Winning With Ecosystems

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled “Competing With Cisco”. It has been a few years, and since I have been in the VAR space for almost 3 years now, I have a slightly different perspective. One thing I didn’t really touch on too much in that article was the powerful ecosystem that surrounds Cisco. I’ve seen it win many deals over the past several years and thought it was worth writing about. Perhaps you already know the power of that ecosystem.

I feel sorry for smaller technology vendors. They face an uphill climb when going against the 800lb gorillas. Interestingly enough, I have often wondered about that phrase. Perusing the Wikipedia article on “800lb gorilla”(That site really does have everything!), it gives a riddle:

Q: Where does an 800lb gorilla sit?
A: Anywhere it wants to.

For people within the greater networking space, that 800lb gorilla is Cisco. It has been that way for a number of years, and will likely continue that trend for years to come. Although there are numerous competitors, time and time again, they fail to take substantial market share from Cisco. While Cisco does make many fantastic products, there are plenty of other vendors that do a better job in certain areas. Occasionally, they achieve market share greater than the competing Cisco product and reach the level of acceptance in the market to where Cisco is not the first name that comes to mind when it pertains to that particular technology. This is not the norm though.

I’ve tried to honestly look at networking vendors over the past several years and determine who had the best technology for each given situation. It wasn’t always like that though. For years, I succumbed to the marketing engine of Cisco and associated networking with that name, and that name alone. I chalk that up to either laziness, lack of knowledge, or both. I made design choices based on my comfort level with Cisco, and didn’t really entertain other vendors because it was just too easy to buy one more Catalyst switch.

Somewhere along the way I changed. I’m not sure I can point to a specific event that made me consider others, but I think a lot of it had to do with simply being exposed to alternatives. This change was similar to the OS wars that I got sucked into back in the 90’s. Windows had dominated, but once I got exposed to Unix and Linux, I begin to see things differently. It wasn’t that I loathed Microsoft. Rather, I begin to see use cases where Unix or Linux was a better fit. Over the years, I began to look more at the technology as opposed to the vendor. I don’t really care too much about cost. I care about solving the problem for the business. Now, I should point out that my experience has been that 9 out of 10 vendors can solve 90% of the problems out there. There are a fair amount of features within a given hardware/software platform that are commoditized. Switching is switching for the most part. I can deploy Brocade, Cisco, HP, or Juniper on most customer networks and they will all work just fine. Same with wireless. Occasionally, there are some compelling differentiators that push one vendor to the top based on the customer needs, but generally speaking, it doesn’t matter to me. They will all work. The big differences between the vendors will show up when you start comparing their ecosystems.

The Death of My Idealism

I’m coming up on my third year in the VAR space. I worked for a smaller VAR several years back, but it ended up being mostly SMB work, and was more break/fix than project based, so I don’t put it on the same level as the work I am doing now. There was far less selling in that role, and I pretty much just cranked out fixes to existing gear as opposed to proposing new solutions. In my current position, there are a couple of things I have had to come to terms with over the past several years.

First, you can’t always sell what you prefer. Nobody can successfully sell for a massive amount of different vendors and be any good at it when it comes time to implement. I have a hard enough time with just a handful of vendors based on the level of technical depth I need to implement things successfully. That’s just the reality I have come to accept. I may be a fan of a certain vendor, but if we don’t sell for them, it doesn’t matter. Maybe we do sell for them, but if they are not our lead vendor for a particular technology, they won’t necessarily be brought to the table on the first pass. However, if another VAR has deal registration with our lead vendor in a given technology, we can always come in with another vendor we sell for in the same space. Deal registration is VERY important as it ensures a much larger discount(usually) to the VAR that pitched that vendor first. This is just the way the business works. As long as each vendor will do the job(see my comment about 9 out of 10 vendors above), I have no problem pitching one over the other. I don’t have to lie and I don’t have to compromise my integrity to sell for a vendor in one deal and sell against them in another deal. They ALL have strengths and they ALL have weaknesses.

Second, the power of the vendor ecosystem is one that CANNOT be ignored. Companies want assurances that their people will be able to support the hardware and software that they buy. The term “support” can mean different things. It may be that they want to use products from a vendor that is known to them. They may want to be able to find more people to hire that have worked on that particular equipment. They may be concerned about enough information being available out there in the way of documentation, forums, books, etc. It is this second point that I want to focus on.

What Does An Ecosystem Bring?

