Advancing Your Computer Networking Career: 10 Tips

  • Networking professionals who want to take their careers to the next level have a wide array of options that can be overwhelming at times. The key is to figure out where you want to go, then assess your options on how to get there. For some, career advancement may be as simple as taking a week-long course on a popular new technology. For others, the journey may require far more extensive steps and include months or even years of preparation.

    With computer networking careers growing at a healthy pace, the time you spend on professional development will pay off. According to a recent study conducted by IT Career Finder, the role of "network administrator" is not only a hot job in 2018, it's expected to have a 28% 10-year growth rate. Infrastructure trends such as cloud computing, an everything-connected IoT world, and an increased focus on integrating data security tools at the network level are helping drive this growth. The network engineer will be tasked to take on plenty of new and exciting challenges.

    In many cases, getting to the next level in your networking career requires much more than simply learning a new set of skills. Often, it's useful to first assess the overall IT networking landscape in your organization or industry to identify what skills you believe are -- or will be -- in demand. This takes a great deal of investigation and understanding of the business you want to work in.

    Career development also requires an adjustment in attitude. Sometimes, to get where you want to be at in your career, you must perform work or learn new skills that you aren't necessarily comfortable with. Networking pros are used to being whizzes at troubleshooting connection problems and installing switches, so coding or cloud may be unfamiliar and a bit unnerving. However, getting out of your comfort zone will pay off in the long run.

    In this slideshow, I offer 10 tips for getting ahead in the field of computer networking.

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  • Take your training home with you

    As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. Putting in additional time outside the office can make a huge impact on advancing your networking career. Some options include night/weekend training courses, self-study books, and online training. Even a one-hour technology-focused webinar during your lunch break can help. You could even build a home networking lab with which to practice. Consider purchasing used hardware on sites like Ebay or using a virtual lab like such as GNS3. Many network vendors offer online training programs and labs. For example, Cisco's DevNet offers a number of training tracks to help you gain knowledge in newer areas such as network automation and cloud applications as well as how to apply those skills using Cisco gear.

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  • Specialize in something others hate doing

    This may sound strange, but one easy way to advance your career in networking is to "take one for the team" and specialize in a task that nobody else wants to do. Depending on your environment, this could be supporting and troubleshooting legacy WiFi problems, learning how to identify application issues using a packet tracer, or managing network support contracts. Whatever it is, you may find that once you take on work that others don't want to touch, you’re now seen as a team player. Because of this,  IT management may be more likely to view you as a candidate for promotion and/or allow you to lead a project that truly interests you.

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  • Be cautious with bleeding-edge technologies

    Those of us who gravitate toward technology as a career have a tendency to become distracted with the newest innovations. Often, we make the mistake of thinking that something we read or hear about from a vendor is the next great thing. Yet often that technology we had our eyes on never gains momentum in the enterprise. While learning about brand-new technologies can help you stand out from other networking professionals, it's important to look for ones with potential staying power so that you don't waste your time learning a skill that will never become relevant.

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  • Certifications do make a difference

    Love them or hate them, certifications are a way to show others that you've gained appropriate certain level of knowledge on a specific discipline within the networking field. They look great on resumes and help headhunters and recruiters find you a job that will elevate your career. Simply put, certifications are one of those necessary evils of the networking field. Cisco certifications remain in high demand, but you may also want to consider some other certifications such as the CISSP or any of the AWS cloud certifications.

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  • Focus on a business vertical

    If you've ever worked in different business verticals in your professional career, you can attest to the fact that network demands vary from one to the next. For example, in the healthcare industry, many medical devices require networks configured using IPv4 or IPv6 multicast routing. Alternatively, manufacturing and distribution companies rely heavily on connecting proprietary WiFi endpoints throughout their plants and warehouses. Specializing in the unique network challenges within a single business vertical will help you quickly advance in your career.

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  • Specialize in one area of networking

    Narrowing your focus on a specific area of technology can be an easy way to jump-start your networking career. Areas of network specialization include campus LAN/WAN, data center networking, wireless, collaboration, and network security. Becoming a subject matter expert in one of these fields helps build your stature within an organization, which can lead to promotions.

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  • Be willing to work odd hours

    If you think a job in IT networking is a standard 9-5 gig, you're sorely mistaken. While much of the preparation work can be completed during business hours, networking changes often disrupt end-user traffic. Because of this, be prepared and willing to work outside normal hours when required. It's one aspect of the job that is required at virtually every network job, from low-level support work all the way up to network architect status.

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  • Participate in online technology forums

    No matter what networking genre you're interested in, there undoubtedly will be an online forum where you can participate. Whether you have a burning question or can answer someone else’s query, forums are a great place to hone your knowledge of a subject. Some popular online forums include Solarwinds THWACK, the Extreme Networks Community, and Aerohive's HiveNation.

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  • Use free tools and demo gear

    Network hardware and software vendors love getting their products in your hands to try out. Make sure you take advantage of this by demoing various tools and evaluation hardware/software. Not only is this a free way to test a wide array of products without any up-front cost, it's a good way to try your hand at new technologies.

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