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Chasing the “Ah-ha!” Moments

December 20, 2010 9 comments

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Whenever I talk to people who are just getting started in networking, there’s a part of me that wishes I was in their shoes. I say that because I know several of the things they are going to learn or figure out in the next couple of years and I remember having to go through the same process. Before I understood variable length subnet masks(VLSM), the numbers in the subnet mask field of a workstation’s TCP/IP settings didn’t really mean a whole lot to me. If someone used slash notation(ie /24, /16, /27), I had no idea what that meant. Like a lot of people, I relied on someone to tell me what the subnet mask was. However, once I learned about VLSM, it was as if a whole new world opened up. That was one of my absolute favorite “Ah-ha!” moments. You’ve had those yourself haven’t you? It is the point in time in which a certain technical concept just clicks in your head. You go from not really understanding it, to comprehending it. In fact, it’s almost as if that concept is only represented in binary inside your head. You go from a 0 to a 1 with no in between.

As you progress along in networking, more and more of these “Ah-ha” moments come. Unfortunately, over time they become fewer and fewer. That’s not to say that they go away completely. They don’t. They are just harder to come by. I’ve found that I am able to keep a steady stream of these “Ah-ha” moments coming as long as I look at technology without taking anything for granted. What I mean by that is that I don’t assume anything when it comes to trying to understand a protocol or technology. What I “think” I know might actually be wrong. My understanding might only be partial. I have to continually ask “why/what/how/when/where” when dealing with technology.

Let me give you a personal example. I have known for many years that a T-1 is 1.544Mbps in terms of bandwidth. It is comprised of 24 64kb channels. The only problem is that 24×64,000 is 1536000 and not 1544000. Oops. Where did the other 8k go? To further drive this home, a “show interface” on a serial link that is configured as a full T-1 shows the interface bandwidth to be 1536kbps. Why the discrepancy? I could have just moved on and ignored the reason behind the discrepancy. However, by researching the issue and figuring out what the issue with this discrepancy was, I learned a whole lot more about T-1’s. I learned how alarms over the circuit get propagated. I learned what the extended super frame(ESF) actually was. In other words, had I not been curious as to why the math didn’t add up when it came to T-1 bandwidth, I would be far more deficient in the inner workings of the T-1.

In the spirit of chasing the “Ah-ha” moments, take a look at the 4 questions below. Go find the answers if you don’t already know them.

1. Why is MPLS faster than conventional IP based routing?
2. What are the differences between a multi-layer switch and a router?
3. Why do you need different antennas for wireless access points and where would you use each antenna type? Sure, this is rather open ended, but what I am getting at is the radiation pattern of each antenna.
4. How does traceroute really work? Not just the TTL mechanics, but look at the various ICMP type codes as well.

Can you remember the last “Ah-ha” moment you had? If not, why? If so, does it make you want to go out and find more of those moments?

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The Myths of IT – Part 2

December 8, 2010 22 comments

Let’s get right into it…..

4. More bandwidth will solve all your problems. – Bandwidth isn’t always the cure for traffic problems. You can add bandwidth all day long to a circuit, but if the problem is latency, you are wasting your money. One of those pesky laws of physics is that light can only travel so fast. Sometimes a better solution is to take care of the latency. That involves really understanding what the problem is before implementing solutions. An ever growing amount of traffic on the wires these days is of the real-time nature(ie voice and video) so it is going to be especially critical in the coming years to understand the latency needs of your customers. Many larger corporations and content providers deal with this problem by using multiple data centers across the country or world.

You can extend this myth to the wireless side as well. Simply adding more AP’s to a network will not necessarily make things better. In some cases, it will make things worse! As with anything, before you can provide a working solution, you have to fully understand the problem.

5. Everyone in IT must have business skills. – No. No. No. No. No. I can’t say no enough. I am paid to perform a highly technical function. In the course of providing that function to my employer, I have to deal with associated costs. I do have to understand what the capital expenses and operational expenses are, but other than that, I don’t care about the financial end. MY job is to provide solutions. I am not an accountant. I do not look at spreadsheets all day and try to figure out how to align my technology solutions with the vision of the various MBA’s and marketing people running the company. IT exists to provide solutions. Those solutions are based on requirements given from the business side. Tell me what you want to do and I will design a solution to implement that. It is hard enough to stay current with all of the various technology vendors out there. The last thing I need is to worry about how it affects the bottom line. I am reminded of an old joke when it comes to technology.

Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick 2. You can’t have all 3.

Are there people within the average IT department that NEED business skills? Yes. They’re called managers. Does someone providing front line support on a help desk need business skills? Nope. How about that engineer doing wireless installs? Nope. Maybe that systems architect designing your virtual infrastructure? Nope. Again, tell me what you want to do from the business perspective. I will provide you a solution. You may not like the solution because it costs a lot of money, but then again, I am not designing a dress(No offense fashion fans!). In the case of the network side of things, I am designing a conduit to move information around. That doesn’t come cheap. I think the problem behind the whole “IT people need business skills” mantra is that the business side of the house doesn’t always articulate what it is they are trying to accomplish. Additionally, the IT side of the house doesn’t ask all the appropriate questions to extract the information they need to design a proper solution. I keep reading about these IT executives who claim they only want to hire IT people with business skills. Good luck with that. People with business skills continually run companies into the ground. Are you sure you want your IT department to contribute to that? It’s better to let them take care of the nerdy things.