A good ecosystem brings tremendous power when it comes to closing a deal with a customer. Since Cisco holds the largest market share in networking, there are a massive amount of resources out there in the way of their ecosystem when compared to other vendors. Here’s a short list:

1. Large number of resellers(VAR’s).
2. Certification programs
3. Books
4. Message forums
5. Third-party companies that enhance Cisco products
6. Conferences
7. Design guides
8. A MASSIVE marketing machine that produces enormous amounts of videos, blog posts, white papers, etc.
9. Large numbers of networking professionals who are comfortable with their products.

Let’s break down each of those items:

1. Large number of resellers(VAR’s) – The sheer number of Cisco resellers out there means that their products get mentioned to customers all over the world on a regular basis. In my particular city(Nashville,TN), I can name at least 10 different VAR’s that sell for Cisco. That’s a lot of sales reps and a lot of engineers out preaching the Cisco gospel message on a regular basis. Other vendors might only have 1 or 2 VAR’s in the Nashville,TN area selling for them. Those other VAR’s might also sell for Cisco, so it gets to be pretty tough for them. Back in 2012, I had the pleasure of attending a Brocade event at their HQ in Silicon Valley. I happened to be at the same dinner table with one of the Brocade executives, and I asked him what the biggest challenge was for them to take market share from Cisco. His words were basically that their biggest obstacle was simply getting VAR’s to mention their name to customers. When so many VAR’s are leading with Cisco, it makes it hard for vendors like Brocade to win deals if they are never brought up. It pretty much means that the local Brocade sales teams are having to engage customers and then bring in a partner that can close the deal for them. While there are VAR’s that do not sell for Cisco, they are in the minority.

2. Certification programs – When you think of the baseline certification for networking, does the term CCNA come to mind? For most people, I bet it does. On the top end, you have the CCIE certification. This is a certification that is so well respected, that it usually commands an immediate salary increase when someone passes their CCIE lab. Not always, but usually. It isn’t uncommon to see someone achieve their CCIE and then change jobs a few months later due to the better offers that flood in. Entire companies have been formed around Cisco certifications. IP Expert, Internetwork Expert, and others exist to provide third-party training to people in order for them to pass a large number of Cisco certifications. Throw in companies like Global Knowledge, New Horizons, and several others, and you have a pretty decent Cisco training ecosystem out there. Try and find certification classes for other vendors in the networking space and you usually end up looking at training direct from the vendors themselves.

3. Books – Two words. Cisco Press. Find me another networking vendor with anything close to the number of titles put out by Cisco Press. I realize that Cisco Press is not wholly owned by Cisco, but it doesn’t really matter. The books have Cisco logos on them and the association to the vendor is assumed. It isn’t just Cisco Press ether. O’Reilly has several books on Cisco hardware/software as well as do other smaller publishers. Finding a book on a particular Cisco technology or product isn’t hard to do. Juniper is the only other networking vendor I know of that even comes close to matching the number of Cisco related titles out there. HP is off to a start with their publishing arm, but their titles are mostly limited to their ASE/MASE certification programs and there appear to be fewer than 20 titles available across the entire HP Press line.

4. Message forums – These may be dwindling as a whole, but some are still very active. The forums on Cisco’s site are massive and have a large number of people posting questions and answering questions. On a lesser scale, there are other message forum sites with large portions dedicated to Cisco issues. If you have a question and don’t necessarily want to open a support case with Cisco, or didn’t pay for support, one of these forums can usually help out.

5. Third party companies that enhance Cisco products – As someone who recently switched from a Windows phone back to an iPhone, I know the pain of seeing a really cool app and not having it available for a particular platform. One of the main drivers for me going back to the Apple ecosystem was the sheer number of apps that are now available to me. When it comes to third party applications/systems from network management companies, support for Cisco products is pretty much assumed, in the same way that any smart phone app is assumed to support iOS and Android. Whether it is call reporting software, flow data repositories, configuration management, or network monitoring, you can pretty much bet that Cisco will be supported.

6. Conferences – Starting on Sunday, May 18th, Cisco Live will kick off in San Francisco,CA. While not the only Cisco conference in the world, it is the largest. Thousands of networking professionals will descend on San Francisco for several days worth of technical training and informative sessions. The level of detail in some of these sessions is simply astounding. I know of no other vendor that gives that much insight into how their products work on the scale that Cisco does. Almost every product that they sell is also available to see on the expo floor at the show. Product specialists stand ready to sell and tell you about all the whiz-bang features that are supported with that particular product. You can even schedule time to meet with Cisco engineers and discuss any design challenges you are facing. They provide you help for free. It is truly an amazing conference. If you can’t attend in person, they make almost all of the sessions available online for free. They used to charge for them, but in the past several years, they did away with that and now you can watch sessions from all of their conferences around the world for free. Each session is usually about 2 hours, so the amount of information you get is fairly comprehensive.

