The Value of Experience In Network Engineering

I was a freshly minted CCNA, the culminative effort of about 4 months continuous study. In this period i read Todd Lammle’s 1,000+ page certification guide cover to cover, spent numerous hours in Packet Tracer and GNS3, and watched every single one of Jeremy Cioara’s 60+ CBT Nuggets ICND1/ICND2 videos. To say i was excited about the whole learning experience is an understatement. It was the coolest thing to me at the time discovering and exploring networking technologies.Every new piece of information I learnt was like a nugget of gold to me.

There was however one thing i lacked after passing the CCNA…real world experience.

I had a good understanding of the technologies but apart from the Packet Tracer and GNS3 labs i hadn’t got the chance to get my hands dirty yet.I felt high and mighty and super-confident that i could slice down any network like a ninja brandishing a samurai sword with dexterity. One of my tutors who had taught me in a 4-day boot camp i participated in called me up shortly after i passed the exam and told me about an opportunity for a short stint with one of the major telcos in the country. In typical gung ho style i told him i wasn’t going to accept the daily wage being offered because it didn’t meet my expectation. I was looking for something more, after all i was THE newest CCNA on the block and i deserved big bucks for that accomplishment  🙂

On hindsight i accept that as one of the most foolish mistakes i made early on in my professional career. That right there was an opportunity to get my hands dirty and begin building my resume very early but i had lost it because i was focused on the returns. Looking back i tell upcoming engineers how i would have jumped at that opportunity today and even worked for free had there been no wage at all.Experience is of utmost importance in the field of networking.

One of the main reasons why some CCNA’s and even CCNP’s i have interviewed and worked with, have difficulty with the basics of networking is because they have zero experience after getting certified. I recall several occasions were certain theoretical concepts were reinforced when i had the chance to encounter it in the real world. Case in point is VPN’s.It was more or less like, “I know what a VPN is and how it is supposed to work.”OK.Good.Cool. I had read about it in my CCNA studies and understood the concepts, but till i set up my first remote access VPN i didn’t appreciate it’s inner workings. My eyes widened with awe and amazement as the remote access session established and i could backslash into shared folders on the LAN in my office network and ping internal private IP’s when i was not physically present there. All the pieces immediately came rushing together when i encountered a working real life scenario. I had also struggled with some aspects of subnetting, especially with /23 subnet masks. It was hard seeing how it was possible to have a mask with 510 usable addresses within one subnet, but once i saw it configured as a default gateway and IP’s being assigned from that block via DHCP it made so much more sense.

Several similar encounters continue to reinforce the things i have read and studied and i can never have enough of real world experience. A colleague of mine shared the same sentiments recently when he started work with an IP transit ISP and had to setup multi-homed BGP with ISIS and OSPF. His previous experience with these technologies had been solely on GNS3 but after encountering it in real life and having to battle some routing loops, he testified that his knowledge of BGP had deepened.

My advice to rookie engineers? Seek for the jobs and opportunities that can give you the widest exposure to the technologies early on in your career. Don’t be too focused on the returns, once you have solid experience, you build up the clout to give you the power to bargain for the rewards.
Happy Networking!!

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