Where did you come from and where are you going?

I’m currently studying to recertify my Cisco exams, and it got me thinking. If everyone has these certifications what sets me apart from other people. Anyone can read the content, memorise the required information (UDP port 123 is NTP, Default Redistribution Metric for OSPF is 20 & E2 route) do some labs and then attempt the exam.

It takes a lot of work to pass these exams, don’t get me wrong. But when going for a new role what sets you apart?

For me, it’s the unique way you got to where you are. The way you learnt how to be a worker, the way you studied, your foot in the door and how you are growing.

I can explain how I got here and how I work. This is what sets me apart from other people when I go to an interview. This is not about who is better, just like when I tell people I play guitar. I have a lot of guitarists saying “Oh, you’re probably better than me” but that’s not what it is about. It’s the interpretation of the instrument, with all my experience that makes me different to everyone else. Everyone uses the same six strings, but what people create from those six strings is very different.

I started my working life at a fruit shop. It was a real physical job and I was subjected to a very strict working environment. You could not stand around and do nothing, anytime a job was completed, and you thought there was nothing to do, you grab a broom and start sweeping.

The first skill to learn when you start work, is initiative. Don’t wait to be asked to get the bin or pick up a broom. Look around and find something to do. When you are at work, you are paid to do a job, usually by the hour.

The second skill is being punctual. When you start at 8:00am, that doesn’t mean you start at 8:03, it means 8:00am. So, be on time and come back from your lunch break on time as well.

The third skill is working with a team. When team members are ill, or need a hand then use initiative and help them out. Don’t go out on your own and be a hero. You have a team that supports you and you must support them as well.

I worked at this fruit shop for 10 years as a casual employee. I worked all the way to basically being second in charge, I was unloading trucks at 4am in the morning, I was opening the store and I was deciding on what we needed to do during the day. This was an excellent way to start my working life and prepare me for the future.

Now, when you finish your education be prepared to do anything! I went to TAFE at Box Hill and in my final semester we were offered work experience. This was my foot in the door, and I knew it. I was really hoping to land it at Telstra, but I was offered one week at a company called Netstar (now known as Logicalis).

The week before, one of my colleagues at TAFE was supposed to go to Netstar but he couldn’t make it. Netstar called me up and asked if I wanted to do two weeks as they had an IP Telephony rollout, they were doing at various TAFE institutions throughout Victoria and needed the help. I jumped at the chance and was able to complete two weeks of work experience.

On the very last day, the manager walked up to me with a Netstar T-shirt and asked if I wanted a part time job. I said yes!

The role was mostly deploying switch configurations, installing phones and UPS. It was my foot in the door and with my work experience at the fruit shop I was able to be on time, always working and keen to help.

This sets you apart, and is not a skill, but a mindset. It is your attitude.

I worked at Netstar for some time, moving from part time to a full-time casual role but I suffered a moment of panic and performance anxiety in my second year that really affected me. It really set me back and I eventually left the role and joined one of our customers instead. I was looking to not work in the client facing arena anymore. I wanted to work on one network and learn it backwards, I didn’t want to be thrown in front of customers over and over. I needed some experience from the customer point of view.

My next job was at the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and this was my first real Network Team job. I prefer to work in a team, I like the altogether mentality, I like to share the workload and the responsibility. If one of us fails, we all fail and pull ourselves up again. I spent four years in this team, learnt a lot about networking and people in general. Unfortunately, the ghosts of the past returned in my fourth year and I decided to leave the job and the industry.

I then moved to Brisbane and spent a year of living in my own mind. It’s not the place you want to be, it’s the course that everyone is now being certified in, it’s the new celebrity confession that makes them ‘one of us’, it’s called a mental health issue.

After one year of this, and some help I was able to crawl out and face my fears slowly. I started with a 6-week contract at a local IT company in Brisbane. I was installing Access Points at schools across South East Queensland.

I was starting my new foot in the door. After 3 weeks, I realized that I needed more than this, I needed to get back to where I was so I could push forward in my career. I needed to go back to a Network Team.

I joined Rio Tinto as a contractor. It is the best place I worked so far. I would have stayed, but outsourcing was in, so I was out.

I half assed looked for a new job, but the demons were starting to tap my on the shoulder, so I listened and took the Christmas off.

I was still determined though and found another job, this time at one of the best technical teams I have ever worked for at Brennan IT. They had a division known as Brennan Voice & Data and this place made me realise that Enterprise Networking is not Networking. This place was its own Internet Service provider and I was thrown into a world of MPLS, VRFs and BGP galore.

I loved it and I learnt a lot here. I was again in a Network Team.

After two years, the industry changed, and I found myself being sent more to consulting jobs than being in the Network Team. They started sending me to places to be customer facing and I just wasn’t having none of that.

I left.

I found myself, going backwards now. I went to a Level 2 Network Team, to protect myself at a company called RCST. This company supported Mining Operations in Queensland and I was doing up and down monitoring and realising that all my dreams were slowly fading away.

Within 6 months, I was bored. I had to do something, I had to try and rise. With some help I pushed myself and got promoted to the Network Engineering Team. I was going to be client facing, but that was ok. I had learnt some skills with my help, and I was prepared.

I remember the first time I was sent to site as the ‘Network Engineer’. I walked in with my head held high (partially due to an issue with my vision) and looked out the 21 first floor window, knowing that this was my chance to either succeed or crumble.

When the meeting was over, I walked out having conquered my fear. I was client facing, we discussed QoS designs and other networking topics. Even when I left RCST, the architect sent me an email saying thanks for your work and thanks for caring about our network. That made a difference to me, for the first time a customer looked at me, a consultant as one of them. Not a salesperson, or a vendor just looking for more work but someone that cared about the environment.

I left RCST, but for the right reasons this time. This time I wanted to go to a big company, like Rio Tinto but be a Full-Time employee.

I have ended up at PwC as a Network Engineer in the AU Network Team. As I am a current employee anything I say can and will be used against me in a court of law, so sorry no details 🙂

Now, the next 10 years of my career are going to be the most important. Just as a doctor or a dentist wants to specialise in certain type of medicine or procedure, I want to specialise in a certain part of the IT industry.

I will take all my experience, all my ups and downs and even the lessons learnt when sweeping the floor to achieve my next goal.

The only hard part now is, trying to decide what to specialise in…

The year off I had, the industry changed so much. Within that one year, AWS and Azure were becoming the go to platforms and the Cisco Routers that I started seeing in Data Centres, I had never seen before.

With the birth of the SDN and the cloud, the networking components are now buttons and tick boxes on a website portal. Only if you work for the provider will you touch the actual network. If you are at an Enterprise, the BAU functions are being automated and you are starting to either work on projects or move into management.

So, the challenge for the remainder of the year is pass my exam, recertify for another three years and then really work out where am I going. Will I try and become a Network Architect, will I try and make a small leap forward and make Senior Network Engineer or will I move into a specialization like Security, Wireless or hell IPv6, can’t be many experts yet in that?

No matter what, nothing will happen until I put that first foot forward.

By the way, if this is my son or daughter reading this in 15 years’ time and you’re at work, you obviously have enough spare time to pick up a broom and start sweeping…