7. Design guides – In order to appreciate the amount of detail that goes into a standard design guide from Cisco, you really just have to sit down and read one. They are usually several hundred pages and are filled with diagrams, configuration examples, and specific recommendations on how each technology or feature is expected to be implemented. This helps tremendously in the field when implementing new hardware or software. A lot of the guessing is eliminated because most things are spelled out in these design guides. Yes, some of them can be a bit dated, and not every single technology/product is covered, but it is far more comprehensive than any other networking vendor I have seen.

8. Massive marketing machine – When it comes to marketing for networking, Cisco sets the standard. They are at every major technology show. They have more webcasts, webinars, product videos, etc than any of their competition. If you want technical information, their TechwiseTV program is simply unmatched. In short, Cisco is everywhere. White papers, webcasts, product launch events, partner-only training events and conferences, etc. The sheer size and scale of their marketing is mind boggling. I can’t even put it into words how big it is. I tend to check my YouTube subscriptions at least once a week and the Cisco channel always has several dozen more videos uploaded. Whether or not anyone watches them in large numbers is another story, but they crank out a ton of content in videos alone. I’m not saying I agree with all of their marketing. It serves its purpose, even if I disagree with the content or approach sometimes. Somebody, somewhere, is influenced by it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it this way.

9. Large numbers of networking professionals familiar with their products – I rarely see a job posting for a networking person that doesn’t have some Cisco certification listed as a requirement. Almost every single client office I walk into has some piece of Cisco hardware in production. It is a rarity to find a network engineer that isn’t somewhat familiar with a Cisco Catalyst switch. I’m the type of guy who orders the same thing from each restaurant I go to. I find something I like and I stick with it. I do it so much that my wife is constantly trying to get me to try something else, but I rarely do. I like what I like, and I would rather know what I am getting(good and bad), then try something new and be disappointed. I think a lot of people think like that when it comes to choosing Cisco hardware/software. It is familiar to them. They are comfortable with it. They may gripe about software bugs or hardware quirks, but they keep on buying Cisco.

You Want To Compete Against That?

For smaller vendors, what I listed above is a BIG hurdle they have to overcome. The ecosystem drives the Cisco machine. Take away just a few of those things, or do them better, and you can beat Cisco. Yes, it can be done. Riverbed did it. F5 did it. Other vendors have done it as well, to a certain extent. I think in those cases, the technology they offered was compelling enough to overlook the ecosystem. That usually won’t be the case though.

If you want to compete on price, go for it. Be my guest. That will work with some customers, but not all of them. When people are committed to buying Cisco, they aren’t necessarily concerned about the lowest price. The way to beat them is through the ecosystem. You have to convince customers that you can provide a better experience with your products. I took a different stance in the article I wrote back in 2010, but have come to the conclusion that price isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

If I Were Running A Smaller Vendor

Note – I’m a technical person. I’m not in management. I am not in marketing. I am not an accountant. That means I might be a little unrealistic when it comes to how all of this stuff works when it comes to growing the bottom line. I just know what works for me, and that is how I approach the following.

Tell me how it works. That’s all. Tell me as much as you can without giving away your intellectual property and I will be satisfied. Once you have told me how it works, tell me how you expect me to implement it. Give me this information in two modes. High level and low level. I don’t care about all the marketing garbage where you use buzzwords and corner cases to appear like you are so much better than everyone else. I’m tired of that junk and I hate having to sift through all of it to get to the information I really need, if I can even find it. Design guides are a great thing to have. Cisco has plenty of them, and so does Aruba. Even better if they are not hidden behind a registration wall.

Tell me about every product you sell. If I have to open a support case to get information on something as simple as a lightning arrestor for an outdoor wireless access point, I don’t consider that a good thing. Every single product you sell should have some sort of a manual. Whether it is an installation guide or a configuration guide, make it available on your website. Pictures are great too!

