Saturday, October 31, 2009

Career Path

There is no such thing as career path.

I’m talking about a career path for an engineer, or those who want to focus and stay technical in computer networking field, for example, for the rest of his work life.

In some organization this can be seen as crystal clear. There isn’t any path at all for technical person. It just doesn’t exist, especially in an organization where IT is considered as secondary team, formed just to support the mainstream of the company’s business. Once an engineer becomes senior and wants to go to higher level he needs to switch to a managerial level, let’s say by becoming a technical manager. And this means he needs to start dealing with other stuff outside the engineering scope: manage people, budget, P&L per head in his team and so on. In this type of organization if one is keen to stay with the current scope as engineer, then he’s going nowhere. It may be even worst since some organization prefers to “refresh” the engineering division aka removing the old timers and put the younger workforces in order to lowering the monthly pay slip.

How about the technology solution company? It has been said many times that the engineering division is the core key of such company. Technical solution by engineer leads to sales that brought the income to the company hence it must be a haven for engineers to work for such organization? Not necessarily. The key here is still the ‘sales that brought the income’. We need to understand that it’s difficult to quantify an engineering work and get promoted. For example, as sales person in the company one can be given a number of annual targets of sales and if he can achieve or even over achieve the number within several years in the row, the promotion certainly awaits. How can we measure how successful an engineer is using a similar measurement? By looking at the number of US patents he produces or IETF RFC’s he has been involved each year? I’m talking about the engineers who work in the field in general to support computer network systems, as many of us are not that lucky and able to sit in the lab to invent the new technology.

So is there a way for an engineer to have career path?

Yes, there is. Some technology innovation company perceives the importance of keeping good engineers to support the business by making higher technical position is always available. This is the company where an engineer can stay technical and yes he can always climb a higher level until he is called “Distinguished” engineer or even “Fellow”. But still in order to achieve such level in engineering one needs to take control and build his own path, and even may need to compromise.
And as far as I know, a good engineer never compromises :)

First of all, the engineer needs to compromise to accept the fact that the technical team is less likely to be involved in any business decision, like an organization changes. Suddenly the company decided to change the model of the way they do business, including restructuring the engineering team, and let’s just inform the engineers at a very late state. One may comeback from a nice weekend just to find out he now needs to work for another team or to report to another manager. And if it’s not enough with the difficulty of an engineer for being recognized for the works he has done, how about moving him to the new team or asking him to suddenly report to new manager, where he has to start over?

Second, the engineer may needs to compromise by manipulating a technical fact in order to support the business. A solution that may not fit the requirement is proposed due to some other reasons including the political and other non-technical stuff, and now it’s time for the technical person to make it works somehow. A young and fresh engineer may just say NO because he still likes to work with the plain truth, just as what being engineer is all about. But if one wants to climb the ladder in the organization, from an engineer moves to senior level, then to become architect, then to a position called as technical lead, or distinguished or whatever, the organization is certainly expecting him to support the business.
From the way I look at it, it’s just another compromise.

The third and the worst compromise of all, because it’s difficult to quantify and distinguish an engineer from the others, the engineer may choose the short cut by doing anything possible to stay on the spotlight. Some said, to climb the company’s ladder it’s all about making the big noise. But how if the engineer is busy making noise but not the real work? The competition among the engineers may become ugly and no real intellectual property really produced, only the noise or the efforts to be the first to announce a half-done work.

I hope the three above are just my imagination, and as the result of too much smoking Shisha while chatting with old friends last night. But unfortunately, some of them are too real.

So if I knew this all along, why bother even to write it down and discuss it? Life is a matter of preference, isn’t it?

It’s true.

The reason why I brought this up is so all of those like me who think and plan to spend the rest of our time focusing on technical, can set our expectation right. Once we choose to go down this path then we should know the consequences. That it won’t be easy and it will be full with obstacles even to move one grade higher. We have to be ready to see those who choose to be in other department, for example in sales, may climb the company ladder faster than we do.

And I also have a secret to share here. I noticed that to get the promotion as technical person, we don’t have to do great job in every task. But we have to do an extra ordinary job in only a single task. Superb work even in only a single project, in the right time and seen by the right people, can bring us much better result. Just like one great rock show can change the world, as Dewey Finn aka Jack Black said in the School of Rock. And obviously we don’t have to be on the spotlight by claiming someone’s work even if we really desperate to get the promotion.

Will it really work?

How the heck I know? I’m a kind of guy who keeps changing the organization everytime I want more. In the past, to get more salary I moved to another organization. To get a better job profile I moved to a different team. I built my own career path by keep moving from one organization to the others. I’ve never been in the same place long enough to see if my ‘secret career advice’ can really work.

So I will tell you all the result once I really get my promotion.

