Life as a NOC Technician: What to Expect in Your Role
A NOC (pronounced knock) is shorthand for a Network Operations Center. A NOC is normally configured as a single large room for remote monitoring and management of IT infrastructure. A NOC usually looks like the "war room" from the movie WarGames. A wall of large monitors displays real-time data at the front, and rows of workstations where technicians observe the vitals on their assigned endpoints, taking action as necessary.
If you're thinking about taking a job as a NOC technician or NOC engineer, it's wise to familiarize yourself with the roles, responsibilities, and the work environment. It takes a unique style of IT professional to fit into the NOC flow. Read on to determine if a career in Network Operations makes sense for you.
What Is a NOC?
Such a sophisticated monitoring operation is clearly not something every company has or needs. But companies that directly manage any type of critical IT infrastructure will almost certainly have a NOC. Therefore, you could probably expect to work for one of the following:
A large enterprise that manages its own IT systems
A Managed Service Provider
A Third-Party NOC Service Provider
An ISP, satellite communications provider, or other telco
A mission-critical government or military department
There's plenty of room for specialization among those employer categories. For instance, a satellite communications provider would be seeking recruits with a different skill set than a financial institution. There are, however, many common skills that are sought after in most NOCs, such as knowledge of network troubleshooting tools and scripting.
Positions in the NOC utilize the tiered system that we commonly see in IT workplaces, as well as most help desks. Most job postings seek professionals to begin at the bottom tier. However, if you have the right skills you may find that promotion is rapid.
The tiered workplace might give the impression that a NOC is nothing more than a glorified help desk, but nothing could be further from the truth. In a properly implemented network operations center, technicians never interact with the customer at all. They are a completely internal department who proactively monitor and troubleshoot systems without the customer's awareness.
Despite this customary definition of a NOC, be aware that some employers play fast and loose with the term, expecting their NOC techs to perform double duty as help desk support. Make sure you know what you're getting into before you sign on the dotted line!
Life as a NOC Technician
Unless you possess some advanced skills that are in immediate need, a NOC tech generally enters at the lowest tier. Opportunities for promotion can be quite frequent as your experience, skill set and training increase. The work schedule is shift-oriented and operates 24×7. During your first months, you may need to summon your inner night owl. However, as you build seniority, you'll have more opportunities to choose your own shifts.
A NOC tech's job is to monitor an assigned endpoint for health, security, and/or capacity. When a problem is detected, you will often have the capability to resolve it yourself. If not, you will create a ticket to escalate the issue to a higher tier or to notify an external department. In either case, careful documentation of all incidents and work activities is expected. All NOC techs, engineers, and supervisors are usually expected to consult and maintain a knowledge base as issues arise and are resolved. If documentation is not your strong suit, you need to brush up on those skills.
In keeping with the proactive nature of NOC work, techs usually have the freedom to independently research network or system activity to identify potentially troublesome configurations or security concerns. A variety of information sources need to be continuously monitored. In addition to analyzing both live data and log files, external sources can be just as important, such as keeping tabs on the news and weather. Critical infrastructure always needs to stay at least one step ahead of disaster.
In a true Network Operations Center, techs will have very little interaction outside of their immediate workmates. This type of workplace can be very appealing to some, while repulsive to others. Working in the NOC can be a great career for those who prefer technology in small groups to large teams and soft skills.
Network Operations Roles and Responsibilities
All NOCs are not created equal, so your role will vary depending on the organization. To get your foot in the door, you should bring some general network or systems expertise to the table. Job postings frequently cite CompTIA Network+, Cisco CCNA, or ISC(2) CISSP certifications as requirements for new NOC techs.
Depending on your skill set and the position you apply for, you may be assigned to monitor and troubleshoot one or more infrastructure categories. Some common examples are servers, email systems, backups, storage capacity, network health, firewall incursions, QoS policies, malware infections, or performance reporting. Each has its own path of desired experience and knowledge. Therefore, there is no cookie-cutter NOC certification, but rather NOC techs are selected from a diverse range of IT expertise-holders.
Enterprises will have the widest range of differentiation among NOC techs. Financial institutions may require compliance officers, database engineers, or even accountants in the NOC. Whereas a web hosting company may be more tightly focused on Linux server administration and network health.
A NOC within a Managed Service Provider (MSP) will need techs who are responsible for the uptime of its managed applications and infrastructure. There could be an extensive training period where you get up to speed on the operational aspects of their particular offerings. An ISP or telco, by comparison, will heavily focus on network technicians who are experienced with the systems they use, typically Cisco or Juniper.
Third-party NOC providers could be considered the catch-all NOC employer, as they simply provide network operation outsourcing services to any or all of the above organizations. One can expect to find a wide range of disciplines working within the outsourced NOC.
As you can see, while the job description is similar for most NOC positions, the individual roles vary based on the type of organization. Be sure to research the companies you apply to and find out exactly what you will be monitoring and managing. You don't want to oversell yourself to an organization whose needs are not within your wheelhouse.
Your NOC Career Path
Your time spent working in the NOC doesn't have to be a stepping stone, as you can easily build a career around infrastructure monitoring and management. The first rungs on the ladder consist of advancing through the tiers. Beyond that, you may want to train for an engineering, supervisory, or management role. The most senior positions often require a college degree or extensive experience along with advanced certifications.
Working in the NOC can be just the right fit for certain subsets of the IT workforce, whether they prefer the single office environment, the war-room style atmosphere, or evening or weekend shift work. Prospective applicants should decide if a career in network operations would be a good fit for their personality and work style — and then tackle the training and certifications necessary to get in the door.
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