How Did You Become a Networking Engineer?

A while ago I answered a few questions that Dan Novak from University of Maryland sent me, and as they might be relevant to someone out there decided to publish the answers.

Dan started with a soft one:

What circumstances led you to choosing network engineering for a career?

It was pure coincidence.

I was doing a few odd programming jobs at a local IT company as a high-school kid when someone told me “You have to see this, we just got it up and running” and demonstrated remote terminal session and file sharing between two PDP-11 computers running DECnet.

A few months later someone else dropped by and said “would you believe it, I managed to connect a few Z80-based computers with a RS-232-based bus. Can you do something with that” and I remembered the wonderful thing I’ve seen running between the PDP-11s. Being young, stupid and brash I said: “yeah, I could probably implement some sort of file/disk sharing between them.”

Because the whole thing acted like a bus connecting serial interfaces of multiple machines, I had to deal with the Ethernet-like collision issues. Fun times.

A few months later I had a running system. Obviously there was no networking- or file sharing support in CP/M (the operating system running on those boxes), so I had to implement the networking stack, redirection of file system calls across the network (before even hearing about NFS ;) and rudimentary file locking (so users wouldn’t overview files).

Interestingly, the company I worked for actually made a shipping product out of that, replacing the hack we used (RS-232 interface clocked at 38.4 kbps) with RS-422-based serial interface clocked at a few hundred kbps.

The rest, as they say, is history – I was hooked.

How did you become a network engineer?

You didn’t become a networking engineer when I started. You grew into it based on hands-on experience (remember: there was no reasonably-priced Internet in those days). We didn’t even have books – I read the Douglas Comer books years after I started working on networks – and I discovered how TCP/IP works by reading the source code of KA9Q.

I know this sounds like Four Yorkshiremen, but it’s almost unfathomable how much we’ve progressed in the last 30 years.

What prepared you most for being successful as a network engineer (School, certifications, or experience)?

The only course on networking we had in the 4-year Computer Engineering program at the university was a half-year affair that managed to go into useless details of all seven layers of ISO stack and not much else.

A few years later I attended a wonderful 1-week Router Software Configuration (RSC) course from Cisco Systems (and became a certified instructor running that course in 1993). That course covered orders-of-magnitude more networking than what I had at university. In those days you had to know the details of how IP, DECnet, AppleTalk, IPX, Banyan Vines, Token Ring, X.25 and Frame Relay worked if you wanted to have a fighting chance of implementing a real-life network… and that wonderful course had all that.

Too bad it got mangled years later by job-task-analysis approach favored by instructional designers with too little hands-on networking experience.

Anyway, experience was the best teacher. We were always on the bleeding edge (including beta-testing Cisco IOS releases 9.21 through 10.something), spending way too much time in the lab, and you got burned pretty fast and learned from your own mistakes.

Certifications? What certifications? Microsoft and Novell had them, but there was no networking-related one. The only “certification” there was at the time when I started was the Course Completion Certificate for the RSC course. CCIE program was introduced a few years later, and CCxA/CCxP way after that.

Obviously we live in different times and certifications are important. Ignoring the career-enhancing (or blocking) aspects of having (or not having) a certification, they give you a clear blueprint of topics you have to master, and study path. Just make sure you’re doing it for the knowledge you’ll get, not the printout from the Prometrics testing center.

What career progression did you experience? Did you feel at times that you might not be advancing from a particular position?

I was an oddball – I went from being a researcher at a university to being a CTO at a small system integration company, and stayed with the same company for decades, so you might say that my progress was stalled almost immediately ;)

Joking aside, while career progression sounds nice (and pay rise even more so), don’t focus too much on it. Do keep in mind that there’s only so far you can progress in a technical position, and most engineers really shouldn’t switch over to management track. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it’s not fun. Also, I’ve seen some dismal results of Peter Principle.

What is important is to continue growing (more here). When you stop learning, it’s time to move – either into a different role, different technology, or different company.


  1. I was sat, nineteen years old looking after the large archives of a law firm, one day a new IT Manager started, as I knew the archive system better than most (which also included the accounts package) I got offered a modest payrise and a job as a IT Technician (read helpdesk) and a chance to get some career progression and maybe one day be a manager...

    That was seventeen years ago, sixteen of those ive spent dodging anything management related.

    Ive been helpdesk, sysadmin, and network engineer, im currently European Administrator and I couldn't be happier, the nineteen year old who struggled to get a job anywhere wouldn't believe me if I could talk to him, networking has been a wonderful career for me.
  2. You stumble upon something and you're fascinated by it. Then it's years of working with it, some day critical mass of knowledge is accumulated, and suddenly you know more about some topic than people around you.

    If it was networking then you just became a network engineer :-)

    It's that simple.
  3. I was fixing printers at a small office machine company. My boss said he would give me a $10k raise if I learned Novell and passed CNA. That lead to routing/switching work.
  4. i love the "four yorkshiremen" reference, i'd love to see a script written for network engineers based on that. "Frame relay? in my day we could only dream of frame relay, we had x.25 and were thankful for it"
    1. X.25? You were lucky if you could get X.25 and it was way too expensive anyway. All we had was a 300 bps async line that was so slow the host couldn't even echo the characters in real time.

      (* BTW, all of the above is real - based on what I had in ~1980 *)
  5. syn syn stx you dont know youre born etx
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