From Your First Cert to Network Architect: During a Pandemic
Five years ago, I couldn't tell you what an IP address was. Since then, I have supported hundreds of clients with completely different networks. I've implemented switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers, proxy servers, hyperconverged clusters, and SANs — from vendors like Cisco, Juniper, Meraki, Palo Alto, and Check Point. And during that time, I've served as virtual CIO, Director of I.S., and a trainer at CBT Nuggets.
You can go a really long way in a relatively short amount of time.
Not everyone follows the same journey as me, for better or for worse. But the point here is to outline how I went from knowing nothing to an architect and decision-maker role — and how you can, too.
Learn and Master the Basics of Networking
A house is only as good as its foundation and the same goes for skills in your career, regardless if you are in networking or systems. Or even marketing or mathematics. It all starts with the basics. Nailing down the basics and truly mastering them is arguably the most important step in the process.
The CompTIA Network+ is where I began my journey for this exact reason. I ignored all of the advice that said "Get your CCNA, you don't need the Network+." That's noise that detracts from the core purpose of the Network+, which is to really master the basics.
Understanding how data flows through the OSI model, creating IPv4 subnets, and remembering your commonly known ports are skills that I utilize every single day. They have been critical to my success in later, more advanced exams. And as someone who was just getting started out in networking, let me tell you this. I barely passed the Network+ exam. It was extremely challenging for a beginner, even after months of study.
Gain Experience with Vendor-Specific Technologies
Once you've locked down the basics, it's time to gain experience with a vendor. Simultaneous to studying for a vendor certification such as a Cisco or Juniper certification, you should also be seeking your first IT job at this point. I say this with the utmost sincerity, do not overlook job openings at Managed Service Providers (MSPs).
MSP roles have titles like IT consultant and these are the jobs that will yield you the most experience across a wide variety of vendors and platforms. As a fair warning, these are tough jobs. There is no shortage of work when you manage multiple clients with completely different networks and servers. But your experience will ramp up very quickly, and if you are studying for a vendor certification at this time, your studies will align well with your work.
Which certifications to go for will be on your mind constantly after earning Network+. If you read enough blogs, forum posts, or watch YouTube videos, you'll find out pretty quickly that all roads point to the Cisco CCNA. And for good reason.
Seriously, Earn the Cisco CCNA
The CCNA really is the king of IT certifications, and if you've conquered the Network+, the hardest parts of networking are already behind you. You absolutely will learn new technologies that aren't covered in the Network+, but you'll also be implementing all of the things that you just learned about since you already understand the "why" of networking. The CCNA is one of the most widely recognized and respected IT certifications in the world. By tacking that certification to your resume, your confidence will be through the roof.
Earning the CCNA is a massive accomplishment and you'll be well along your way at this point. What comes after the CCNA, though, really comes down to your preference. For me personally, I opted to get my JNCIA, since my employer worked with Juniper network devices more than Cisco. At this point, because I felt so comfortable with networking and vendor certifications, it only took me three weeks to take and pass the JNCIA.
But you may not work with Juniper networks as much as you work with, say, Cisco ASA Firewalls. Or maybe you work with advanced OSPF and BGP implementations. So at this point, you may want to take it to the next level and start pursuing the Professional level certifications.
How to Choose a Professional-Level Certification
This may be one of the biggest decisions you make in your career, because it really can determine which department or even company that you work for. For firewall and security appliances, you may want to work toward CCNP Security. For large enterprise networks, you may want to seek CCNP Enterprise. If you want to work for a Service Provider as an architect, you may want to seek CCNP Service Provider.
Here's the thing, by the time you choose a professional-level certification and begin studying for it, you're headed toward that architect position. There are network architect positions that work in enterprises, in security departments or security consulting firms, and service providers. Choosing the correct CCNP or JNCIS certification will be what determines where you end up. Note, it is possible to get more than one CCNP, and all that does is make you more valuable and flexible.
By the time you tackle your CCNP, you will probably have two or more years of experience, maybe working for an MSP where you've touched dozens or even hundreds of different technologies. Does this mean you are eligible and ready for a network architect position? There are a few things to keep in mind with this, and really any senior level job.
How to Become a Network Architect
Remember that attitude is everything. Moving fast, working hard and long hours, grinding every second of the day, even while on vacation is a recipe for burnout. And if you stroll into an interview while burned out, even if you're the best network engineer in a 100 mile radius, an interviewer will be able to detect it immediately. Always remind yourself of why you are working so hard in the first place — and celebrate every time you accomplish any new task or learn any new skill.
But hard work is only a portion of the triangle. No one makes it to the top alone. Having a support group, like a learning community or a study group, is also crucial to success. This is a real-world way to check your own skills and compare ideas.
If hard work and support make up two of the three sides of a triangle, then the last side is the hardest pill to swallow. The last side to the triangle is luck. Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. But with some hustling, you can put yourself in more places. Being involved in study groups and user groups, attending conferences, or even starting a YouTube channel will open more doors for you in IT than you can imagine.