Once upon a time I wanted to grow up and be an astronaut, police officer, pilot, and cartographer. Well, as you can probably guess, I didn’t end up anywhere near those professions. Here I am neck deep in the world of information technology. Although my primary focus is on the routing and switching areas of networking, I find myself routinely pulled into other areas of networking as well. If I am at one of my employer’s remote sites, I might get asked about power and cooling needs, or even how we are going to replace a PBX with a VOIP solution. Just a few days ago, myself and several co-workers pulled an all-nighter at the data center in order to add more redundancy. That involved security as well as other services such as DNS. Although our wireless networks typically work well, if there is a problem, my group is responsible for fixing it. Basically, I get to run the full range of networking.
If you are reading this, odds are you understood everything I just wrote in the opening paragraph. You understand it because you are probably involved in the industry to some degree. The average non-IT person out there does not. That’s not to say that they are completely in the dark about IT or networking in general. It’s just that they don’t deal with this stuff every day and thus, it is a foreign world to them. One of the questions I get asked quite often is what I do for a living. I can tell people I am a network engineer/architect/janitor/technician, but I usually end up telling them I am in IT. Some people know what IT is, and for others I have to define it as “Information Technology”. I usually just mention the word computer and people understand. One of things I am quick to point out is that I don’t actually work on the computers themselves. I simply make sure they can all connect to each other and pass data back and forth. Perhaps the most frequent comparison I use is that of a road network. If you think of the various homes and buildings around your part of the world, those are the computers. The roads are the network. I take care of the roads. Whether it means building a new one, filling in potholes, or widening an overcrowded stretch of road, that’s my job. Thanks to the wonderful marketing power of Cisco, I can usually ask people if they are familiar with the “Cisco” brand and most times they are. Then it’s easy enough for me to say that about 90% of what I do revolves around that brand name. Surprisingly, nobody has asked me to help fix their Flip device yet!
Why am I mentioning all of this you ask? Well, it is simply a reminder that for those of us who are networking professionals, our job is relatively unknown outside of IT circles. Perhaps the one big exception might be those of you who focus on voice. The phone is a device everyone is familiar with. It is a tangible product that we surround ourselves with. If you tell someone you take care of the phone system, they understand that. Router, switch, firewall, access point, and load balancer are all foreign terms to most people. They hear the word computer and more often than not, assume you can remove that virus that is preventing them from getting to YouTube. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
As you grow in your networking or IT career, you’ll find that you need to constantly improve your skills and knowledge. What you know today is only a fraction of what you’ll need to know a few years from now. In the course of all this, you’ll have designs that fail and implementations that go bad. You’ll also have a lot of scars to prove it. There will be plenty of war stories that you acquire over the years. That information is of great value to others in this field. You’ll also want to hear the war stories from others. Since the average person out on the street is not involved in what you do for a living, you will have to find other people who do what you do. You need to share what you know with others. Likewise, they need to do the same. There’s a reason I chose the “therapy” theme for this blog. I can’t go home at night and talk to my wife about what I do for a living. My son and daughter are both under the age of 10. If my job doesn’t have anything to do with Barbie or Star Wars, it’s not very interesting to them. With very few exceptions, I can’t go and talk to people at church about the struggles and successes about life in corporate IT. Thus, I need an outlet. We ALL need an outlet.
Here’s a few suggestions:
1. Find a local user group. This would be a group of people who do what you do for a living and get together once a month or once a quarter and talk about various technologies, hardware, or software.
If you happen to be a predominantly Cisco shop, there are quite a few of these groups around the United States. You can find one here.
For all other types of IT related groups, this site can help.
2. Get involved online. It goes without saying that if you are reading this, you are already involved to a certain extent. However, there’s more out there than just blogs.
LinkedIn is a great way to connect with other IT professionals. There are tons of groups on LinkedIn that pertain to a certain local area and technology. Via the group discussions, you can interact with thousands and thousands of IT professionals all over the world.
Twitter is one of my favorite sites to use. It provides almost instant feedback on virtually anything you can think of. Plus, there are tons of really GOOD technical people on there. People who write books you have read. People who work on networks you dream about. With a worldwide audience, there’s always somebody online watching their Twitter feed who can help out with an issue or just listen to you rant about why you should have gone to law school instead. Not only will you learn a lot, you will get to know people you will probably never meet in person.
Forums are a great resource to ask questions or help out with other people’s problems. Cisco has a fairly large technical forum on the main cisco.com website. Another decent site to use is networking-forum.com.
There’s more things like IRC, mailing lists(NANOG comes to mind), and even sites like Facebook, but I think you get the idea.
As technology becomes a larger part of our everyday lives, people will figure out more about our networking jobs. Wireless is becoming the norm out there, so a lot of people are learning more about wireless hardware and terms. With the dangers of the Internet, the term firewall is being thrown around a lot more. While I doubt everyone out there is going to learn about the OSI model, I do think our jobs will become less esoteric and more mainstream. Until then, we have to find a way to help each other out.