The network admin is one of the most critical roles on any IT team. Server admins are great at keeping the servers humming, but without the network admin, no one’s going to be talking to those servers. Infosec is vital as threats increase, but without the network, there’s nothing to protect. Users would flood the helpdesk with calls about Facebook being down if the network fell over.
Whether you’re an ambitious rookie looking down the road for a specialty or a seasoned veteran ready for a career redirect, network administer is an awesome role to work toward. Even with every CIO and manager’s head in the cloud(s), the employment outlook for netadmins stands to stay steady in the coming years. In the right company and with some accumulated experience and seniority, it can be very lucrative. We have your attention now, right?
However, to turn your passion and interest to a full-fledged career, there are specific skills you must develop to make sure your work stands above the rest. Here are ways you can step up your professional game.
Some Soft Skills for Starters
We know, we know… you want to jump right into the cool techy stuff. However, we’re starting with soft skills for a reason: Everyone wants to skip over them and go right to the fun hard skills. But what if you were fluent in both, how much could that make you a standout candidate for a position?
Start with teamwork. Any company with an IT department big enough for a dedicated network admin has a team of people in different roles — but all with the same goal of supporting the company IT needs and goals. You are one piece in a bigger game. Definitely an important piece, but by no means a rogue. Working in a team is highest up on the spectrum of soft skills required to stand out — and also encompasses a broad swath of skills for success. Effective communication, being a good listener, and problem-solving will meld together to make you an optimal team player.
Another critical soft skill is project management. Knowing how to configure a switch is one thing. Planning for all the required hardware, considerations, and personnel to pull off a multisite, multinational network is quite another.
There are project scopes to set and work within, budgets to set and operate within, timetables to plan for, and final objectives and deliverables to, well, deliver. Studying even parts of the PMP (Project Manager Professional) certification material could pay dividends in learning to run a large project, helping you to stand out as a valuable admin.
The netadmin must also keep up with current trends and developments in their field. New technologies like intent-based networking and software-defined networking promise to revolutionize network management. They sound cool, but are they a good fit for your particular architecture? Do they contribute to your real goals or solve any pain points? Or are they just flashy new tech that you want to play with?
All right, the good stuff you’ve been waiting for, and we’re going to start with a doozy. A network admin who isn’t heavy into automation is getting left behind. Period. Problems — big problems — will come up fast and knock down your network. Configuration changes are necessary across large quantities of devices. Performance monitoring across sites is crucial. Are you going to troubleshoot every problem, configure every device, and pull every metric? Nah, you’re going to automate it.
If you have a task that takes more than two minutes and you have to do it more than once a week, you should be writing code to automate the work. It doesn’t matter if it’s Bash, Python, C++, BASIC, or Fortran. Learn to script and make the computer do work for you.
Another oft-ignored qualification is specialization in a particular vendor. For ease of managing the network and vendor relations/purchasing/support contacts, a large company finds one hardware vendor and buys their entire network stack from them. So for that company, an admin already fluent in their preferred vendor rises to the top.
Whether you are a networking newbie or seasoned pro, start by picking one vendor for all your home lab gear to learn on (you do have a home lab, right?). As for which vendor, none is more ubiquitous across any SMB or enterprise environment as Cisco. Learn Cisco gear, and you’re qualified for any number of netadmin positions.
Learning about vendors dovetails into another topic, certifications. Once you get above the CompTIA Network+ level of certification and experience, network certs start branching into tracks provided by specific vendors. Cisco has their networking certs. Juniper has theirs. Sonicwall has theirs. And so on. Each works through universal networking concepts going beginner to guru, with an emphasis on their gear.
Back to our Cisco example to illustrate this. A CCNA takes you through a couple of years of experience worth of networking knowledge but keeps coming back to how to apply that knowledge on Cisco gear. You learn about switching as a general concept, then specific examples of configuring ports and VLANs on the Cisco command line. Same then with routers and firewalls.
Our final point is knowing your vendor’s offerings. You got that sweet netadmin job in that Cisco shop and are planning a significant hardware refresh (because you’re a project management master) and need to select switches. Okay, Cisco only sells three bazillion different switches. What’s the difference between a $500 switch and a $5,000 one? Which do you need for access and backbones? Which are upgradable? Why might you even need upgradable switches? VARs are helpful here, but you have to know your stuff too.
Rock the skills
If you can program a router blindfolded, you might think you have what it takes, but missing any of these soft or hard skills might limit your job options. The real netadmin rockstars go beyond the terminal to become super well-rounded — and it pays off with huge dividends in their careers. So, dig in and figure out where you need to level up.