It’s late August here in the United States. That means one thing for a lot of people. Football is starting. No offense rest of the world. Your football is my soccer, although I tend to side with you that my soccer should be called football. How often does one kick an American football? A LOT less than we touch the ball with our hands. I’m getting off on a “semantics” tangent though. It is the one sport that predominately resides within North America. Yes, I am acknowledging you too Canada!
Many athletes at all age levels have been practicing for several months and are ready to get started with the football season. Many a Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, and Monday night will be spent watching people knock each other over to carry a piece of pig skin across some lines on the ground and celebrate by dancing as gracefully as one can when covered by all that protective gear. Millions of people will watch all the way up to early next year when the championships are decided by as little as 1 point. For the most part, there are no do-overs. All of you “instant replay” fans just bite your tongue and let me carry this analogy as far as I can. When the game is over, it is over. There are no series of games like baseball, hockey, and basketball have. You have one shot at glory. Miss it, and you’ll have to wait until next season.
There’s a German proverb which says: “To aim is not enough. You must hit!”
I get paid for things that go bump in the night. Whether that thing happens to be a router failing, or a circuit deciding it no longer likes my 1’s and 0’s, my job is to fix it and fix it fast.
I do come to work during the day. I go to meetings and look at configurations of various hardware. I build network diagrams and dispense or seek advice on a number of different things. I participate in the important philosophical discussions like whether or not Anakin Skywalker was a better Jedi than Luke or Yoda(In my opinion, Anakin (aka Darth Vader) was the better Jedi and was robbed of his destiny by his meddling child and his rebel scum friends). I put in change requests for maintenance that must be performed. I can plow through the day to day stuff without hardly any interaction from management. Of course, they care about the quality of the work and if I used these stencils in my Visio diagrams, they might object. However, my overall existence in the day to day network operations life is rather calm.
In essence, I do the things that need to be done during the day, but my REAL job comes in spurts. Kind of like football(From now on, when I say football, I mean American football.) players. My game time comes at odd hours much like the police officer or fire fighter. When trouble happens, I need to perform. I need to be able to ask the right questions and formulate a short list of what the possible problems are. I need to be able to troubleshoot in a logical fashion either working up/down the OSI model or grabbing a packet capture and examining the session flows. When it is my equipment or systems that are at fault, I have to get in there and make the big play. I need a touchdown each and every time. I can’t drop a pass or fumble the ball. I get paid for results and rest assured my management is watching. They have to. All it takes is for someone much higher up on the food chain to ask why they pay the salaries of network people who can’t seem to fix the network. Then, I am out on the street forced to sell my services to the highest bidder, who hopefully doesn’t play Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft with any of my now former co-workers/managers. I would have used a sport like tennis or basketball, but since I am in IT, the odds of that happening are much less than a bunch of technical geeks sitting around in Viking helmets and leather tunics taking part in the raid of an Ogre village on World of Warcraft over a shared broadband connection in an obscure apartment complex deep in suburbia while guzzling Red Bulls and listening to angry death metal music. By the way, for all of you D&D geeks who are shaking your heads in disgust at my mention of Ogre villages, I get it. I saw Shrek. I know they are solitary creatures, but I needed an effective illustration. If I used Elf village, the visual would have been less powerful.
Am I saying that we can’t make mistakes? Well, that depends. There are some places in which you can’t. Ever. Most places will allow mistakes. We’re all human and mistakes will happen. Of course, with enough attention to detail those mistakes can be minimized significantly. What I AM saying is that you need to be able to perform when a crisis hits. Your entire career at a particular company may come to a screeching halt over just a few minutes of doing the wrong thing. It won’t matter how long you have been with company X if your performance is so poor that company X starts bleeding millions of dollars due to an outage that you can’t fix. Problems are going to happen. Outages are going to happen. If your company expects you to fix them, you better fix them. Now I know that some people get in over their heads. It may be the company’s fault for placing an unrealistic demand on you, or it may be your fault for misrepresenting your capabilities. If your company is expecting you to fix and support issues with F5 load balancers and you have never so much as looked at an F5 load balancer, you better let someone know and get up to speed as fast as you can. After all, your job typically is whatever your company says it is. Don’t like that? Tough. Go somewhere else. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes you are the one in the room everyone is counting on to fix the problem, even if it isn’t your equipment that is causing the problem.
In the interest of brevity, let me close with some thoughts on how to ensure your performance is top notch.
