After two years supporting his company's internal IT systems, network systems engineer Ian Barrett was looking for something new to get his teeth into. "Our own network was running very smoothly, so there weren't many challenges," he said. "I also wanted to be out meeting customers more."
The networking industry has witnessed something of a revolution since the web took over the world. Not only has the internet created a huge increase in demand for networking professionals, it's opened up new opportunities in customer-facing roles for networking staff. As a result, good quality staff are now being snapped up by internet service providers, application service providers and dotcoms.
Networking - with a little help from the internet - has come of age. "The old jobs are still there, but the groundbreaking work is in providing faster and faster internet-based activities," said Geoff Johnson, a recruitment consultant responsible for networking technologies at recruitment consultancy Connections Group. New-style networking is relatively uncharted territory, however.
Just how easy is it to make a successful move into the new internetworking industry? If you're experienced in old-style networking, you shouldn't find it too difficult, said David Hunter, who runs Hunter Search and Selection and recruits for Siemens Network Systems (SNS).
"The two sets of technologies are very closely related, and if someone with a traditional skills set is seen as having the right attitude, a company like SNS wouldn't see it as too much of a problem to retrain," he said.
Breaking the mould
That's good news for networking specialists who, like Barrett, are keen to break the mould of the traditional networking professional, who is often viewed as internally-focused and non-strategic. Barrett joined networking consultancy Syncra (a division of Communica, formerly known as Cableship) nearly six years ago, on the company's three-year apprenticeship scheme. After two years supporting internal systems, last year he moved into the client-facing networking team where he configures and installs equipment for customers.
Robust networks hold the key to smooth business operations. Network downtime and sluggish connections cost the average large enterprise almost $8m a year, according to US company Informatics Research. While this has raised the profile of networking professionals, it also means networking roles have become more specialised as the relevant technology increases in complexity.
"Networking used to be a fairly small part of another job. Even a couple of years ago, people either dealt with the workstation end of things or with a particular type of server operating system and its associated networks," said Johnson. "Now it's a skill in its own right, and there are specific networking people who just look after the network but aren't focused on a particular server technology."
In professional network services companies, roles can be even more specialised. With jobs ranging from junior engineers doing basic swap-outs to consultants working on business process re-engineering projects, there's plenty of scope for career progression. The increasing sophistication of networking roles, coupled with a shortage of experienced and qualified staff, means networking professionals are highly sought after and often very well paid.
One way to specialise is by focusing on a particular vendor's products. The hot skills today are in Cisco's products, given that the majority of internet traffic travels through Cisco hardware. There's no shortage of training providers looking for your business and offering to help you get Cisco certification.
A fistful of certificates
Employers are wary of these qualifications, however, because despite their certificates, too many candidates lack hands-on experience. "It's easy to train at too high a level without understanding the basics," said Rick Marshall, executive director of professional services company Syncra. "We see candidates with certification who, when we drill down and ask deeper questions, we find have only surface training rather than a deep understanding."
Jonathan Poole, operations director at outsourcing and professional services company ATM Technology, said: "When we get candidates with certification, they often don't have experience, so it's a minefield to verify whether they really have the skills to put in front of a customer as part of an outsourcing team." He prefers to recruit staff with experience rather than certification, although once they have joined the company, he puts them through a certification programme using PC and internet-based courses.
According to the recruitment consultants, what really counts in this business is time spent getting your hands dirty. So even if you only have a year's experience and no qualifications, you will be more marketable than someone who has attended a course but has no experience outside the classroom. That's not to say qualifications aren't worthwhile, but they're most readily accepted by recruiters as validation of practical experience.
The more advanced certificates are highly prized because of the advanced level of knowledge and experience needed to gain them. If you've gone to the trouble of putting yourself through a course, your enthusiasm and commitment will be noted, advised Jonathan Harris, head of networks and communications at IntelliMark, the IT division of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters.
Harris also suggested considering a transfer to a junior networking role within your existing company to gain that all-important experience. "For an employer with a skill shortage, there is probably a lower risk in cross-training an employee who is a known quantity than in taking on someone supposedly experienced at a much higher salary," he said.
If it sounds like a chicken-and-egg problem, never fear. Given the shortage of skilled people and the importance of practical experience, networking is one area of IT where companies are willing to take on staff with little or no experience and train them.