6. All IT people can fix your computer. – There was a time when I was somewhat in tune with computers. I knew a little about graphics cards, sound cards, memory, etc. That was back when I was running DOS and really just wanted to play computer games. Those days are long gone. I know next to nothing about PC’s and laptops. That goes for the operating systems as well. I work on all the gear that facilitates communication between the PC’s(ie routers, switches). I don’t have enough capacity in my brain to memorize how many cores the CPU should have and which graphics chipset will give you the best performance for World of Warcraft. I am not alone. Many of my fellow IT professionals are in the same boat. We take phone calls from family and friends on a regular basis. They need help with this or that thing on their home computer. Maybe it is infected with spyware or a virus. Maybe they need to upgrade their 10 year old computer and need our help figuring out which new one to buy. Guess what? I’m winging it. I’m taking a semi-educated guess on what computer you need to buy or how to fix your existing computer that runs like an old 286. Odds are I am using Google to figure out what to do.

7. IT people change jobs all the time because all they care about is making more money. – As with any career field, there is a certain percentage of people that will constantly change jobs to make more money. However, IT people tend to change jobs for different reasons. First, you have to understand that IT is a profession in which career development is generally up to the individual. The more they learn and the more they get exposed to, the better the options. Quite a few jobs in the IT world can be grown out of. After a year or two in certain positions, there is nothing more to learn. Nothing new to experience. Your job is simply to serve as a caretaker of the network and look at logs all day long. Most people can’t deal with that. They need something new and exciting. They need opportunities to grow their technical skillset. This happens a lot faster than other career fields. At some point in your career, you learn enough and have enough experience to get that coveted position at company XYZ that you have been looking for. Generally, it takes several years. We all have to pay our dues and work up the technical ladder. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that companies can do to stop this transition from occurring. It’s just part of IT. You can’t hold on to your engineers forever.

The second reason, and perhaps the most common one, is that IT people tend to get burned out at companies after a year or two. Let me paint a picture of corporate IT for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. Your typical company is understaffed when it comes to the IT department. The people that they do employ tend to work a lot to make up for this fact. Chances are, you are fast asleep when they are doing their real work. You see, the business can’t afford to have any part of their network down during business hours, so any maintenance will be done real late at night. If you happen to have any sort of Internet presence, the maintenance windows will get even tighter. Of course, anyone who gets into IT expecting to work a 40 hour week from 8am to 5pm is not living in the real world. You work the odd maintenance hours but you still have to respond to issues that come up when everyone shows up for work the next day. Unlike many other departments within a company, you can’t sit on any hot issues. The network is what the business runs on. Failure to get it fixed means the business loses money. When people do call you, it is generally because they have a problem. Nobody ever calls you with good news. When you propose designs for projects, everybody second guesses you. Even if they have no idea what equipment it is that you have included in the design. If a project is over budget, IT usually gets trimmed down. Nevermind the fact that your new facility is buying some hideous sculpture that costs more than your house. Forget the fact that the company is buying everyone a $500 chair. The solution to the money problems are to cut out that pair of core switches you needed and go with the collapsed core model. Then, when the network sucks because you don’t have enough capacity, it’s your fault. Well, at least you have a pretty sculpture to look at as you make your way to your $500 chair at your desk. Issues like that happen time and time again and IT people get fed up with it. They move to another company that feels new and different. At least for a year or two. Then, the cycle repeats. Now I don’t want to be completely negative and say that all companies are like this. They aren’t.

To add on to the reasons behind burnout, most companies simply pay lip service to training. They want their engineers to do a million different things, but have no interest in providing training or even aiding them in their technical development. They want all the benefits of a highly skilled engineer, but don’t want to invest anything in making that happen. Loyalty is a two way street. Don’t expect any sort of loyalty from your IT staff if you don’t show any to them. Demand for skilled IT practitioners is high. Even in down economies, there is still a large demand. When people have options, their tolerance for corporate nonsense is a lot lower than someone who is just grateful to have a job and doesn’t want to rock the boat. They WILL leave.

That’s all I got folks. A total of 7 IT myths. Maybe you agree with some, none, or all of them. I’ve taken these from my experiences and from conversations from many of my peers. As always, if you disagree or have something else to add, leave me a comment below.

Categories: career Tags:

The Myths of IT – Part 1

December 7, 2010 8 comments

Unicorn - Stolen/Borrowed from http://katemckinnon.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/unicorn.jpg
About 15 years ago, I started my journey through the wonderful world of IT. I realize I am not as old as this guy, but I think I have been around long enough to form my own opinions in regards to some of the myths of IT. Well, at least my perspective is that they are myths. They may be truths for you.

