A Practical Matter

I passed the Cisco ICND2 exam about a week ago. This was a pretty big deal in that many employers (particularly those that pay well) require the certification it provides, the famed CCNA; holding it is a huge resumé builder. The knowledge you gain in preparing for it is critical for success in networking; I've already experienced these benefits at work. While preparing, I rediscovered a lot of what attracted me to a tech career in the first place. Studying complex technologies/protocols and using that knowledge to troubleshoot problems that prevent connectivity is incredibly satisfying. For a while, I had convinced myself that I hated networking and everything that came along with it: outages, trouble tickets, Layer 1 troubleshooting. It was only as the exam date approached that I began to realize what really caused this disdain: my early days as a network admin were fraught with anxiety.

I work for a relatively small school district (1300 students) as the sole network administrator. There are two computer technicians that handle hardware/software or OS issues but network infrastructure concerns fall strictly to me. I came into the role from that of a computer technician. All of the knowledge I gained was hard-won via situations that occurred, requiring me to either sink or swim. I had previously attained the COMPTIA Network+ certification and being employed in a rural area where such skills are fairly scarce I was allowed a chance at such a big responsibility so early in my IT career. I managed to catch on fairly quickly, surprisingly by losing any sense of shame about admitting that I didn't know all of the answers. I learned that the most important skill most times is simply knowing how and where to find the right answers. Many times in those early days I would be overwhelmed with anxiety at the simplest of problems because the solution didn't immediatley occur to me. I'd fret over the thoughts I imagined people would have about me: "he has no idea what he's doing", "how'd he even get this job?". I'd attempt to hide the fact that I actually had to go and research the issue to find a solution. In hindsight, the source of this feeling that I had to appear perfect came from the culture of tech. Many IT people I encountered as a technician, along with those I followed online put on this image of always knowing everything, and never having a single doubt or question. This left me deeply intimidated and afraid to ask any questions. It was only after attaining a position where the responsibility outweighed my personal pride that I realized that users didn't care whether I knew the solution right off the top of my head, only that I was able to solve their problems quickly and effectively, that I stopped losing sleep over being exposed as a fraud.

One thing that finally began to expose the effects of this mindset was a project that had been set in motion before I became admin. The district was to get a higher bandwidth WAN connection that our current routers couldn't handle, which meant that the core network equipment at each campus would have to be replaced. I had been advised to have a consulting firm come in and handle the installation and configuration of the new equipment, however after seeing the fees that would be incurred, I felt it would be wrong for me to call myself an IT professional if I couldn't handle the situation myself. I spent about two weeks learning the command-line interface of the new equipment and working after hours, so nervous and anxious I could hardly eat, until I had successfully rebuilt the core of the district's network, configured routing and services like DHCP and DNS. I spent the next month worried that I done something wrong and that it would all come irrevocably crashing down. What I remember most about those days is that after getting everything up and running, I felt I had barely scraped by. I felt like an utter fraud who didn't deserve the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT) certification I had recently earned because if I really merited it, I should've just been able to re-engineer our network with a snap of my well-qualified fingers. Lost on me was the fact that by that point, I could handle almost any technical issue that arose; all I could muster was anxiety that any issue would occur at all.

The thing that eventually began to dig me out of this hole was witnessing a network engineer from a large coporation in a professional development session I attended encounter a technical issue with the software he was supposed to be an expert on in the middle of a presentation. He immediately admitted he had made a mistake somewhere (gasp!), began Googling for an answer, failed to find one, called someone for assistance who also began Googling until they ultimately figured it out together. The presenter, a highly qualified expert in his field then proceeded as though nothing had ever happened, and no one in the audience got up and walked out or whispered about his incompetence. I was floored. The fog of fear I had lived in for months began to show cracks. I eventually began to recognize a pattern amongst real tech professionals, particularly experts: those who really had the skills had no qualms about admitting that they didn't know how to do something or openly searching for answers in front of people. After a while it began to become clear why: when you actually know what you're doing, you don't need to put up a veil of unshakable confidence to protect yourself. You haven't anything to be insecure about. Sure, you may lose face among a few insecure peers, but those sorts aren't the kind of company you should keep if you value your own mental health. After this experience, and several similar ones, I began to be able to calm down and celebrate my successes. Interestingly, this also began to allow me to see some of my actual weaknesses. Rather than falsely thinking I was completely incompetent, I was able to accept that I was actually good at certain things, leaving room to work on those things I actually needed to improve on. I also came to begin to see the appreciation the users had for the job I did. Before, I imagined them sitting behind their desks blaming me for every millisecond delay in their downloads. Eventually, I was able to see that they relied on me to keep them up and running and actually trusted my expertise when there was a problem. Sure, there were times when we were both frustrated by a difficult issue that caused a delay, but overall the users were being honest when they told me they appreciated the work I did.

The anxiety of those early days left serious scars. Anytime I see a job listing for a networking professional, those old feelings of being new at a place with a new network and set of technologies to learn wash over me again. I still battle with the sense that networking isn't for me. Although I've decided to pursue a career as a software engineer, the more practical part of my mind recognises this as a dream-job that will likely hold many of the same challenges and tells me that I need to continue to gain knowledge and qualification in my current field. So, even after I had decided to study for the Oracle Java 8 OCA certification, an annoying voice in the back of my head kept nagging me that I was wasting my time working toward what amounted to a pipe-dream and that I should be trying to complete the CCNA certification that actually pertained to my current field. The decision to heed that voice and do the work necessary to attain the CCNA was driven in part by a desire to clear up some mental bandwidth to actually focus on learning Java properly. I rely on certification exams as self-confidence builders so that when I begin to doubt myself I can recall that I put in the effort to pass an exam or set of exams that the creator of a certain technology says qualifies me to work with their products. Certification exams from reputable companies like Cisco or Oracle are tough. I failed the Cisco ICND1 the first time and also the Oracle 1Z0-808 after putting in serious study time and practice. While I don't see my self pursuing networking futher, the knowledge I've gained have given me many ideas for netoworking related software projects I'd like to build. I did alot of studying using network simulators built in Java and I intend to build one of my own to better understand the way some networking protocols work. It's only been about a week since the exam and my feelings about things are still very "up in the air" so I may end up writing back here saying I've decided to begin working toward becoming a network engineer. Time will tell, but if I'm honest, the CCNA is much more than just a practical matter, it's a big win.

Posted: January 23, 2019 6:22PM