Share The Knowledge…Mr “Scrooge”

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I began my career in networks at a medium sized ISP in the center of town. On my first day at work I was tasked to permit only some specific users internet access in a configured NAT ACL for one of our clients which I gladly did. The CCNA knowledge was still fresh in my mind and it was a good opportunity to unleash it on a production network

Pasted above my seating area were several network diagrams of the wireless infrastructure of the ISP and the respective PoPs. The diagrams confused me a bit. Fortunately, I was assigned to one of the top support guys at the time to be oriented to the operations of the company for the next couple of days. Now that was my salvation!! What should have taken about a week took not more than 3 days. I guess one of main reasons for the speed being that I had a majority of the basic information pretty much under my belt…I was a CCNA who was being tutored by someone who was yet to take their CCNA but had been working in the field for some time.

That experience contributes to my pro-certification stance with the argument that the process delivers to an individual a baseline/advanced body of knowledge in a structured manner within a specific period of time. This is knowledge that would otherwise have been garnered on the job over a relatively longer period of time. Ok back to the story. By the turn of events at the end of the 3rd day I had pretty much been given a huge chunk of the info and tools I needed to be productive. This included topology diagrams with explanations of how the whole infrastructure fit and operated together, IP Addressing sheets, Solarwinds Engineers Toolset *applause*, important phone contacts and everything  necessary to be comfortable on the job. This also included a humongous, ugly 17″ Dell XPS laptop for support that i will refrain from commenting on.

The initiative to take me through orientation was a significant boost to my productivity and helped me a great deal to engage with my colleagues and clients I supported.

Contrast this to a scenario where you are new on the job as a network engineer and have no knowledge of WTH is going on in the shop. You are lost on processes and procedure, have no idea of architecture, unfamiliar with some of the hardware you work with (and no one is going to teach you), and do not know how to access the tools and information you need for your day to day activity. No 1-week orientation, no one to show you how to work the ropes…you are virtually almost on your own.

Now that can cause your productivity to take a significant hit especially when you are expected to deliver right from your 1st day at work. Your employers have the mindset that you are THE guy on the job and keep coming to you and throwing stuff at you expecting you to hit the ball into the stands to the glee of the arena filled with excited and expectant spectators. Not a nice situation.

Networking is team work, and I’ve come to believe that the closer the team is to each other in terms of knowledge of their domain, the easier it is on each of them in terms of division of labour. It’s cool to be able to call up a colleague at crunch time when you need a bail out and they know exactly what to do, who to talk to and where to get the information needed to perform a task. It’s easier to step away from your desk knowing that you are not going to be inundated with crisis calls because your mate on the ground is lost for solutions. You can enjoy your vacation time knowing that your back is covered and our team is well and able to face any challenge that may come up because…YOU SHARED THE KNOWLEDGE.

It’s tough dealing with managers, supervisors or colleagues who huddle behind their screens and no one else has any clue as to what they are working on or doing. They don’t open up to share, and they are not open to enquiry either. They are content and happy to be the only go-to person whenever a task needs to be done or an issue requires troubleshooting and resolution because no one else has any idea.

A leadership trainer once shared his ethos on career development in a session I was part of which challenged my paradigm.  He said that he was always careful to pass on knowledge and empower his subordinates to the point where they could completely step in his shoes. In doing so, it freed him to look for bigger opportunities up the ladder knowing that his absence would not create a vacuum, but rather create an opportunity for others to shine and make progress.

So what is your paradigm? Are you the “Scrooge”, keeping your gems closely to your chest in an airtight grip or are you going to spread the knowledge to empower others and in so doing create avenues for your personal advancement? The latter always pays off in the long run and makes a significant difference in your career!!

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Posted in Certification, Cisco, Networking | 1 Comment

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 255.255.254.0 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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It’s Not The Network!!!

If you are responsible for any network of any size, you are going to share some of the sentiments of this semi-rant…
Now is there a day that goes by without having the Desktop, Server, Applications or Database teams blaming the network for one blip or the other? Even end users have some guts to tell you it’s the network who have no idea or ever hear of the OSI model and layered troubleshooting.

I get a phone call and the following convo ensues;
User: We have a network issue!!! The Web app is not loading, it keeps giving some error.
Me: Ok tell me, is your email working?
User: Uhmm…yes
Me: Is your Instant Messaging client working?
User:*Silence*….Yes
Me:Is the ATM machine in your branch working?
User:*Silence*……Yes
Me: Dude get off my phone!!(Not really…hehehe 🙂 …But you get the vibe)

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But at this point you realize that “The Network” very likely has become the unfortunate victim of another unfounded finger-pointing galore.
Give us a break please!! It is fast becoming an easy way out for many tech support guys, and a lazy approach to the way one works….”It’s the network” seems to have become the ready explanantion for any incident when sufficient troubleshooting has not been done to identify the root cause of some service interruption…Except when it is obvious that the network is hard down and that is obviously indisputable. What happened to good old 1st level troubleshooting before escalating to 2nd or 3rd level specialist teams?

