For people that want to pursue a career in network design, it can be tough getting the experience needed for such a role. How do you get design experience if your current role does not involve design? There are still many things you can do and I will give you tips on gaining that experience.
Network fundamentals – I always bring this up because it’s easy to overlook the need for network fundamentals. Being an Architect you still need to have technical chops and hopefully some operational experience as well. How can you design for something you are not familiar with? You can’t! You need to know OSPF, ISIS, BGP, etc. to understand when you should use each protocol. Spend a lot of time building these fundamentals before you move into design. How do you do that? Ivan Pepelnjak has training in this area. There is also the Computer Networking Problems and Solutions book by Russ White and Ethan Banks.
Books – There are several excellent books on network design. Some of them are geared towards network design certifications but they are great reads even if you are not pursuing any certification. One of my favourite books is The Art of Network Architecture by Denise Donohue and Russ White. There is also the CCDE study guide by Marwan Al-shawi. There are many other great books as well, such as Optimal Routing Design. You can always reach out to me if you want more advice on what books to read.
Network design resources – There are also many other free resources on network design. One such resource is the Cisco Validated Designs (CVD). They have design guides for campus, datacenter, WAN, security etc. There are also many great Cisco Live sessions focusing on network design. You will find sessions from Nick Russo, Tim McConnaughy, Elvin Arias, Peter Palúch. Check out Nick’s publications. Also my friend Zig has a great web site and podcast on network design. There are also several great blog posts at PacketPushers on for example route reflector design. Ping me if you can’t find them.
Presentations – Get experience presenting to other people. This could be at work, in an online community, for a vendor, or maybe in a study group. In a study group with other design oriented people you can present on different technologies, architectures, and designs. You need to be comfortable presenting to others in a design role.
Discuss technologies – In the study group you can discuss different technologies. What’s the difference between these two technologies? When would you use one or the other? What if this requirement changed? Would that change the choice of protocol/architecture? Becoming an Architect is about forming that mindset and having a lot of discussions to help you get there.
Make up scenarios – Make fictive scenarios. Describe the fictive company, their requirements, their current network and so on and then design the new solution. What did you end up with? Did others make other choices? If they did, why? Many of my friends that became CCDEs made scenarios just like these and they were essential to having them pass the certification.
Compare and contrast – Get very comfortable in comparing and contrasting both technologies as well as architectures. OSPF and ISIS are both very similar but yet different. Why are they different? When is one better than the other? When are they both a good fit? Why not write a blog about it? That could land you a spot on Tech Field Day and maybe even your future job!
Get practice – Any opportunity you have at getting some practice, take it! Can you help with something at work? Does your friends or friends in the industry need some help with design? Just getting involved in discussions will evolve your skills and start changing your mindset.
Volunteer – Are there smaller organizations that need help with design? Maybe a charity? You would both be doing a good thing and getting experience at the same time. It may not be the largest network but you have to start somewhere, right?
Get to know the apps – Thanks to David Svendsen for providing this one. Not many people really know their organization’s apps and systems. You could be that person that does. Understand how things fit together and what the traffic flows and patterns are. In the end, we are designing networks to be used by apps. You need some understanding of these apps and why they are there.
Moving into a network design role can be difficult, especially in getting that experience. Hopefully these tips will help you get going and land you that dream job!