The Senior Trap

How do you become a “senior engineer?” It’s a question I’m asked quite often, actually, and one that deserves a better answer than the one I usually give. Charity recently answered the question in a round-a-bout way in a post discussing the “trap of the premature senior.” She’s responding to an email from someone who is considering leaving a job where they have worked themselves into a senior role. Her advice?


This might seem to be counter-intuitive, but it’s true. I really wanted to emphasize this one line—

There is a world of distance between being expert in this system and being an actual expert in your chosen craft. The second is seniority; the first is merely .. familiarity

Exactly! Knowing the CLI for one vendor’s gear, or even two vendor’s gear, is not nearly the same as understanding how BGP actually works. Quoting the layers in the OSI model is just not the same thing as being able to directly apply the RINA model to a real problem happening right now. You’re not going to gain the understanding of “the whole ball of wax” by staying in one place, or doing one thing, for the rest of your life.

If I have one piece of advice other than my standard two, which are read a lot (no, really, A LOT!!!!) and learn the fundamentals, it has to be do something else.

Charity says this is best done by changing jobs—but this is a lot harder in the networking world than it is in the coding world. There just aren’t as many network engineering jobs as there are coding jobs. So what can you do?

First, do make it a point to try to work for both vendors and operators throughout your career. These are different worlds—seriously. Second, even if you stay in the same place for a long time, try to move around within that company. For instance, I was a Cisco for sixteen years. During that time, I was in tech support, escalation, engineering, and finally sales (yes, sales). Since then, I’ve worked in a team primarily focused on research at an operator, in engineering at a different vendor, then in an operationally oriented team at a provider, then marketing, and now (technically) software product management. I’ve moved around a bit, to say the least, even though I’ve not been at a lot of different companies.

Even if you can’t move around a lot like this for whatever reason, always take advantage of opportunities to NOT be the smartest person in the room. Get involved in the IETF. Get involved in open source projects. Run a small conference. Teach at a local college. I know it’s easy to say “but this stuff doesn’t apply to the network I’m actually working on.” Yes, you’re right. And yet—that’s the point, isn’t it? You don’t expand your knowledge by only learning things that apply directly to the problem you need to solve right now.

Of course, if you’re not really interested in becoming a truly great network engineer, then you can just stay “senior” in a single place. But I’m guessing that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in becoming a truly great network engineer.

Pay attention to the difference between understanding things and just being familiar with them. The path to being great is always hard, it always involves learning, and it always involves a little risk.