If I reinvented the wheel every time I made or sold a sandwich, my business would fail because I couldn’t make enough or have a consistent product for my customers.

In the world of Project Management, duplication should be the peanut butter and jelly of your business, or the ham and cheese if you prefer. Reinventing the wheel every time a new customer or project comes on board will not only create more work for the PM but also doom the project to fail. This may not be an immediate or painless demise either. It would be a slow and painful disease that spreads throughout the organization. Don’t start to panic yet, this disease is completely preventable! Creating an environment of duplicatable processes is the vaccination.

Your next thought may be, well how do I obtain such a vaccine? Well, this is where it gets a little tricky. You must create your own. I will first say that I’m no expert in the field of change or duplication and I don’t have a magic mix of ingredients. However, I can tell you how I have successfully created an environment of duplication.

The Solution

My first step was to create an environment of innovation and collaboration within the members of my team. Change is more likely to take affect and be carried out if all members of that change have some skin in the game. I spent several weeks speaking with each member of my team one on one as well as creating group sessions. We would discuss things like: What is going well with the current process? What isn’t going well? Why do you think those things aren’t going well? What do you think we could do differently to make things work better?

Change is more likely to take affect and be carried out if all members of that change have some skin in the game.

After taking all that information, I used it to assign tasks to every member of the team. Writing new policy documents, fixing old ones, anything to keep them as involved in the process as possible. Once we were able to get all the ground work laid, I made it their responsibility to ‘keep making more sandwiches’ in a matter of speaking. When someone new comes in, I ask one of the other members to train them. We would then evaluate the process while training new hires and perpetually improve the process through fresh input. The processes are flexible and allow for continuous innovation, which is carried out by the positive attributes of the team along with its new members. Our key to having the best business practices is that we remain open to improving and innovating. Once the team works, the dream works! Just continue to train to repeat the same process that was already established to work, some situations might require minor adjustments but for the most part things should be streamlined.

 

The Results

Let me just end with a small disclaimer, creating an environment of duplication DOES NOT mean to remove growth or innovation. It is possible to duplicate a process while still innovating new ideas. An environment of duplicating processes should make the day to day activities more streamlined to open the opportunity for growth and innovation, not hinder it. Creating a process of duplication has allowed our support team to save over 40 man-hours every time we start supporting a new customer and helped us to expand our project base by approximately 20% in the past year. On that note, I encourage you to look at your processes or ‘the sandwich’ on your plate. Is it a well-executed sandwich that you could pass to your teammate and have them make the same one? If not, maybe it is time to start creating an environment of duplication within your organization.