I watch a LOT of vendor videos on YouTube. Most of them are so boring that I only make it through about a minute before I move on to something else. My absolute favorite high level videos are the TechWise TV Fundamentals ones that Cisco produces. In a few minutes, I watch Robb Boyd break down a specific technology with nice graphics and a touch of humor. Invest in good video production. Technical people will watch technical videos. I don’t know how many management types sit around and watch a group of marketing folks chat about ROI and other benefits of a given product on YouTube. These people are already triple booked for meetings each day at the office. You really think they take the time to watch an hour long webcast or video filmed in a studio with a roundtable discussion? Of course not. I take note of the number of views on YouTube videos. Unless I am missing something, the number of views on a lot of these videos are abysmal. You would be better served by creating content that actually means something.

Here’s a few examples of content I actually enjoy watching, in addition to the TechWiseTV stuff that Cisco puts out:

1. Aruba Outdoor Wireless Videos – These are great. Something as simple as how Aruba recommends you weatherproof outdoor AP’s are a great example of USEFUL information. You can also find plenty of videos from the Aruba Airheads conference on their YouTube channel and Airheads forum.

2. Tech Field Day – These are usually highly technical presentations from various vendors. Lots of great information found in these sessions.

3. Wireless LAN Professionals Summit – More great technical videos from the first WLP event.

Yes, those are all technical resources. I am a big believer in the “trickle up” effect when it comes to vendors winning over customers. If your IT staff gets excited about a particular vendor, then that information will be relayed up the chain until it hits the decision maker. Don’t overlook the power that the IT staff wields in influencing buying decisions. As long as they can make a great case for your product, you have a pretty good chance of getting it installed in a company.

Closing Thoughts

I should point out that I don’t dislike Cisco. The bulk of my living comes from Cisco. It is a company that I have a tremendous amount of time invested in from a professional development perspective. I’ve seen unbelievable quality from some of their products, and yet I have hurled many an insult at the Java based software they love so dearly. I like the company and many of the products they make. I’m just not naive enough to believe they are the end-all be-all when it comes to all things networking. There are alternatives out there, and each company has to evaluate the available solutions and choose the vendor that meets their needs the best. Due to Cisco’s sheer size and ability to execute, they tend to get the larger share in the marketplace. It isn’t always about who has the best technology.

I love to sell solutions for Cisco, and I love the challenge of selling against them. Well, maybe I love selling against them more, but that has more to do with me liking underdogs over incumbents. As long as it gets the job done, I don’t really care who you go with. I get paid either way. ;) There are plenty of times when Cisco is going to be the best fit for you. There are other times when they won’t. You have to know how to spot the difference, and the more information a vendor can provide from a technical perspective, the better.

Posted in cisco, vendors | 2 Comments

Could Cisco ACI Kill APM?

APM TargetNote – This is ALL 100% speculation on my part. I may be WAY off base with what you are about to read, and if you know something I don’t, feel free to correct me in the comments below.

I attended the Cisco Live Local Edition event here in Nashville,TN last month. It was an all day event that gave a variety of presentations in different focus areas. While I spent the bulk of my time in the routing/switching/wireless/security presentations, I made a point to sit in on one in the data center track. It was entitled Data Center Fabric Futures. This session spent a lot of time talking about Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure(ACI) technology, so I was curious to learn a bit more about it since the company I work for sells a fair amount of Cisco Nexus switching.

If you want a little more information about Cisco’s ACI technology, here’s some really good writing on that subject:

Insieme and Cisco ACI [Part 1] – by Matt Oswalt

Insieme and Cisco ACI [Part 2] – by Matt Oswalt

Cisco’s ACI (Insieme) Launch – by John Herbert

While the presentation was moving along, one particular aspect of ACI caught my attention. It was a specific function within the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller(APIC). Before I dive into that, let me give you a brief overview of the purpose of the APIC.

APIC is the brains of ACI. Think of it as the controller for the network. Control plane operations can be orchestrated from here in the same manner that a wireless LAN controller would do for wireless access points. Anyone who has followed the industry buzz around SDN is familiar with this concept of a network controller. Instead of doing a lot of manual configuration on each and every switch and router, the controller(APIC) would handle optimized routing, QoS, and other configuration tasks automatically. Policies can be deployed and removed on the fly without a human having to intervene at every step along the way of a given data flow.

Getting My Attention

When the discussion moved to the monitoring aspects of APIC, I was suddenly even more interested. The ability to monitor traffic flowing across the network is something that every decent sized network requires. Well, it may be required, but the price tag associated with platforms that can provide this sort of monitoring tend to scare off all but the most committed organizations. They have a reputation for costing an arm and a leg. I have seen customers get excited about what a particular network monitoring product can do, and then lose interest once they see the price tag. I’m not arguing that companies with decent technology should sell it for next to nothing. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to develop any decent product and companies should be able to charge what they think is a fair price for their hardware or software. The price will be dictated by what customers are willing to pay, and if enough of them agree to that price, the vendor doesn’t necessarily have to come down on pricing to satisfy what a customer “thinks” they should pay for said product.

