Finally – I am a swimming pool!

Published On 2011/05/18 | By Kurt Bales | Rant

Ok all, Im going to let out a secret. Long ago when I was a small child (long before I dreamed of being a janitor), when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would answer:

“I want to be a swimming pool”.

Cute, no? I guess not, but that never stopped my folks from telling it to everyone of my friends. In fact my Dad put that in his speech he made at my wedding. Usually I would go all red in the face, but denying it was pointless.

This may seem like a weird introduction to this post, but self-deprecation is not a problem to me and on top of that, I am now owning my former aspirations – I’m “taking it back”!

I was sitting in a Juniper training course for the last two days, and during one of the breaks the topic came up about certifications and about people collecting a wide range of certifications and spreading themselves thin. At this point I made the following statement:

“I generally think about our skills and abilities as being a volume of water. We can either have a very deep understanding like a diving pool, or a wider but less deep understanding like an olympic swimming pool.”

At the time I made this claim I was trying to explain a concept in terms I could explain to people. It wasn’t until my drive home and later thinking about writing this post that I remembered my childhood dreams.

Thinking through this line of thought, I started thinking about my own career progression and in particular changes that have come about in the last 12 months. I have worked as a network engineer for the past 11 years, and I can see some stages of growth.

The Kiddy Pool

When I started my professional career in 1999 I had already been using computers for most of my life, and had experience with Linux as well as programming experience. What I soon learnt was that I really didn’t have a lot of experience, but I had a few skills that I could build upon.

My first boss took me under his wing, and taught me a lot about Client-Server computing, hardware repair, customer interaction and regression testing. During this time he was preparing the foundation for where the rest of my career would go.

I learnt quite a few skills in this job, but I knew that to grow I would need to move to another company where I would not be viewed as “The Kid”.

The Lap Pool

About this same time I had a friend who had been working for a consulting company who were also an ISP for their customers, but he was leaving for a new career in the Computer Security industry (Just like everyone was in 2000!). Given my experience with both Linux systems as well as my skills gained from my previous job in Microsoft networks I was able to gain exposure to a varied collection of customers and requirements.

This was the job where I first learn about Cisco equipment. I was handed a Cisco 800 and a print out and told to go install an ISDN service for a customer because nobody else in the company were “Cisco Guys”. This was followed a few weeks later when our upstream transit provider had a network failure and I was forced to troubleshoot our core router using only a console session and a copy of the DocCD I found on a bookshelf. Fun times 🙂

I was working here when Windows 2000 was first released, and everyone had a steep learning curve ahead of them. We had a customer with a new Windows network being rolled out, and our main Microsoft consultant was preparing to do the rollout. Due to unforeseen delays he ended up being away for 4 weeks when the project finally got the go-ahead, so it landed in my lap to implement. Unfortunately I had no notes or documentation from the previous guy, so I had to learn it all on the spot.

This particular company had a very strong emphasis on certification, Microsoft in particular to maintain their partner status. I was able to learn and study here due to the exposure I was given and was able to achieve my Microsoft Certified Professional certification. I also convinced them to buy me the study materials required to gain my CCNA (it is 2001 by this stage).

By now I certainly was gaining a broader set of skills, and they were starting to get deeper.

The Olympic Swimming Pool – Round 1

Not long after I passed my CCNA I changed jobs (for various reasons), and was offered a senior position at the first company I was working for. My first day at this job was September 11 2001 – so this is probably not the most newsworthy thing to happen at the time.

Over the next two and a half years I was able to utilise my skills with Microsoft Networks, coupled with my networking theory and my Linux skills to develop several multi-site networks incorporating all manner of “Directory Services”, “Collaboration” and other buzz word compliant systems. I hired a few friends into this company (one of whom I still work with quite closely).

During this time in “The Olympic Swimming Pool” I was still dealing with a broad range of skills and technology owing mainly to my job role as a consultant. There was systems administration, desktop support, hardware builds and troubleshooting, programming and customer support. The depth of my skills was also starting to get deeper.

Sunbathing by the side of the pool

I knew at this stage that my ideal job was working specifically in computer networking. I mean REAL networking. Routers, switches, blue cables. Not PCs, and very few servers. I decided to take leave my job in early 2004 and I worked for he next 18 months doing various non-IT related jobs. This is also around the time I moved out of Sydney and up to the NSW Central Coast.

During my time away from the industry I really discovered how much I enjoyed working in IT. As with many geeks I couldn’t keep myself away for too long. Thankfully a few days after deciding I should return to IT, I received a call from a friend who had an ISP customer looking to hire a Network Operations Manager – and they were based on the Central Coast.

The Empty Diving Pool

I like to think that by the time I made it to this stage in my career I was standing at the bottom of a diving pool in about waste deep water. I was focusing on Service Provider networking. In particular this was a Wireless ISP, so I was dealing with a whole range of new technologies. Some of these technologies only had a handful of implementations around the world, so the user and support communities were very small.

I was finally away from desktop support, and all of the servers I was looking after were specifically related to the functioning of the network itself. I still had to deal with customer support while we built out our Helpdesk and Support staff. I gained experience with project management as well as working on large network deployments that spanned hundreds of kilometres.

