Find creative ways to gain experience
The common lament of job seekers, that "employers only hire people with experience, yet the only way to gain experience is to get hired" applies in the computer networking field as well. Despite optimistic statements that one hears frequently regarding the number of available jobs in IT, landing an entry-level position can still prove difficult and frustrating.
More of this Feature
• Part 1: Networking Job Titles
• Part 2: Choices in Education
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"Of course this is just my opinion, but I have found that experience is what most companies are looking for first. Certifications are second, and education is last."
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• Networking Career/Job Resources
One way to gain networking experience is to pursue a full-time programming or help desk "internship" during the summer months, or a part-time "work study" job at school. An internship may not pay well initially, the work may turn out to be relatively uninteresting, and it is very likely one will not be able to finish any substantial project during the limited time there. However, the most important factor to consider is the training and hands-on experience such a job offers. The mere fact a person invests their time in this way, demonstrates the dedication and interest employers like to see.
The better the position, the more likely multiple candidates will apply for it, even if the job entails only part-time work. A good way to "stand out" from the competition is to demonstrate prior work and accomplishments, even if these involve projects done on one's own time. A person can start with a class project, for example, and extend it in some way. Or they can create their own personal projects, experimenting with networking administration tools and scripts, for example.
One of the most overlooked skills in computer networking is the ability to explain technical information. Whether verbally, through email, or in formal writing, networkers that communicate well gain a significant advantage in building their careers.
For the beginning networker, the most obvious benefit of good communications skills is realized in job interviews. Being able to talk with people about technical subjects can be hard to do, but as one gains skill in answering impromptu questions, one builds confidence and relaxes, making one that much better prepared for career advancement. It is a good idea to periodically engage in job interviews for this reason, even if the position involved does not seem particularly appealing. Likewise one should also consider visiting local job fairs occasionally.
One of the most common questions asked by beginning networkers is "Which technology should I focus on first? Microsoft? UNIX? Cisco? Novell?" As with certifications, preferences vary from company to company and person to person.
One way for a person to answer this question is to start with the technology that appears most interesting to them personally. Researching a company that one plans to interview with, and choosing a technology that the company deems important, is another way. Ultimately it probably matters little which networking technology one learns first. More importantly, one should acknowledge that technology changes rapidly, and that the person who can enjoy a successful career by learning about only one technology is rare indeed.
Focus on the Basics
Computer networking involves a certain number of fundamental technologies. These technologies form the basis of many networking courses. Regardless of the form of education one chooses to invest in, one's career will always benefit from deeper study of technologies like IP and TCP/IP, the OSI model, Ethernet, internetworking, and others listed on this site, whether through formal coursework or through self-study.
Some people have asserted that networking (and IT generally) is a "young person's game," and that companies generally prefer to turn over their employee base periodically, to bring in younger, more affordable workers. This concept might sound appealing to some, but if it were true, it would make networking careers less inviting to most people.
Realistically, the field of computer networking presents so much complexity, and involves such a wide range of technologies, that most serious companies should value both experienced employees and ambitious new employees highly. In fact, an effective career strategy involves seeking out more experienced people in one's field, and learning new skills from these mentors.
Many firms view four-years degrees as a sign of commitment to the field. Network technology changes very fast, so employers care both about a person's current knowledge and also their ability to learn and adapt for the future. Certifications effectively prove current knowledge, but college degrees best demonstrate one's general learning ability.
Self-study in networking is always effective and underrated by many. By making contacts with those in networking careers, either people in one's local area, or individuals or sites on the Internet, one can quickly acquire a wealth of information ranging from technical details, to advice on writing a resume, to advice on specific hiring companies, schools, and so on.
Best wishes for a successful career in networking, or whatever other field you may choose!