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Network specialist career development includes business knowledge

A network specialist needs to have knowledge of SD-WAN, Cisco's NX-OS and other technologies, but they also must study the business side of the job, one IT pro says.

The first striking thing about Jedadiah Casey is his passion for learning. It's a good thing he has such a passion, because his journey to becoming an expert-level network specialist, as he explains, requires extensive reading and learning.

Starting as a PC technician, it wasn't until he was in his 30s that Casey explored a network specialist career. As he's studied, become certified and built his experience, Casey said he sees a breadth and depth to networking that he's eager to tackle. "My background taught me that knowing networking was simply adjacent to systems administration, which, of course, is not true," he said.

A network engineer for Rotech Healthcare Inc., a home medical equipment and respiratory treatment supplier in Orlando, Fla., Casey manages connections to several critical rural health settings. Maintaining reliable network services is vital to make sure health services are delivered on time. We chatted with Casey about his work and got his insights into what it takes to develop a network specialist career.

Editor's note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.

You came to networking in your 30s, which is somewhat later than other people do. What have you've learned that others who start earlier might not?

Jedadiah Casey: I believe that many people who become technologists early on have a lack of appreciation for the business side of things. At some level, all technology is designed and developed to serve a particular business purpose. I believe this is easier to understand and appreciate as you get older.

Jedadiah Casey, network engineer, Rotech Healthcare Inc.Jedadiah Casey

Another thing that is more difficult to see when you're younger is just how important it is to learn the fundamentals and the way knowledge builds on itself over time. When you're younger, the process of knowledge acquisition can sometimes feel like an eternity. As you get older, you learn to recognize and appreciate various learning and experience milestones, and your path may become clearer.

I like the idea of working in an environment where the network is the business rather than a cost center.

I've had a very strong interest in computer networking since the first time I dialed into a bulletin board system in the early 1990s with my Intel 386-based PC. Specifically, wide area networking and the technologies used by service providers have always been wondrous to me. In retrospect, I should have pursued work within a service provider environment earlier in my career.

I like the idea of working in an environment where the network is the business rather than a cost center, as many enterprises view it. I intend to take my career in the service provider direction eventually; however, working from the enterprise side has given me an opportunity to see where service providers are lacking with regard to customer relationships.

Tell me about a project you're tackling currently.

Casey: I am helping to evaluate different SD-WAN [software-defined WAN] options for my company, now that the market and various products have had some time to mature. SD-WAN has come to mean many different things, so just like with any other part of network architecture and design, it comes down to determining the underlying business requirements and working within constraints. We are still determining what SD-WAN will mean for us and which particular aspects will be the most beneficial.

Cost is always a consideration, but transport availability can also be a major limiting factor. The essence of SD-WAN is intelligent path control over multiple connectivity points. My company has many rural locations where a T1 connection is the best and sometimes only option available. This creates challenges with regard to bandwidth usage, especially as Software as a service becomes more frequently delivered over the internet.

Why does your company want to implement SD-WAN across rural settings?

Casey: Potential cost savings, but perhaps more important is site resiliency through path diversity, as well as increased bandwidth. Each site is being evaluated individually for current connectivity options, as well as the need for resiliency in terms of potential lost revenue due to temporary loss of connectivity.

Some of our larger sites are also our most rural, and if multiple commodity circuits like cable and DSL are available, SD-WAN can help lower the price versus having dedicated circuits like a T1 or T3. A single dedicated circuit may have a [service-level agreement] associated with it, but it has been our experience that, in general, copper-based dedicated circuits are not more reliable than commodity circuits, where two commodity circuits may be cheaper than a single dedicated circuit. The SD-WAN portion can intelligently prioritize traffic between the multiple connections.

What's a past project you're particularly proud of?

Casey: I am very proud of the work I did participating in the relocation and decommissioning of my company's old data center. During the migration, we upgraded from an older Cisco Catalyst 6500 platform to a new Cisco Nexus-based core. The migration included a temporary point-to-point Metro Ethernet circuit that allowed for a seamless transition.

We were able to move the networking services from the old data center to the new one without interruption. As equipment was installed in the new data center, services were migrated from the old data center and then decommissioned. With the exception of planned maintenance windows, the effect of the move was largely invisible to the rest of the company.

This was also my first exposure to the Cisco NX-OS operating system. NX-OS is interesting because it is similar to the traditional Cisco IOS, but there are many little differences in the configuration and implementation. When moving between platforms, it becomes very important to understand the fundamentals of how the various protocols actually work. Having that fundamental knowledge makes moving between different syntaxes much easier.

For example, with the traditional Cisco IOS, all licensed features are immediately available for configuration, whereas with NX-OS, many features must be activated before they can be configured. Another example I believe most people will encounter early on is that when configuring Cisco's Hot Standby Router Protocol technology: IOS uses standby commands, whereas NX-OS uses HSRP commands, which is more intuitive in my opinion.

How do you think what you learned will translate to the next project?

Casey: The experience taught me to more fully analyze different aspects of requests being made, including both requirements and constraints. To those outside of networking, the network typically resembles plumbing, where you simply connect, and it just works. It is our job as network professionals to realize the different caveats and to ask the questions that nobody else thinks to ask. It is our job to determine what is ultimately trying to be accomplished with regard to the network and provide the solution within the various constraints.

What advice would you give to young networking professionals just beginning their careers?

Casey: Let your passion drive your learning, be responsible for your own career development, and remember that even small sessions of learning add up to a greater whole over time. Most important, if you truly wish to be an expert in this field, realize that you are committing to lifelong learning. Expert-level networking requires virtually endless reading of technical topics.

I've been doing this long enough now that I've seen a few fads come and go, but what always remains is fundamental knowledge. When you're first starting out, it is very easy to be overwhelmed with how deep the world of networking goes. Learning takes time, and learning at the expert network specialist level can take many years. In my blog I describe that a life-changing study method for me was learning to create repeatable flash cards in question and answer format instead of taking notes.

Why did you create your blog to document your learning experiences?

Casey: Having recently passed Cisco's CCIE Routing and Switching written exam, it's very interesting to look back five years ago when I acquired the CCNA certification and transitioned from a general sys admin mindset to one that is more network-oriented. I know that over the course of my journey, I've had various thoughts and feelings that I felt were important to express -- to let others know that they are probably not alone.

What's next on your reading list and why?

Casey: Last year, Nicholas Russo released a wonderful book, CCIE Service Provider Version 4 Written and Lab Exam Comprehensive Guide. While this book is geared toward Cisco's expert-level service provider certification, it provides a wealth of information for the Cisco CCIE Routing and Switching certification as well. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to dig deeper into networking.

Next Steps

Guide to SD-WAN buying

What to know about SD-WAN

Is taking the CCIE exam still worth it?

This was last published in November 2017

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