One of my former managers, who happened to be my first Cisco tutor always advocated that EVERYONE, whether you were into Software Development, Database Administration or whatever professional IT field you choose to venture in should get CCNA certified at he minimum.
This is because “The Network” will always be the fabric for the deployment of the services administered by those working in these other teams. A fundamental understanding of the nuances of the network, which can be compared to the circulatory system of the human body, helps one to troubleshoot right from the onset.
This should be done before the fire alarms are set off screaming while the network wizards are called in to wave their magic wands.

Some basics that everyone, who sits behind a “Windows” computer should know are outlined below. Same principles apply to the Linux guys. Only difference will be in the commands to execute them.
How to ping and do traceroutes and interpret the responses…Request Timed out, Destination host unreachable or TTL Expired? Is your GATEWAY reachable?

How to do a netstat -a -n and to interpret the output to see if services/servers/applications are connecting or being accessed on the right ports as they shoud.Enter the TCP 3-Way handshake. Know what ESTABLISHED vs TIME_WAIT means anyone?

How to do an ipconfig with all it’s flavour of /release, /renew and /all

Guys, save us the the headaches and let’s run our organizations with efficiency and in the spirit of teamwork

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You Can Get Into IT From a Non-Tech Background

Recently, I stopped to make an inquiry about the wireless home internet packages of an ISP at a local mall and being the techie that I am I got down to asking some very technical questions. “Is this running over WiMax?”, “What frequency band is it operating in?”, “Where are your base stations located?”, “Is signal quality line of sight dependent?” were the questions I pelted the helpless sales rep with. He was honest to admit after the first two questions that he wasn’t technical and referred me to a colleague of his who happened to be the tech support guy on site.

He answered my questions, albeit not too satisfactorily, which prompted me to further ask if they had a setup I could use to experience the service. Once I had access to their workstation I did not even bother to open a webpage. I launched into a sequence of ping tests and traceroutes to all the popular public resources (4.2.2.2 anyone??) as well as to the internet facing devices terminating the VPN for my remote access to work. One of the sales rep took interest in my activities and peered over my shoulder to find out exactly what I was up to and why I wasn’t checking out Facebook or some social media platform to benchmark their service.

After observing for a while he asked if I was a network technician of some sort. The word “technician” made me cringe for a second as images of overall-wearing guys running cables and punching them down on patch panels filled my mind (no offense, “structured-cabling” guys) and I thought to myself “No,my work is way cooler than that, dude”. I replied in the affirmative and explained to him that I was a network engineer. He then told me he was CCNA certified but was in the sales department as that was the role he was offered at the ISP. He however expressed his desire to move into the technical department after some time, but was only hindered by the fact that his employers preferred someone with a Computer Science or IT background while he had a degree in Finance.

This ushered us into a discussion for the next hour about the benefits of certification, the different Cisco tracks, using GNS3 vs. Packet Tracer, the importance of knowing and mastering the fundamentals of networking in order to lay a good foundation for further advanced certification and many other topics.It got me thinking if one really [needed] a degree in IT to fit into the IT workspace despite holding key certifications which demonstrated and validated one’s knowledge and abilities in the field.

I considered myself, a graduate of Electrical Engineering and how I had taken undergraduate courses in Microprocessor Theory, Intro to IT and Computer Networking, but didn’t really get a good enough grasp of some of these concepts till I worked towards certifications from Cisco and other vendors. I had studied Dijkstra’s algorithms and solved problems involving shortest path trees, but till I learned OSPF and how it utilized Dijkstra’s algorithm I didn’t really see its application in the real world. Granted, it gave me a better understanding of the inner workings of the protocol, but then who asks for Dijkstra’s algorithm when conducting interviews for a networking role?

In my opinion the most important thing is that one understood OSPF concepts, could configure it according to a validated design, get it up and running, troubleshoot and optimize it! But in a way I guessed the scarcity of good IT jobs and opportunities in this part of the world and our tough economy were partly to blame. Some of these requirements were brought in to sift through the huge pool of potential candidates pitching for the same role.

What was my advice to him? To keep working hard and showing his employers his genuine interest in networking. To offer his spare time to volunteer on projects, maintenance windows, and client deployments, and to keep asking the other engineers intelligent questions to demonstrate that he was continuously learning and with time they would be convinced about giving him a chance in the tech department.

