One question frequently asked of me by networking beginners at the start of their career is: How important is hands-on experience? My answer: It's very important!
The competition between networking engineers for available jobs, along with greater levels of skills being demanded by employers, means it's no longer a luxury to have hands-on experience — it's an absolute necessity. It's a big differentiator that can help you land your first job, and it's complementary to your theoretical knowledge of networking technologies and protocols.
After I explain the importance of hands-on experience, a second question arises: If hands-on experience is pretty much required to land a first job, how can I get that experience without having a networking job?
Some engineers believe the only way to achieve practical networking experience is to buy physical lab devices and practice with them. While that is one option, there is another that is less expensive and takes up less space: Online labs.
I know some talented network engineers who, believe it or not, have never physically touched a networking device. Networking devices are usually located in rooms that are cold and noisy, and almost all of the time networking engineers connect to such devices remotely. What a beginner really needs, then, in order to be best prepared to enter the job market, is experience accessing and interacting with networking devices (even remotely).
Let's look at four alternative options to help beginners garner that valuable "hands-on" networking experience. Each of the following options goes well with the theoretical knowledge of networking concepts and protocols you have already learned.
Landing an internship with a reputable networking company while attending university is an invaluable opportunity. Completing an internship is also increasingly a required part of completing a degree at many colleges and universities.
Major companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, as well as many smaller enterprises, have agreements with universities for filling internship positions.
Companies aren't just being nice and hiring students. They see an internship as an opportunity to identify and train future hires. Prospective employers are able to test the engineer's skill and, as needed, mold the engineer to fit into the company culture.
Interns benefit by having access to networking devices in real-world operational states, exposure to the environment and culture of networking companies, and increased levels of industry knowledge from experienced employees. If you have an opportunity to fill an internship position as part of your degree, or even independent of any involvement with higher education, take it.
In this same vein, bear in mind that many organizations, especially nonprofits and civic organizations, have IT needs but lack the budget necessary to pay for professional assistance. Volunteering at such organizations is also an excellent, if less formal, arrangement that will provide you with access to "live" networking equipment.
Similar to an internship, a summer job is a terrific way to obtain some real-world networking experience. While these jobs are of limited duration — generally lasting two or three months at most — they do give you exposure to the field and an opportunity to show an employer your skillset and work ethic.
There are two negatives to a summer job: students must typically find them on their own, and schools generally do not provide class credit for working them.
As part of your networking career you will want to develop and maintain good social connections with others in the field. These experienced professionals can be a source not only for summer jobs opportunities, and references when you interview for your first job, but also a great network for career opportunities and challenges.
A good way to start building your network is getting on websites such as LinkedIn. Companies often announce summer job opportunities on these websites, and it's never too soon to start making connections with professionals and recruiters.
Network simulation software
Internships and summer jobs are helpful, but not always easy to find. Sometimes there are just more candidates than openings. In the event that you don't have an internship or summer position, networking, simulation software is an affordable option.
Network simulators have vastly improved over the past five years. In addition to being inexpensive, they are now comprehensive and very realistic. Many simulation software packages use the same operating system images that run on the devices offered by major networking vendors.
Network simulators are not only used by networking beginners, but also by professionals as a way to enhance their skills for day-to-day job tasks, or when preparing for certification exams. A simple search on the internet will help you find a number of vendors to choose from.
The big advantage to using a simulator is that you have the freedom to build networking topologies, configure any features, and change the whole setup whenever you want, something you cannot do working as an intern or in a temporary summer job.
If you don't like simulation software, or the option just doesn't work for you, you can try the device rental route. The big advantage to renting networking devices is that you are able to do your cable connections between devices on the fly and, according to your needs, before configuring devices. This gives you the opportunity to work with real networking devices that you will interact with in your future job.
During the past 10 years the price for renting devices has dropped considerably, making this option affordable for those with a limited budget.
Experience with network devices is increasingly essential. Most companies just are not willing to take a chance on someone who hasn't actually worked with networks. The more you can impress an employer with your resume and skills, the greater your chances of being hired.
While I've listed some options that enable you to interact with network devices and increase your troubleshooting skills, I feel it is best to utilize more than just one approach. Doing so will increase your knowledge, build your skill set and give you the confidence to nail down your first job.