Here’s the slide that caught my eye:

ACI-APM

Forget the basic flow based monitoring tools or up/down state monitoring tools using SNMP. Those are old news. Granted, they are still quite useful, but in today’s larger networks, they don’t go deep enough. Consider all of the multi-tier applications that companies are employing today. What may be looked at as a simple web based application to an end user could in reality be a multitude of servers, load balancers, and other devices on the back end to allow that web page to be displayed. The complexity is hidden from the end user, and rightfully so. They just want it to work. You and I get paid to figure out how to make that work.

Enter Application Performance Monitoring(APM)

Over the past several years, I have had the pleasure of working with a few different APM vendors. In addition to logging how much traffic has traversed the network, they can drill down even deeper and show you precisely what that traffic was made up of. Instead of just telling me that a flow was comprised of Microsoft SQL traffic, APM can tell me which specific operations to a given database were made. Let’s say that you have a web application that is running slow. With APM, I have the ability to look at each transaction within that SQL flow and see if a particular “select” statement was taking too long to process. Instead of just telling the DBA’s that their database was running slow, I can point them to the precise operation that is causing that slowness.

Of equal importance is the fact that I can map out all of the applications and see exactly which systems are talking to each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to help a client troubleshoot a slowness issue and there was little to no information about how all of their systems interacted with each other. There is always some box in the corner of a datacenter that has been running for years and nobody knows what it does, except that when it goes offline, everything breaks. APM can tell you precisely what the box does, as it knows all the other systems it talks to, and what type of traffic is being sent and received by that unknown box.. The value of mapping out all of an organization’s applications and who talks to who should not be overlooked. When it breaks and nobody knows how it works because the original system architects have moved on to other jobs, much pain will ensue. Been there. Done that. Got plenty of scars to show for it. THAT reason alone is enough to justify the cost of an APM solution, unless you don’t really know how much your downtime costs you. If that is the case, remind me not to buy any of your stock. ;)

Allow Me To Speculate……

APIC is not available for purchase yet. I just checked for SKU’s on the Cisco pricing list and couldn’t find any for APIC. As best I can tell based on what I have heard, it should be coming within the next year or so. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise though. Juniper did the same thing with QFabric. The whole solution came in phases.

Based on the fact that APIC is not available today, I have to speculate on what it MIGHT be from an APM perspective due to lack of the ever popular Cisco design guides and extensive documentation. There’s also the understanding that over time, more and more capabilities will be added. This is NOT unusual within the industry, or even Cisco for that matter. The Nexus 7000 series product line didn’t come to market with everything it has today. It took time, and so will ACI.

I am also aware that Cisco’s ACI solution was probably not even intended for use as an APM-like platform. I’m just trying to think outside of the box here.

Still with me? Good.

Imagine the possibility of being able to see the health of an application from the same vendor that sold you all of your data center switches. No more span sessions or expensive network taps. No more high dollar appliances which are commodity Dell, HP, IBM, or Cisco servers with a different vendor name slapped on them. None of that. Granted, APIC won’t be free, and I wouldn’t be surprised if licensing wields its ugly head and the APIC functions are carved up under various licensing SKU’s. That’s just the way the game is played by the majority of vendors out there.

How deep will APIC be able to see into each application? I am unsure of this, but I am pretty sure it will be a bit more than just flow data or standard ICMP/SNMP health checks. I find myself wondering whether or not an “application” from an ACI perspective is the same as an “application” from a traditional APM vendor. An ACI “application” might just be a grouping of hardware and virtual resources as opposed to the lower level functions within an “application” such as database operations, etc.

The two terms that I am VERY interested in from that slide are “health scores” and “resource consumption”. They might have different meanings than what I would expect to see from an APM vendor. If they are, then you just wasted time reading this, and I wasted even more time writing it.

Closing Thoughts

I don’t know what Cisco ACI will do in terms of application monitoring. My guess is it will not be anywhere near as comprehensive as the mainline APM tools out there. However, it may be good enough, and quite a few networks out there are monitored with systems that are good enough, because the cost of APM solutions was too much for them to stomach. If it costs a little more to get even more insight into the applications running over the network, I would say that will be an easier sell than trying to bolt on a very expensive APM solution from a third party vendor. I say that as someone who LIKES the APM solutions from other vendors. I just happen to dwell in reality where lower cost often overrides the best technology choice.