Disclaimer: the writing expresses my own opinion and it has no relation what so ever with the organization I currently work for. It’s based on my own experience moving from one IT organization to the others, as well as my short experience working as contractor.
And I’m not smoking anything while writing this.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How the Lab Exam Should Be

I have just done one lab exam to complete the internal certification from my organization. I can’t disclose more information about it, but what I can share here is my thought of how the lab exam should be done based on my experience taking that exam.

I said it once that certification means nothing without experience. Passing even a very tough lab exam such as CCIE doesn’t turn us to become real expert directly. Certification can only offers the baseline set of skills, and we should build our expertise on top of these skills, not in lieu of them.

But have you ever wondered how far is the skills tested in the lab exam compare to the ones needed in real life? For example, once you pass the CCIE SP lab, do you think you can just jump into a large SP environment or there is still a huge gap to fill in first?

Let me share my thought of how the lab exam should be done. As usual, this is just my personal opinion. And you know what they say; opinions are like arseholes, everybody’s got one.

1. Lab exam should use the real gear

If you look at the equipments in CCIE SP lab, you will notice that they are not the real Service Provider gears. Cisco 7200 is good, but not as P router! As well as the 2800 and 2600 that are still being used in some lab.

SP lab exam should use high end routers such as CRS, ASR and 7600. As P node, if multiple CRS is considered too expensive, a single CRS with physical partition using Secure Domain Routing can do the job as well. And we all know most of the SP core networks use IOS XR, so at least GSR with IOS XR must be available if getting CRS is not an option. For PE node, if the latest ASR9K is still out of reach at least use 7600 with RSP and ES+ card!
Sound too ambitious? Perhaps. But those are the real equipments being used in most Service Provider networks nowadays.

It’s the same case with CCIE Routing & Switching lab. If this track is supposed to simulate a large Enterprise network, at least Cisco 6500 should be available in the lab.

2. Lab exam should simulate the real scenarios

Okay, you are done with the configuration of the device, and then what? Run a ping test? Verify the config? Run the show commands? It’s not enough!

The lab exam should use traffic generator to simulate the traffic. Once we have the traffic in the network we can verify, for example, if the Quality of Services features really work. The lab should ask the candidate to verify the failover scenario. How we can be sure if the fast convergence feature is already configured properly? By checking the BFD neighbors from show commands? By looking at the NSF and GR config only? Yeah, right.

Why can’t we just run the traffic generator and see the impact of the configuration, or failover scenarios, to the traffic? Even the skill to understand and set the traffic generator is necessary to do the job in real world later on.

3. Lab exam should test the knowledge in proper way

It’s not enough to ask the candidate to configure or troubleshoot something in the lab. Some guys can just get the lab questions from somewhere and memorize the configuration to answer them.

The best way to test the in-depth knowledge of the candidates is by asking them to do the verification and explain the output. For example, during fast convergence test, let’s ask the candidate to provide the convergence time for link failure and ask them to explain why the time can be different between link down and link up (restoration) state. Can they explain why the convergence time can be different if the PE router crashes compare to if the failure happens in P router?

Tricky questions like in current CCIE lab are still important. Troubleshooting skills are still required to be tested in the lab too. But the candidate is expected to be able to explain more ‘WHY’. Not only why it’s configured this way or that way, but as well as why the traffic behaves in certain way when some features are configured or when the failure occurs

I know most of the time it’s unfair to do the comparison between my “ideal” lab exam with the known certification like CCIE.

Take the lab equipments, for example. The real gears aren’t cheap. So a vendor may have only 1 or 2 complete labs that can replicate the real world’s equipment to serve all candidates around the globe. My view on this: that’s fine. Because nowadays we don’t have to fly to sit in the lab physically, we can just do the exam remotely. And the lab exam I described above is to test the skills in specific area. I mean, Cisco may create “Advanced CCIE lab” for specific technical focus with CCIE as the prerequisite, and there are so many tracks available (CCIE SP-NGN, CCIE SP-IPTV, CCIE SP-Wimax and so on). With many options of advanced track available, a candidate can choose which one is suitable to support his daily work so the number of candidates will be distributed to all the tracks.

If time permits, all the explanation should be done with short interview, not only in written. How if English is not the native language of the candidates? That’s fine. With remote lab, more locations can conduct the exam and the candidate can have the proctor who can speak the same language. And the lab exam can take 2-days format just like back there in 2001. Day 1 can be allocated to build the network, Day 2 morning can be used to run the traffic generator and verify the setup. Day 2 afternoon is for troubleshooting section. At the end of each section the candidate is expected to explain what have been done, and the behavior of the traffic in several different scenarios.

Obviously with this new and advanced CCIE track the main objective is to prepare the candidates to able to do the job the next day after they pass the lab, and not to chase the quantity of people to pass it.

Is it possible to have that kind of lab or can it be done only in our dream? Heck, who knows? One day a vendor like Cisco may really create a new certification track beyond CCIE, and they may take all the points above into their consideration.