Marshall employs a three-point rule of thumb when selecting staff with no previous networking experience. Staff must have a very basic understanding of how technical products - even something such as a CD player - might work, they need to be able to absorb and learn new information, and they need to be keen to learn and develop their skills.
Another option is to become a guru on a particular product set. Apart from Cisco, there is a particularly high demand for people with network security skills and experience and accreditation in market-leading products such as Checkpoint.
Experience is all
Alternatively, if you work well under pressure, can interpret data - especially when it's being explained to you by an end user - and find a solution, then network management or remote network management could be for you. In the future, Harris thinks skills in Wap technologies could be heavily in demand.
There's always a need for project managers or general managers of a network team. Even in these high-level roles, however, you'll still need good basic networking knowledge and experience. "You need to earn your stripes technically," said Harris. "Even top people will have demonstrated good technical experience at some point in their career. To reach a senior level you will definitely require other skills, such as leadership and the ability to think strategically."
All networking roles are highly technical, but even at more junior levels softer skills are also important. Professional network service companies require people with customer-facing skills to work either on client sites or at the service provider's offices managing client networks remotely.
Networking staff work alongside business managers - high-flyers who expect support staff to be equally responsive and capable, and able to deal with problems independently. Demand for good interpersonal skills means there's little room these days for people hiding away in the basement.
|Jobs in networking|
|Network operations manager |
Responsibilities: Line management of network support team, strategic responsibility for network solutions
Qualifications: Four years' experience in a technical role plus four years' management experience
Salary level: £40,000 to £60,000
Network manager/team leader
Network security specialist
Senior network engineer
Junior network engineer
|Course: Microsoft Certified Professional|
Description: Obtained on passing any current Microsoft exam (with a few exceptions). Not particularly highly-prized by employers - should be seen as a stepping stone to a more advanced Microsoft certification
Cost: Up to £1500
|Course: Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer|
Description: For IT professionals working in complex computing environments in medium or large organisations, with at least one year's experience in implementing and administering a network operating system. Requires passes in five core and two elective exams
Cost: £1000 (self-study), £2000 (classroom-based)
|Course: Certified Novell Administrator|
Description: One exam, specialising in Netware5, IntranetWare or Netware3
Cost: Up to £1500
|Course: Certified Novell Engineer|
Description: For network management and support staff and technical consultants providing design and implementation services. Allows specialisation in Netware5, IntranetWare or Netware3. Exams in five core subjects and one elective subject
Cost: £1000 (self-study), enquire for classroom-based prices
|Course: Cisco Certified Network Associate|
Description: For junior network professionals wishing to demonstrate they can install, configure and operate various simple networks
Cost: £700 (self-study), up to £1500 (classroom-based)
|Course: Cisco Certified Design Associate|
Description: For junior network professionals wishing to demonstrate they can design simple networks. Assumes existing knowledge of installation and configuration
Cost: £700 (self-study), up to £1500 (classroom-based)
|Course: Cisco Certified Network Professional|
Description: For senior network professionals wishing to build on CCNA and demonstrate they can install, configure, operate and troubleshoot various complex networks
Cost: £1000 (self-study), £6000 (classroom-based)
|Course: Cisco Certified Design Professional|
Description: For senior network professionals wishing to build on CCNA or CCDA and demonstrate they can design complex networks. Assumes existing knowledge of installation and configuration
Cost: £450 (self-study), £1200 (classroom-based)
|Course: Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert|
Description: The highest level of certification, for senior network professionals who have already achieved CCNP and wish to become Cisco experts
Cost: Courses are relatively rare and expensive and prices are difficult to find
|Course: Checkpoint Certified Security Administrator|
Description: For end users and resellers who need a good technical understanding of FireWall-1 and need to install simple configurations
|Course: Checkpoint Certified Security Engineer|
Description: For end users who have sophisticated security requirements for their enterprise networks and engineers managing multiple FireWall-1 systems
|Course: compTIA Network+|
Description: Certifies technical and practical knowledge of networking professionals with 18-24 months' experience in installing and configuring TCP/IP clients. Covers a wide range of vendors. An internationally-recognised qualification from the US
|Course: compTIA i-Net+|
Description: Certifies existing baseline knowledge of IT professionals using Internet/intranet/extranet technologies; Covers a wide range of vendors. A qualification originating in the US and now being launched in Europe
Cost: Test fees $105-$195
|Training providers' web sites:|
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