Posted in cisco, data center, monitoring, network management | 1 Comment

Architecting Supportable Designs…..and a rant or two.

Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga,TN. A fine piece of architecture.

Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga,TN. A fine piece of architecture.

I just spent 9 weeks on site with a client building out a network reference architecture. The goal was to provide them with a framework they could use to configure their network in the future without having to reinvent the wheel every single time. I ended up with almost 90 pages of documentation which included somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 Visio diagrams. From a network infrastructure perspective, this reference architecture included routing, switching, wireless, network management, QoS, WAN optimization, and a few other things.

It was a very interesting experience, as I have never really sat down and thought about how I would design the network as a whole. I’ve done my fair share of implementations, but they generally focus on one particular area of the network. Companies don’t generally forklift their entire network or change every device configuration across the board all at once. During this process, one thing kept nagging at me in the back of my mind. It followed me through every major section of the document. I needed to ensure that this particular reference architecture could be supported by the networking staff.

Due to that, I had to make some tradeoffs. That doesn’t mean I slacked off and didn’t consider all possibilities. It just meant that I had to ensure that any recommendation I made would make sense to the average networking person out there. Did I explain the reasons why I chose to use NSSA’s in OSPF multi-area environments? Did I include caveats to running things like VTP on Cisco switches? Did I provide enough information to help explain why I would limit the SSID’s on wireless AP’s to 4 or less?

By writing the document with the thought of people being able to support the proposed architecture, it wasn’t an attempt to say that I am much smarter than the design choices I recommended. I was being pragmatic. I DO have an ego(Don’t we all?), but I try not to let it come out and play too often. I’ve been wrong WAY too many times to go shooting off at the mouth, errr…..keystroke.

The Problem

What I am about to tell you isn’t something you don’t already know. There is a shortage of mid to senior level qualified networking people out there. There are a LOT of tactile engineers floating about. By tactile, I mean people who have done process XYZ a number of times and their level of understanding never goes beyond that. This is easily discovered when things break and their troubleshooting methodology is either non-existent, or doesn’t go beyond a few “show” commands on a device. If this is a junior level person, that’s not a huge problem, unless the thing that broke is well within their skill set. For senior level people, and I realize that “senior” is a very subjective term, there is less wiggle room for lack of understanding when things go wrong. Especially if they were the person who designed and implemented that particular aspect of the network.

I also fully admit that my opinion is based on the encounters I have had, and in no way could I claim to speak as an authority for the entire IT community at large. I will say that when I mention this subject to my peers or network managers out there in corporate America, they tend to validate as opposed to dispute my assumptions. As always, I reserve the right to be completely wrong and have someone tell me that I am wrong. I am also approaching this from the position of networking. I don’t pretend to understand the other silos in the way that I think I understand networking. This could probably apply to those areas as well.

Why This Problem Exists

There are a number of reasons I think this problem exists. The easy thing to do would be to blame everyone for not having the drive to develop themselves professionally. Realistically though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Allow me to put forth some theories here.

1. Companies don’t care about professional development. – This isn’t true for all companies, but it tends to be the norm in my experience. Most IT managers I have dealt with really do have an interest in ensuring their people can do the job required. However, their directives are to get people in the door that can do the job with little ramp up time. They need performers from day one. Training may be promised during an interview, but all too often, it is never followed up with actual training time or resources. It is lip service. Employees that have a need to develop themselves are going to do it on their own, but don’t expect them to stick around for too long. They’ll gain additional experience at a particular company and move on to somewhere else. They know a dead-end when they see one.

If the networking team at your company consists of more than a few bodies, managers should be doing all they can to ensure their people have freedom and support for professional development. Lots of people stay at companies for years in spite of the fact that they could make more money somewhere else. There is something to be said for being in an environment where there is a solid technical team lead by competent managers. A good team can work wonders with even dated infrastructure. The better prepared your people are, the better your network will be run. That may not fit into a nice little spreadsheet in the accounting department, so network managers need to be prepared to defend the reasons for employee X taking a half day every week to train/learn. I can definitively state that there are a handful of people I have worked for/with over the years, that I would gladly work for/with again. When you find a good team, you don’t want it to ever end, even though it usually does at some point.