1. Know what the scope of your job is. – This may seem a bit simplistic, but you need to be on the same page as management when it comes to your responsibilities. You cannot rely on someone else to tell you if that piece of network gear buried in some rack in a data center is your responsibility. You are going to have to find that out yourself and it needs to happen before the problem occurs. Hopefully your co-workers who have been there longer than you have a good grasp on what things belong to you. For example, if your boss expects you to take care of the wireless network, you better do it or have it handed off to someone else who can take care of it when a problem arises.
2. Develop your skills around your responsibilities. – I’m not advocating you abandon any sort of professional development that is not DIRECTLY related to your job. However, a BIG part of getting a pay check from a company is directly tied to being able to do your job as defined by the company. Good managers won’t load you up with things you are not able to do unless you have managed to con your way into a job by being a bit liberal with your resume. If you are stuck with something you are relatively new to, do the best you can and make sure your management KNOWS you are doing the best you can. Read books, configuration guides, white papers, and other technical documentation. Attend a training class. A career in IT is all about adaptation. None of us are working with the same hardware/software we were 10 years ago. If you are, odds are you either work for the government or a REALLY cheap company. Perhaps there are one or two things that have had a ten year plus shelf life, but for the most part, technology changes so fast that a decade is a lifetime in IT.
3. Be prepared. – Expect the unexpected. Think about different failure scenarios and design the network to remediate any single points of failure. If need be, have some block time purchased with an external consultant or VAR that has considerable experience with your specific hardware/software platforms. Carry maintenance contracts on all your hardware/software that is critical.
4. Raise any red flags early on. – If there are issues you know are going to be a problem, let someone know as soon as possible. Document those issues. Fix those issues. Even if the company says no due to budgetary reasons or some technical issue, at least you have done your homework and tried to make these issues known. If a problem does occur, nobody can come back to you and say that you should have known about this, or that it was your fault, etc. Additionally, it may work out to your benefit as management typically appreciates people who just want to make things better and do what is right for the stability of the network.
5. Stay calm during the outage/problem. – Remember that in a lot of people’s eyes, it is always the network that is at fault. Don’t let that get you down. Stay focused and work on the problem at hand. Ask as many questions as needed to get an idea of what the scope of the problem is. Don’t be afraid to ask very basic questions. One of the best ones to ask is “What changed?” or “When did the problem start?”. Maintain professionalism at all times. I get upset when I am on a conference call and someone won’t stop moaning about why it’s not their fault long enough for me to ask a question or answer one. However, it’s rather immature and unprofessional for me to lash out at them in anger even if I know it’s not my issue. There ARE times when I have had to tell someone to stop talking so that I could either answer a question or ask one of someone else on the call. I hate having to do that, but sometimes in the interest of getting it fixed YOU HAVE TO. If you are dealing with an issue where people are congregating around your desk watching over your shoulder, try and tune them out. You can’t always tell them to get lost or to leave you alone. You have to learn to work under pressure, but if you have taken item number 2 to heart, you should be able to minimize the time these people are hovering near your desk.
6. Be humble. – If people know that you don’t know it all, they tend to cut you a little more slack. If you are condescending and treat people like garbage because they don’t know the difference between a “routed” protocol and a “routing” protocol, they will be very unforgiving of your mistakes. Remember, there is no way possible you can know it all. There are people out there who know far more than you do. Sometimes they are in the same room as you. If you save the day and score a touchdown, good job. You don’t have to do the happy dance in front of everyone if you figure out what caused that routing loop. Your actions will speak for themselves. On the other hand, if you storm into the room demanding people shut up and watch you perform, you better get it right. If you don’t, your stock just went down and at some point, you’ll be looking for work elsewhere.
Ask any athlete how hard they have to work in order to get to their peak performance level and you’ll no doubt hear a recurring answer. You will find that it took a lot of time and effort to get there. There are no short cuts. When the wide receiver catches the ball and runs 80 yards to the end zone for a touch down, you can bet he ran sprints hundreds of times in the months prior. When the quarterback throws the ball for 50 yards and drops it right on the chest of the wide receiver, you can bet he threw that same pass hundreds of times in the months prior. When the defensive end wraps his arms around the running back and slams him to the ground, you can bet he practiced on a tackling dummy hundreds of times in the months prior. The examples go on and on. Peak performance takes time and effort. You practice and refine your skills for what is usually a short performance. Sometimes the performance extends over a couple of days or weeks, but generally issues get diagnosed and resolved in a relatively short time. How you prepare will determine the outcome. If you take shortcuts, expect poor results. If you put in the effort to perform well, good things will come your way. Granted, you probably won’t get a multi-million dollar contract with company X, but how many football players do you know who understand cool stuff like policy routing and VRF’s? Oh, and being able to fix problems on the network quickly leaves you more time to play World of Warcraft.