When I started there we had had about 150 customers. Over the time I worked there we grew from that base to over 20 networks across Australia and bought and integrated several other ISPs on the way. Each new acquisition was another technology and “unique” user base. By the time I left there were about 10,000 users across the different networks.

Filling the Diving Pool

After 2 years at this company I was ready to move on, and my friend who introduced me to the Wireless ISP offered me a job working at his consulting company. I was employee #2. Since then we now have a team of network engineers, systems administrators and programmers.

This is the position I currently hold, and during my three and a half years in this job we have been able to land some pretty impressive and interesting projects and contracts. I have designed and managed many ISP networks and evolved my designs of optimal network design in relation to Wholesale providing of end user services as well as scalable Co-Location facilities. I have designed and implemented large networks that only lasted for 14 days during an international event including manning a 24 hour by 8 day media centre for all international media outlets. I have worked on designing networks for Digital Cinema delivery, as well as large Enterprise WAN deployments.

The opportunities presented in this role have enabled me to also take on a new path in my career, one that I never imagined I would be able to do – I have now presented Technical Presentations and Training seminars in several different conferences across the Asia Pacific region. The skills I have learnt during this process are very different from those in my technical background. Each new speaking engagement has taught me something new and I am taking all advice and criticism on board and trying to improve with each new opportunity.

The Future

From my current standpoint, the future of my career looks to be heading back towards the Olympic Swimming pool phase – not as deep but covering a wider range of skills. Maybe not the same skills from the last time I did a few laps in this pool, but certainly broad none the less. I expect to be focusing more on design and team management, and leaning towards supporting my existing engineers in developing and implementing the solutions we come up with.

This very blog, as well as other social media such as Twitter, has also opened up a whole new world of opportunities, and I am looking forward to spending more time focused in this aspect over the next phase of my career. The people I have “met” and the opportunities to engage and interact with people from all aspects of the IT and in particular the networking field has been amazing.

Final Thoughts?

So that has been a somewhat narcissistic look at my career progression so far. In short I feel that we each start our careers with a set of abilities and improve and expand upon those through out our career, but at a point your skills can either go deeper into a specific subset of topics, or broader across a wider range of topics. Your particular career path and goals will determine how and when you will spend time in each of these swimming pools.

For now, I am owning the fact that I am indeed a swimming pool. If I ever become a hot tub I promise to invite you all around for BBQ and a few drinks!

Feel free to comment (or to ridicule my childhood ambitions!).

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About The Author

Kurt is a Network Engineer based out of Sydney Australia. He a the Senior Network Engineer at ICT Networks where he spends his time building Service Provider networks, and enterprise WAN environments. He holds his CCNP and JNCIE-ENT, and currently studying for his JNCIE-SP and CCIE R&S. Find out more about Kurt at http://network-janitor.net/ and you can follow him on Twitter.
  • Tim

    "I'm very impressed (and proud) – now let's hope some "&%$#@@$" doesn't come along and pee in your pool"

  • I always find it easy to read career progressions of other network engineers.

    For me, I'm only approaching 2 years as a network engineer, but closer to 6 (I think) it IT. I was always 'stuck' in a senior desktop support/sys admin role and took a long time to get where I wanted in the company I'm in now. Head office is in Melbourne and I'm in Sydney, so it's always been a fight against the tide to convince them to decentralise some of the more skilled IT jobs as they prefer them to be in the head office.

    I'm quite happy with how it's all going for me, I worked hard to get my CCNA, CCNA Security and my CCNP (also have MCSE from my earlier years). I don't do these certs just to collect them, I've had to take my own lead as I tend to learn concepts before I see them in this job. Now I'm pushing on with CCSP and CCVP, again not to collect certs, but as a way to keep my knowledge sharp until I have 1 or 2 more year's experience and can't take a crack at the CCIE.

    The biggest worry for me with my job is that our WAN is looked after by a managed service provider who doesn't even let us look at the router configs on the devices we own. This is a severe roadblock for me as all my routing knowledge gets very rusty. I look after all switching, troubleshooting WAN outages and work together with the MNP to implement new projects and upgrades.

    These days I read job ads and they list every technology under the sun. For instance, I was looking at one yesterday that wanted you to be a 5+ year CCNP, 5+ year on Cisco VoIP, experience in ASA firewalls and 5 years experience in Nokia firewalls and some F5 load balancing experience too.

    That's a lot of bases to cover. Do they really find candidates who tick all these boxes? While the company I'm in now has been good to me in recent years I can only go so far in a place that doesn't manage their own WAN. My dream would be to get them to see the light and bring it all in house. We're a 6500+ staff company all across APAC and Africa. I think we're doing more harm than good having it outsourced.

  • Great post! I've only been doing networking for a good 2 years. I don't have a title of network engineer, they have me down as a sysadmin. I guess you can say I am on the olympic swimming pool.

    I really like the analogy and it sits in my mind easily. You got me thinking seriously about where I want to be and how I should go about getting there.

    To me, it looks like we either start in different swimming pools, shallow or deep, and we eventually end up in an olympic size pool.

    Thank you for sharing your experience!