Tip: If you are interviewing for a job and they mention that they support training, ask them which of their employees have been on the receiving end of that training in the past year. If they can’t answer it, that should set off alarm signals in your head.

2. People don’t know how to develop themselves. – Remember your first job in IT? Were you overwhelmed? Did only a small amount of things make sense? You aren’t alone. I suspect it was like that for most of us. The difference, I think, is having an environment where learning and development is encouraged. The senior level people need to take time to ensure the junior level people understand what it is that they are doing. Looking back over the years, I have had the good fortune of working for people who took an interest in my development. They gave me projects and refused to hold my hand. They would help me out if I got stuck and needed further explanation, but overall, they instilled in me the need to research and learn things on my own. It has served me well over the years, and above all, I always want to know WHY something works the way it does. I credit my mentors for instilling that value within me, and hope I can do the same for others.

For people that didn’t have the fortune of good mentors, they may spend an entire career just going through the motions and repeating the same tasks over and over. While some out there are just lazy, I think there are a fair amount that just don’t know where to begin. They also may not be able to visualize how far they can actually go if they take the time to step out of mediocrity and go for it.

Tip: If you work in an environment where you are laughed at or belittled because you don’t know how everything works, find another job. People that withhold information from you are probably insecure and don’t know half as much as they let you believe they do. I’ve learned plenty of things from people that had far less experience than I did over the years.

3. We don’t screen candidates properly. – I could go on and on about recruiters sending in lambs to the slaughter, but I won’t. They aren’t going to change their tactics. A fair amount of them are just trying to meet that quota and don’t really care, or even know, if a candidate is viable. One of the things I do once a year or so is have lunch with a recruiter that I trust, along with some of his newer recruiters. We tend to eat at places that use paper as the table cloth, and in between bites of food, I draw out different network technologies for them. Very basic stuff. Here’s a switch. Here’s how it works. Here’s a load balancer. Here’s what it does. Etc. They will ask questions about things they have heard. I try my best to answer it in a way that makes sense to them. This is all done to ensure that when they start to vet potential candidates to put in front of a client, they can ask some basic things and perhaps understand the candidate’s resume a little more. I get a free lunch at a nice restaurant, and they get some basic introduction to networking. An even trade in my opinion. It helps my belly grow a little more, and hopefully, it makes them better at their job.

It isn’t just recruiters though. Sometimes network managers don’t have a technical background. I’ve seen good network managers with heavy business backgrounds, and I have seen good managers who have technical backgrounds. Everyone is different. Lots of different opinions on which approach is better. For network managers who only understand their infrastructure from a very high level, it means that they might end up hiring someone based on a resume and their ability to make themselves seem technically stronger than they are. They don’t know what to ask them unless they are hiring a very junior person. If you, as a technical person, see enough resumes, and provided a recruiter hasn’t “fixed” the resume, you get a general idea of whether they are the real deal. The personal interview will usually reinforce your initial instincts. If you aren’t doing technical interviews for your higher level positions, you WILL get burned at some point. Don’t settle on candidates just because you need a body. If all companies performed technical interviews at the level the position required, people would take interviews more seriously. That would make the candidates prepare a lot more than some of them do.

Tip: If you fail an interview due to technical reasons, remember those things you missed. Write them down during the interview, or shortly after leaving while they are still fresh in your mind. Go home, accept the fact that you failed, and research the things you missed. One of the saddest things I hear from people that failed technical interviews, is that they never bothered to figure out what the proper answer would have been. I once got administrative distance and EIGRP’s advertised distance confused in an interview. Although I ended up getting the job, I was so mad at myself for missing that(Hello type 1 personality!), that I went home and memorized the administrative distance table. Years later, I can still write it down if someone were to ask me to. That’s how bad it upset me. Don’t let a failed interview go to waste. Learn from it.

Additional Tip: If you fail an interview because someone was trying to make you feel stupid, consider it a blessing if you don’t get that job. You probably don’t want to work with people who like to flex their little bit of power and use interviews as a forum to show you how much they know and how little you know. Give it a few years in a healthy environment, and you will run circles around them. In the future, when you are conducting technical interviews, remember how it felt when someone was being openly hostile towards you. Don’t do that to others. It serves no purpose. Also, remember not to confuse standard technical interview pressure with open hostility. I’ve been a part of technical interviews where multiple people would hit a candidate with questions all at once in rapid fire. It was designed to see how they operated under pressure. The questions were not asked in a threatening manner. They were just probing to see if the candidate could take each question and provide an answer without becoming flustered. Yes, you’re nervous in an interview. Perfectly natural. However, when things go wrong at 2AM and you are the one who needs to fix it, you can’t shut down if the problem count goes up.

