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IT networking career lessons in a time of change

In the high-stakes, 'us vs. them' world of modern networking, a veteran network administrator shares some fundamental IT networking career lessons.

Not long ago, I read Five Things Old Programmers Should Remember by Gary Wisniewski. In it, he recounts watching a Star Trek episode one evening where Mr. Spock responds to James. T. Kirk's lament about getting old and worn out.

"If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept a promotion," Spock said. "Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material."

Wisniewski then commented on how this applied to his own career, although in his case, he departed from his first, best destiny as a software engineer to launch his own (successful) company. He then goes on to list five career lessons old programmers should remember.

A little empathy will go a long way. Always assume good intentions.

I loved his perspective and, as I head into my third decade in IT, the reminder that the things that pushed me into a career in technology remain the things that not only keep me here but are also the things that make me great at what I do. So, I thought it a worthy endeavor to list the things in my IT networking career that have always been true for me as an IT professional; more specifically, as a network administrator.

1. A little empathy will go a long way. Always assume good intentions. Just because someone is yelling at you because the "network is down," that doesn't mean they hate you. If users suggest that "adding some quality of service" is the answer to all their problems, take the time to learn more about what problem is they are trying to solve.

2. Tightly related to No. 1 is the fact that "they" are never going to understand the network (or networks in general) like we do. Never. Shouting into the void, rolling your eyes, muttering under your breath and generally holding "them" in some form of contempt is not going to change this. Commit to the idea that you will educate when and where the opportunity presents itself, but otherwise you may as well wear a pointed hat and beard.

And no, Nos. 1 and 2 are not contradictory. True, they don't understand. Yes, they will make suggestions that border on insane, not to mention inane. But you are still best served by assuming good intentions. This, by the way, is one of the most important IT networking career lessons.

3. This one's all about us: Just because they won't understand doesn't mean nobody will ever understand. Just them. Find the ones who are us. The ones who share your passion and interest. Bring them close. Learn how to be a mentor. How to challenge without overwhelming. How to teach. Learn how to share the load and even delegate. In the beginning, you may only be able to offload 10% -- or even fewer -- of your tasks, but believe me, even that's worth your time during your IT networking career.

4. "Reload in" is, and always will be, your very good friend.

5. I invoke good old RFC1925, also known as "The 12 Networking Truths," which is just as true today as it was in 1996: If your network doesn't actually work, then all the fancy hardware is for naught and IT networking career lessons go out the window. Anything that impacts the ability of your network to work should be suspect. And you must know your network is working and how well it is working. This is only accomplished through proper monitoring and management.

6. You should always focus on what you are able to accomplish. As network engineers, we frequently get caught up in how we can get the job done -- being a CLI jockey, an access control list guru or a Wireshark wizard. Even though we take pride in the hundreds of hours we spend building a specific skill set with a particular tool, the reality is that our value is far more than the commands we've memorized.

In closing, this more than anything else, is what we "old" NetAdmins (and all IT professionals, really) who have been around the block a time or four need to remember: We are more than the sum of our skills; we're the sum of our experiences, ideas and passions. That is what got us here in the first place, what has kept us here all this time and what will keep us here as wave after wave of new blood comes to join us on this journey.

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This was last published in February 2016

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