Over my years as a network engineer, I’ve notice that the engineering job tends to be somewhat isolated (or isolating). Part of the reason is probably that there tend to be one or two network engineers at a single company, munged in with a lot of other IT folks who share some common ground (but not entirely), so there’s little chance to interact with others who are working on the same sorts of problem sets on a day to day basis. This tends to produce network engineers who are more attached to their vendor than they are to their “day job.” In fact, this tends to make the entire network engineering world, to the average network engineer, appear to be “not much more” than the vendors who show up on our doorsteps, the vendor specific trade shows we can attend, and what we read online. This is—how can I say this gently—??
This is an unhealthy situation for your career as a network engineer—and as a person.
What you need to do is build a network of other network engineers—a network network—so you can broaden your scope, keep your ear to the ground for changes, prepare for changes, have friends to ask when it’s time for that inevitable job change, and—perhaps most importantly—stop thinking about vendors, and start thinking about technology. But how do you go about doing this? A couple of suggestions.
First, try a different conference. Don’t always go to the latest/greatest vendor conference; try to find interesting events that are outside the world of vendors, but where serious technical people meet on a regular basis. There are still a few vendor neutral conferences out there, particularly things like Interop, the O’Reilly conferences, and network operator groups (NOGs). Try to find a smaller conference where you can meet people and get involved, rather than just going to attend sessions—and then, when you go, try to eat at least one meal a day with someone different, someone you’ve just met, etc. If you’re consistent about going to a conference and actually meeting people, rather than just acting like a sponge, you’ll find a group with whom you can share experiences and ideas.
To carry this farther—don’t just go to sessions when you go to a conference. Find time to sit at a table, or a social area, and just talk to people. Find out what people are working on, and why. Another bad habit I notice people at have at conferences—they scoot through the show floor just glancing at the booths and products. Make it a point to talk to the people in the booth, and really listen. Instead of letting them get off on a sales pitch, as then where they’ve actually seen the problem they’re trying to solve in the wild, how their solution would have (or did) work there, and what their plans for the future are. Treat the people in the booth as the engineers, and real people, they really are.
Second, do meetups and local events. I’m horrible about this, but my schedule overall is horrible. It’s not an excuse, though—all of us can do better at supporting and attending local groups. And once you have the connections, keep them. Try to make it a point to go to lunch with people outside the office, for instance, if there are network engineers at a local company.
Third, use the Internet. There are lots of places where engineers meet on line. Get involved in a mailing list, or a slack, or some other online forum that allows you to read about what other people are working on, on a regular basis. Intentionally steer the conversation away from the vendor offering to trying to understand the technology behind the offering.
Don’t be happy with just being best friends with the local Sales Engineer, and with buying stuff from a vendor—especially if you want to be an all around engineer. Grow your box a little, and you’ll be able to think a little bigger.