Few fields require the continual professional development that IT does, but few fields offer the incredible rewards that a commitment to developing the skills of our trade can provide. Many factors come together to shape if, why, and how we advance in our field, and though I can speak only of my own experience, I believe the lessons I’ve learned from my journey so far may be of some value to others also on a similar path.
In college I focused on literature and history. I developed that in grad school and turned it into a teaching career. If you’ve read my About Me page you’ll know that a teaching career wasn’t really for me. However, I’m convinced that the skills I developed as a teacher and passion for lifelong learning that grew out of those few years have been vital to becoming a well-rounded network engineer. I still go to school every day, but now I call it professional development.
I use the term “professional development” only because it’s ubiquitous in the IT field. We all have a sense of what it means, but I think it’s somewhat of a misnomer. One of the main reasons I got into IT was for the chance to own my skillset apart from having to play company politics or climb the corporate ladder. I did not (and do not) want to be beholden to an organization to grow in my career and my ability to provide for my family. Though I’m grateful for my job and believe we ought to be respectful toward our employer, I don’t rely on my company to develop my depth of knowledge, income potential and to an extent my job satisfaction.
Professional development, then, is not really the formal plan your boss gives you during your yearly review. Yes, you can definitely progress that way, but it’ll be according to the desires of your employer and at their pace. That may align with your plan, and it may give you a good framework to work with, so I don’t want to dismiss that situation entirely. But in my experience, I’ve never been handed a formal plan. My professional development has been much more personal. My employers knew I was already deep in my own studies. Of course it was convenient that my goals were in line with the direction of the company, but so far it’s worked for me.
I do remember once when an employer gave me a specific directive. A Cisco VAR I worked for wanted me to develop my wireless skills, so they assigned me the task of getting a CCNA and CCNP wireless in one year. They incentivized it, and I earned both within about five months. But understand that this didn’t take away from my plan because I already wanted to round off my CCNP level knowledge in other areas.
I believe that it’s because I already had a personal plan that their directive worked out so well. I reject the idea that I have to wait for my boss to create my career for me. I even reject waiting for my employer to pay for resources before I can make progress.
For a network engineer, a professional development plan is the ongoing endeavor to be a better network engineer. By the very nature of that goal the results will be advancement, more interesting work and more lucrative employment.
I concluded early in my career that I would be a network engineer by trade and not because it was the job I happened to have. That means I would be a network engineer regardless of who I worked for or my precise title. Think about your own career that way. Don’t make it the basis for your identity, of course, but I think it’s right to look at network engineering as our trade: a craft we love, take pride in, and at which we continually improve.
You need to develop your own plan. Where do you want to be in your career in five years? What sort of income do you want? What technology do you want to work with? You need to first take an honest look at the industry and determine what areas of the IT field can accommodate those goals. If you want to earn six figures within five years, then you’re in the right business. If you thrive in an environment with constant technical challenges, the opportunities are there. But if you have no plan and float aimlessly through five years of L1 and L2 helpdesk, you won’t get to the next level.
For me, after one year on helpdesk it was time to get serious, so I set a specific goal with a timetable. Then I became relentless in my pursuit to fulfill it. This is when my career actually began. I decided that I wanted to be a network engineer. My goal was the job title and a certain salary. I tackled the CCNA first which took me almost a year. I started with reading a CompTIA Network+ textbook and watching the DVDs that came with it. The content wasn’t difficult – it was basic network concepts which I picked up quickly. When looking at the CCNA content itself I realized a textbook wouldn’t cut it. I hung around with some of the network engineers at my company and learned how to put together a lab. They recommended Pluralsight and CBT Nuggets, so I immediately purchased subscriptions with my own money.
Now I had a goal and resources, but I didn’t have decent study habits yet. Remember this was a career change for me and I desired to catch up as fast as I could. How would I get a CCNA in one year when all of this was so new to me? The answer was simple in theory but difficult in practice. I was going to have to work hard.
This is something you have to settle within yourself if you want to advance in any serious manner as a network engineer. You must be willing to work hard.
I set up a lab and got up at 4:30am every weekday to study before work. I studied at night after my wife and I put the baby to bed. I studied every moment I could scrounge. Lunch was studying. Early morning was a CBT Nuggets or Pluralsight video. Nighttime was a lab. I still failed both ICND 1 and 2 the first time before earning the CCNA, but when I got it I was able to get a much higher paying helpdesk job almost immediately.
My second job was also at a Cisco VAR, though it was a dramatically smaller company. I was given all the networking tasks because I was the guy with the CCNA and working on his CCNP. This is important to note. This company was so small that I had the opportunity to work on everything. We didn’t work on huge projects, so it was a perfect environment to work on basic networking skills every day. The concepts became so ingrained in me that advancing through CCNP content wasn’t too difficult. It required a lot of work to learn and lab, but it was familiar. I still got up early to get to the office by 6:30am every day to study, but now the ball was really rolling.
This is something to consider. A smaller value added reseller is a great place to go from helpdesk work to entry-level network engineering because a small company can’t afford experienced high-end network engineers and usually doesn’t have the work for them anyway. By nature of the small business environment you will learn, learn, learn.
In one year I earned a CCNP, and the company grew enough that I worked on CCNP level projects regularly. After two years my title changed to Senior Network Engineer and I got a nice raise. This was the fulfillment of my first plan, and it took getting up very early, spending some of my own money, turning off Netflix (the hardest part sometimes), and staying up late reading.
Since then I’ve earned other Cisco certifications, and today I have a new goal, a new plan and new resources, but the same strategy. The best part, though, is that it’s mine. I wasn’t handed my professional development plan. I created it for myself, personally.