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Building network automation solutions

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The best way to learn: solve a hard challenge

We’ve spotted some of our best engineers when they were in the final years of their undergraduate studies. To continue the trend, NIL offers a student-engagement program that attracts highly promising candidates each year. They offer them CCNA training (after which the students have to pass the exam), a few weeks of hands-on instructor-led introductory bootcamps and the first CCNP course. These training courses should give students a solid foundation and a framework that they can expand on their own—which is the point where it's time to stress-test them with advanced bootcamps.

The advanced bootcamps are designed to promote exploratory and guided-discovery learning. (As I sometimes joke, “If you want to know if someone is able to learn how to swim, throw him in the water.”) Each bootcamp is structured as a design/implementation exercise and describes a real-life customer scenario. The description includes a list of references that could contain the potential design solutions and implementation hints. The students are asked to study the reference material and propose a design solution that they think will solve the problem.

Some of the students get it right the first time; others need a few nudges in the right direction. After they have a working design, they start the implementation phase: building the lab and implementing their design. In approximately a month, they should have a working implementation, which we analyze and discuss. Usually the implementations work as expected (sometimes with minor glitches), and the post-bootcamp discussion focuses on interesting topics or better ways to implement the solution. Because the students have invested huge amounts of their mental energies in the design and implementation phases, they are ready to benefit from the in-depth discussions, as they personally faced numerous challenges of the target solutions.

Just to give you an example: in one of last bootcamps they have to build an IPSec VPN over the Internet. The requirements led them to select Dynamic Multipoint VPN (DMVPN) with a CA server on one of the core routers … but neither DMVPN nor CA was mentioned anywhere in the text. They had to analyze Cisco’s various VPN offerings and select the correct design solution. To make the implementation interesting, they had to configure two hub routers in a single DMVPN cloud—not a recommended design, but one that makes you think about the roles of the next-hop servers. There were also a few other gotchas, such as the default routing within the VPN network.

The results never cease to astonish me. All of the students completed the design and had a (mostly) working implementation. The side effects of this process might have been even more important. Students read Cisco’s documentation and researched the Internet (exploratory learning at its best), worked together on particular details (promoting teamwork) and even managed to engage senior engineers (more teamwork, but also proof that they were able to ask the right questions). After throwing our students in this tank full of virtual sharks, it’s great to see that they’re becoming fantastic swimmers.

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