The Fix

Fixing this problem is two-fold. It’s “tough love”, but it needs to be said nevertheless.

1. Companies – As a general rule, you guys are lousy. Not ALL of you, but a fair amount of you. I get it though. You are focused on the stock price. The quarterly numbers. You don’t have time to sink more cash into that money pit we call IT. Unfortunately for you, you need to take better care of your people. Imagine a place where your employees were willing to do what it takes to get the job done. Imagine a place where you didn’t have to manage by intimidation. A place where you had droves of people waiting to interview for a position at your company, instead of just settling on you because a better offer didn’t come up. Imagine a place where you don’t have to micromanage everyone because you didn’t trust them. They’ll make it happen because they are committed to the success of the business and they are solid professionals.

What’s that? You have an ample supply of corporate drones that don’t want to rock the boat because they are happy to have a job? Here’s some news for you. When you have a group of performers in IT, they have options. If their personal networks are developed and they have in-demand skill sets, they don’t need you. You need them.

Is your IT department a revolving door? Maybe you should stop and ask yourself why. Of course, if the profits remain high, who cares, right? You think outsourcing is the answer? Go for it. Let me know if that works out for you and it comes in under budget.

Take an interest in your people and they will do wonders for you. Here’s a secret that your accounting department and CFO will love. You don’t necessarily have to pay them all a ton of money. You could spend a little on investing in their professional development and they’ll appreciate you for it. That doesn’t mean they will all stay. Sometimes you outgrow a job from a technical perspective. It happens. It’s part of the natural evolution of the IT professional. I can bet you though, that a lot more people will stay if they think you actually care about them. For those that do leave, do exit interviews. It takes a little extra time, but wouldn’t you REALLY like to know what makes people leave your company?

2. Individuals – Abhor mediocrity. I don’t get to use the word “abhor” much, so I am really glad it fit here. :) That’s about it. Don’t be content with treading water. Go out and drive your career. Don’t be a passenger! I can assure you that you will have far greater rewards in the long run. Spend some time figuring out what you want to do. Identify your weak areas. Be honest with yourself. Take some extra time and bump up your knowledge in those areas you are weak in. This will probably require time outside of normal work hours. There’s a fair amount that can be done without spending tons of money on educational material. Google will show you the way. Social media will help as well. Get on Twitter, even if it means being passive and just watching. Read blog posts and networking forums. Be a sponge.

I’ve talked with numerous networking folks over the past several years in interviews and casual conversations. I’ve recommended people for jobs they didn’t have the exact experience the employer wanted because they had potential and were strong in other areas. You knew after talking to them that they were destined for bigger things. They were hungry, and I will take “hungry and inexperienced” any day over “experienced and treading water”.

Closing Thoughts

I love what I do for a living. Life has a way of sending you in directions you never intended to go in. As a child, I was in love with the idea of being a pilot in the US Air Force, being a police officer, or being a cartographer. I ended up in IT. Looking back though, it was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. IT is one of those unique fields where YOU can dictate where you end up. If you are willing to put in the time studying and never settling for the experience you have today, you really can be anything you want to be. This is a knowledge based industry. The playing field is fairly level, in my opinion. Those that are willing to do more than the next person will find success. I firmly believe that. Yes, there is some luck involved, but in a way, you make your own luck.

I’m never content with what I know today. This industry moves way too fast to sit still. Things change. Technologies change. Vendors come and go. Jobs come and go. As you move around and move up, your value increases provided you never stop learning. Companies WANT people who are high performers. It may take you several years and many sleepless nights, but opportunities will come your way provided you put forth the effort to be ready when that opportunity presents itself.

I started out taking about network architecture, so let me end this long-winded post talking about that same thing. I’ve seen my share of network designs that were lacking, not necessarily from a hardware perspective, but from a configuration perspective. They were lacking because the people implementing the design weren’t fully aware of what their options were or they didn’t understand the technology in general. This is not always true. There are some very deliberate things done on networks, for very specific scenarios, that at first glance seem erroneous. However, it seems more common that things are done due to a lack of understanding. The same might be said for even the recommendations I made in my designs. By constantly improving ourselves, every design will get better and we’ll have fewer 2AM calls and alerts due to problems we inadvertently caused. Look at it this way. The more you know, the more time you will get to sleep at night. Unless of course, you are up late studying. ;)

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