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A Guide To Getting into Networking

Editor’s note: Joseph Greene, a 24-year-old network analyst and CBT Nuggets user, recently posted his advice on starting a networking career to reddit. We were such fans of his advice that we asked to share his post here on our blog.  Joseph has CCNA R&S and CompTIA Network+ (and A+) certifications, and has an associate’s degree in network technology. Here’s what he had to say:

email-blog (18)The Grand Trifecta 

…of breaking into the IT networking industry includes the following, in order of general weight:

  • Experience (you’ve done the work in the field; you’ve demonstrated what you know)
  • Certifications (you’ve studied the technology enough to pass tests)
  • College/University-level degree (you’ve studied the technology in a lab environment)

Notice I said general weight: It depends on who’s doing the interviewing/hiring. Certs may not actually have more weight than degrees. Again, depends on who’s doing the hiring/interviewing. Even experience might weigh less than the others – depends on who’s hiring/interviewing!

Certifications

People cheat their way through certification exams (surprise!), so they are not perceived with the same weight from employer to employer (or from coworker to coworker). Employers will almost always put great value in your past experience, some value into certs, and some into your degree. Some places enjoy certain certifications over others, some don’t care at all what acronyms pop up on your resume. Having them is typically better than not having them, but they’re certainly not the be-all end-all of getting hired.

Certs get your foot in the door for the interview, experience and knowledge will get you hired.

So which certs to get? That depends on what you want to do. Cisco is a big name in networking technology certification, and has a seriously fragmented tree you can pick and choose from. Most start with the CCNA Routing & Switching cert, and then specialize in fields like CCNA Voice, CCNA Security, CCNA Wireless, and etc. Another vendor offering certifications related to networking includes Juniper (starting with JNCIA). The CompTIA Network+ will easily be trumped by the CCNA, so go for the latter if you can jump right in. There are other certifying bodies, but these are the most widely recognized and will probably be the best place to start if you’re new to the field.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to study and sit for the CCNA R&S, and branch out from there into your specific interests. For help understanding Cisco’s tree of certifications, this visual representation will help. Remember, this is just Cisco’s cert offerings — there are many others for many different areas of networking!

Degrees

Also, degrees can be bought earned anywhere these days. The name of the college doesn’t matter as much as what you learn. You still have to put in a few years of your life to earn it, of course, but understand that it is (like certs) not the be-all, end-all. It makes sure that you’ve put your hands on some equipment in a lab environment (whether physical or virtual) and that you’ve passed more than one test to prove it. Some employers really like to see degrees; some don’t value it as much. It is better to have than not, but what you know is what gets you hired, not what acronyms you can type on your resume.

Another note about degrees, a bachelor’s degree is generally only required if you’re looking for a management (read: non-technical) position or career track. I’ve been working almost a year with an associate’s and a couple certs, and I’ve yet to be turned down an opportunity due to a lacking degree. (Also, if you have a degree from a field not related to IT/networking, that’s OK! You at least have college education, and this only works in your favor.) This will not always be true (see larger employers who need to filter out sort through thousands of applications), but if you’re looking for a NOC (Network Operations Center) position and are worried that they’ll pass you up ’cause you’ve only got a 2-year degree, apply anyway, even if it says, “bachelor’s required.” The worst they can say is; “Sorry, no.”

So cert and degree combo, then?

Also, if you’re asking about what combination of experience/certs/degrees will get you in terms of salary, it depends on your location and your career path. Remember that the cost of living is wildly different depending on where you live, and that’s reflected in part in your salary. That, and the kind of employer you’ll interview with, make it difficult to say how much you’ll be making. If someone’s reading this in the future, it’s safe to say that in 2014 US dollars a networking professional with a CCIE-level certification from Cisco will typically be over the six-figure salary line no matter where they are. How high above depends on where you live, what your title is, what company you work for, etc.

Should I get into networking?

That depends. What do you want to do with yourself? You can learn routing and switching to build and troubleshoot networks, you can learn VoIP systems, you can learn security, you can learn wireless, etc. Research the branches that are out there, find out what it is that your personal passion is closest to in the field, and keep reading up on that. Once you’ve found the one(s) for you, schedule a class or buy a book to study for a relevant cert. Look up jobs in that field, and see what you’d like to apply for when ready.

Also, if you think it’s too late to get into networking (due to age or how much time you’ve put into education already), ask yourself what you’re willing to put in to learn. If you have the passion, it really doesn’t matter how far along you are ’cause who’s gonna stop you? If/when you do take the first jump and schedule your first networking class, please be excellent at what you do. If you know the material and understand the technology, you will do well in class, on tests, and in the field.

How long does it take working in the field?

Entry-level jobs are often help-desk positions in a NOC. This is where you “earn your wings” in this field. Everyone’s gotta do the help desk for a while! After that it’s a matter of what you spend your time learning and what you like to do, and how hard you beat the pavement with applying to other employers or trying to move up in your current company. You will not be a network engineer without experience, and you will not be a network engineer with just a year of experience, but you will be on your way there as long as you keep learning and never settle.

So how do I get into networking?

Hard work. If you’re still not sure, YouTube/Google different networking topics to see the terminology and some different network configurations. The sooner you get into the CBT Nuggets for CCNA, the better — as they do an excellent job of covering the topics and will give you a great intro to networking as well as being a phenomenal study tool.

What equipment should I buy to practice and learn on?

No physical equipment. You won’t be able to economically build a learning network that would translate well to networks in the field. Instead, virtualizing your networks will be your best bet by far: GNS3 and Packet Tracer are the two program choices you’ll hear of most. Many start with Packet Tracer, and that’s what Cisco’s NetAcad uses for its labs, if that piques your interest.

Should I apply for this job? I have barely any qualifications that are required.

Good god man, apply anyway!

Thanks, Joseph, for the awesome advice! What advice would you add about getting into networking?
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