From Help Desk to Senior Wireless Engineer: How to Get Hands-on Wireless Experience
The world of technology is filled with opportunity. There are countless companies, non-profits, organizations, and individuals who use technology every day to achieve their mission. The best way to become a professional wireless engineer is to practice delivering great value with technology. The question is, “How do I get started with IT?” In this case, wireless engineering specifically. It is an age-old question that many have asked since computers became the de-facto standard for information management. The best way to kickstart your career in IT is to get hands-on experience with the technology that you will be using every day to make lives better and companies grow. There are many ways to do this. Here are a few:
Work with Non-profit organizations.
Apply for internships with local companies.
Volunteer your time with local companies, maker spaces, or technology groups.
Set up a home lab for study in your free time.
1. Wireless Experience with Non-Profits
Starting your career by working with nonprofit organizations can be one of the most rewarding, challenging, and growth-filled first starts there is. Nonprofits have a mission they are trying to achieve and they operate on donations from supporters. As such, they are trying to achieve their mission by spending the money they have in the most efficient way possible. This can be challenging for IT to work with. Technology is expensive, and it can be challenging to deliver great solutions within budget. This presents an incredible learning and growth opportunity for you as an aspiring wireless engineer.
By reaching out to local nonprofits and offering assistance with projects for free, you will gain great experience troubleshooting, being efficient with the resources you are given, and implementing wireless solutions of all kinds. There are non-profit organizations serving needs in countless niches, all of them with different budgets, technical and business needs. There is a non-profit organization in my local town that grows food for low-income families. They have greenhouses on a local farm that they use for germination and growing crops. They also have an education program where students can work in the greenhouses and learn how to grow food. They needed access to the internet while in the greenhouses to keep track of inventory, communicate, and provide wireless access to the students.
I got the opportunity to help them set up an effective wireless network inside the outdoor greenhouses. I had never done this before, especially in an outdoor environment, and I learned a ton about wireless behaviors, configuration options, and best practices. Other nonprofit environments may be corporate offices, small offices, and home offices, providing plenty of problems to solve, and learning opportunities for you.
2. General Experience with Internships
The next best place to gain practical experience with wireless topics is to search for internships at companies in your local community. Internships are one of the best opportunities for growth and a great “first splash” into IT because these positions often report to experienced technical staff. This is invaluable, as you will learn from experts already working in your chosen field.
Internships provide the opportunity to learn hands-on troubleshooting, project execution, and sometimes design and build of infrastructure. You can find listings for internships in local classifieds, on LinkedIn, or social media job and networking boards. When you apply, make sure to mention you are looking to help and gain experience. Always remember to follow up with the hiring manager or HR team via email or phone. Before you know it, you will land an internship working in technology and gaining great experience.
In many larger cities, there will be wireless-specific internship opportunities available. Sometimes in smaller cities, you will see more general technical internship postings, but rest assured, you will likely be working with wireless networks to some extent, as most companies deploy them in-house. If you are looking to gain high-quality wireless experience right away, target companies with large campuses, or manufacturing facilities, as these companies usually have more wireless needs. You should also ask about the company’s wireless usage during the interview, to ensure you will align with their strategic direction.
3. Wireless Experience with Volunteer Work
Another great way to build experience is to connect with local IT providers or companies and volunteer your time to help with projects. Many MSPs and IT consulting firms appreciate extra help with larger projects, such as wireless deployments. Offering your assistance, even if it is to label cabling and hang access points, will provide you with valuable insight into the world of wireless engineering.
Some of the best learning you can do is on the job during massive deployments. You learn how to become efficient, how to troubleshoot quickly, and how to sort out the root cause of issues. These opportunities often turn into recurring experiences, and sometimes, a job!
Don’t be afraid to reach out to as many companies as you can find and offer your assistance – many will jump at the chance for extra help, even if you don’t have a ton of experience. Be sure to ask if you can sit in on the planning meetings for projects as well, as these conversations will yield valuable insight into the design and planning process for wireless infrastructures. Work hard, listen, and learn all you can, and you will be designing and deploying large-scale wireless networks in no time!
4. Build a Wireless Home Lab
One last method for building wireless engineering experience is to build a home lab! This method of learning has never been more accessible, with commodity wireless radios becoming more affordable, virtualization for software simulation, and online forums, classes, and self-learning materials. You can gain experience with many types of wireless infrastructure by simulating projects at home.
The best way to do this is to search for example lab scenarios online or make them up on your own. Once you have an example to work with, you can set up routers with pFsense, use inexpensive switching from Cisco Meraki GO or Ubiquiti Unifi, and try all kinds of wireless radios from Unifi, Meraki GO, Cisco, and others. You can find lightly used radios on eBay or from local companies and electronics recycling shops. Make sure to look for wireless LAN controllers and access points that you can join together so that you get to practice with enterprise 802.11 features. A great example of this is the Cisco AIR-CAP3502i with a 5508 wireless controller. This setup can be had for $195.00 and will give you access to many features and protocols to experiment with.
Trying many different technologies, scenarios, and brands of radio is the best way to gain varied experience that you can bring to the job.
Gaining experience in the IT industry doesn’t have to be difficult. Reaching out to local organizations and working with nonprofits may very well be what starts your path to an exciting career in wireless engineering. Networking and solving complex technical problems can be a great way to connect with potential employers and show your skills, personality, and desire to help.
The key to working through technical problems, especially while you are learning and building experience, is to always persevere. Often, problems are buried a layer or two below what is obvious, and it just takes a little bit of hard work to uncover the answer. Remember to enjoy the learning process, bring value to all you serve.