1. Big enterprise experience trumps all. – I’ve been in big environments, small environments, and places in between. To me, there’s not a whole lot of difference. Okay, so the tools might be more expensive in larger environments. The equipment might be a bit beefier in some regards. However, the fundamentals are still the same. In a larger company, chances are you have less responsibilities than someone at a medium or small company. You’re just working on an exponentially larger number of devices than your small/medium company counterparts.

Why is it that people seem to think large network experience equates to more professionalism or better knowledge around whatever it is you do? Here’s a dirty little secret about large networks. They typically employ a lot more people. Guess what that means? It is easier to hide out. It is easier to be mediocre and not have anyone notice. After all, you’re an engineer in a Fortune 1000/500/100/50/whatever company. They wouldn’t have hired you if you were a bum would they? The truth is most IT managers, and certainly most HR managers don’t really understand what it is that you do. That is NOT true for all IT managers. If my manager happens to read this, you are the best. Remember that when it’s annual bonus time. Some IT managers have technical backgrounds and are more than capable of determining technical skill sets. Let us be honest though. Managers are supposed to be good at managing people and expenses. You don’t hire managers to manage routers and switches. You hire engineers and administrators to do that. My last job had a network that was easily 20 times the size of the network I am on now, and many people would consider my current network to be a decent size. Does that give me credibility when it comes to a lot of IT managers? Sure. Should it? Probably not. Sadly, I have had to witness really good engineers get turned down for their dream jobs because they didn’t have “large enterprise” experience.

2. Certification equals ability. – Let me just throw in the one caveat that just came to mind. Yeah. That’s right. I read your mind. The expert level certifications from Cisco(CCIE,CCDE) and Juniper(JNCIE) are usually indicative of ability within an engineer. If you’re a systems person, feel free to add whatever certs you have within your respective discipline that give you instant street cred. Let me go out on a limb even further and mention that if you got your CCIE or something similar 10 years ago and let it lapse, I still consider you an able bodied practitioner of technology even if you can’t put those acronyms on your business card anymore.

Within the IT field, we all know about the “paper” MCSE(or whatever it is called today) and CCNP/CCNA. Yes, those are the ones who crammed for a test and passed it with a little luck and a plethora of TestKing, HotCert, Pass4Sure, or even legitimate study materials. You see them on various forums asking for things as simple as “How do I configure EIGRP on a Cisco router?” and their user profile shows they are a CCNP. You’ve probably even worked with them. They have managed to get by simply by faking it. They learn a few repetitive things over the course of several years and are able to do the most basic things. When something hard comes up they get to pass it off to someone else. Eventually, they land another job making even more money somewhere else because someone was impressed with the acronym soup that came after their name in an e-mail signature. Since there was no big technical interview for this new job, they were able to astound the IT manager with the depth of their knowledge. Maybe they have some “big enterprise” experience under their belt. Years ago, I held a lot of these certifications in high regard. Due to the large number of people with certifications they clearly did not take seriously, I no longer get excited by those little acronyms. I’m almost biased towards the people with no little letters after their name. Yet, job advertisement after job advertisement lists these certs as pre-requisites. Manager after manager wants those little letters. If you are a reseller, I understand your requirements. You need discounts. You need references. I get that. It’s the corporate IT types that I am referring to.

3. Gartner knows all. – Are you a Magic Quadrant(Am I supposed to put that little “TM” thing after that?) fan? Do you read with all fear and reverence the reports that are issued that say so much and yet say so little? If so, I hate to burst your bubble, but there’s a general disdain amongst many of my technical peers when it comes to Gartner reports. Oh sure, they make the reports pretty wordy. They use lots of buzzwords and phrases like “visionary” and “ability to execute”. It’s enough to make an IT marketing professional weep tears of joy!

“Yay! Another report from Gartner on the market leaders in the “Layer 5-application-accelerator-firewall-router” device thingy space. Oh look. Flim-flam networks is in the top right square and Jim-jam networks is in the bottom right square. I guess we better go with Flim-flam instead. Cut the purchase order to Flim-flam and let’s buy today. In fact, buy 2 of whatever they sell! What do they sell? I don’t know. It’s a layer 5 thingy and I think we only go up to layer 4 in our switches. We’re losing ground to the competition without that layer 5 thingy that Gartner tells us we need. We’re visionaries! We need to own the hardware that backs up that claim!”

If you have never read an entire Gartner report, let me suggest that you do. Try this one or this one. Now, after reading either of those, find me something of substance that a technical person would be able to relate to. Is the lact of specifics done on purpose? I wonder. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that Gartner is not the only group I have a problem with. I also tend to ignore reports from “independent” test labs in which a vendor funds the tests. I know. I know. You gave the loser the chance to refute your findings. Here’s perhaps the funniest example of when these “independent” tests go wrong. You have to read all of the comments to get the full effect of it.

Well, that’s it for part 1. Just 3 little myths. Something to ponder over. If you disagree, let me know. I have an open mind, so I am always willing to change it given an effective argument. Just don’t give me a Gartner report telling me why I am wrong. 😉 Part 2 will have a few more of these IT myths. I’ll post it sometime in the near future unless the IPocalypse happens!

Categories: career Tags: ,