There are many success stories locally and the world over of people from diverse and disparate backgrounds making it successfully in IT. Notable amongst them to me personally is “The” Scott Morris, a 4xCCIE, 2xJNCIE and having a host of other certifications which can be seen from his profile. This dude started out in Photo journalism and Political Science but has gradually carved his niche in the IT world. Also worthy of mention is a personal friend of mine, Albert Seshie. He has a visual and creative arts background, and studied Book Publishing and Design in college, but works as an IT Infrastructure staff with a financial institution. He recently got CCNA certified and is passionate about Virtualization and everything VMware, Avaya Unified Communication Solutions, and is neck deep into Microsoft technologies as well. He however still does a fine job of graphic designing and delivers when given a project to execute. Now that’s what I call multi-faceted and talented expertise.

I believe all you need is a real passion for IT, the dedication to sit down and study from the resources which  over-abound freely on the internet, in technical documentation and videos or even attend a training school and you are well on your way to becoming an IT Rock star!! It’s almost always never too late to begin from somewhere, the journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step.

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The Psychology of Becoming a CCIE Pt 1

I passed my CCIE written exam in October 2013 after 8 months of intermittent studying. Life does really get in the way if you know what i mean. From the onset, the plan was to slug it out in either 3 or 4 months maximum. I had a well planned schedule which entailed the exam topics pasted in an Excel sheet. It was highlighted green whenever i was done reading the section with the date of completion typed out snugly beside it.A glance at the sheet in the early stages of my studies proved a bit disheartening sometimes, knowing that although i felt high and mighty and fulfilled at successfully reading through a large chapter in 2 days of intense studying, there were 15 more to plough through!!

Now i know that the CCIE Written is not a “certification” to boast about, or as in the words of Himawan Nugroho in the fourth point on his blog on How To Become A CCIE, the Written is not half a CCIE, or anything in itself. It’s merely an entry pass to attempt the real deal, the monster of the 8-hour gruelling lab exam that has left many a perceived navy seal of networking crestfallen, slurking away with tail between the legs. In my part of the world however, it is kind of a big deal when you tell people you are preparing for the CCIE, regardless of it being the written or the lab exam. Those 4-letters coming out of one’s mouth evoke some level of awe and respect just for the fact that you don’t come across too many homegrown CCIE’s. At the time of writing, there are only 2…Yes! One…two, homegrown CCIE’s in a population of about  24 million.I stand to be corrected though. The first one got minted about 5 years ago and is close to bagging his third plaque. The second  picked up his digits in August last year.  We do know of other guys out there in the diaspora who have successfully passed the lab, some in multiple tracks and are doing exploits in their own respect. This brings me to the question one might ask, that is, why this dearth of highly specialized local talent?

 I will attempt to offer some perspectives below;

  • Many network engineers do not challenge themselves enough. Period.

I’ve come across a number of network engineers locally who are either half-heartedly pursuing some CCxP level certification or none at all after acquiring the CCNA.They are not able to focus on attaining the CCIE due to the diverse professional directions they choose to pursue. Many Ghanaian engineers have conveniently put the possibility of acquiring the CCIE out of their minds. It seems like a far reach to them because they “heard” it was designed for networking supermen due to the difficulty associated with it. Crucial traits i find lacking in a lot of these guys is focus, perseverance and an adamant determination to go in one particular direction professionally. Rupert Murdoch famously quips and says that FOCUS means to Follow One Course Until Successful and till you adopt that attitude towards the CCIE, you would just walk off the path way like many noble network craftsmen have.

  • Network Infrastructure is not extensive enough, hence CCNA/CCNP skills suffice.

In my last job i was managing a 50 site-network, with just about 10 of those sites doing some dynamic routing. Thanks to the “magic” of MPLS static routing was conveniently employed towards the PE’s of the Service Provider giving us transport at the various sites. Static routing was the order of the day and that didn’t provide much of a challenge architecturally. A CCNP would have been extremely comfortable managing that network. A CCNA who was really on top of his game and knew how to use Google  well would get along with a few scrapes and bumps. In a scenario like this going for the CCIE would seem an overkill. You didn’t need a CCIE to know your way round. A few large telcos and Service Providers have much bigger networks and more infrastructure, but none in my estimation would scale beyond a few hundred sites. Even there you would most likely find some form of expatriate talent supporting the infrastructure and running the show from overseas or in the background somewhere. So there again, not much to give the necessary hands on experience,not much to challenge someone to go for the CCIE.

Part 2 follows…

Posted in CCIE, Certification, Cisco, Networking | 1 Comment