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Making it in IT: Career Advice for a Networking N00b

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

What's the best way to get started on a career in networking? John, a young tech support from Illinois, wants to know how to get started with the networking basics. Are IT certifications the best option? Or should he pursue a college degree to accomplish his goal of becoming a network administrator.

Hello Ed,

A little background on myself. I am 23 with only a diploma and an A+ certification. I have been in the IT field since age 18. First, I worked as technical support staff member for a local ISP, then moved my way up to working in MIS support for local companies. Right now I currently work for a major manufacturer of heavy equipment in their IT department, but I really want to get more into networking. Right now, I feel like I’ve got the desktop support role down and don’t see too many opportunities to grow or advance my career in this IT niche.

What do you feel would be the best next choice to working toward my goal? I took some CCNA classes back in high school, but there is so much information there that I would feel better just starting from the basics again. Should I be working toward a degree or should I stick to gaining more work experience and getting as many certs as possible? An ideal job for me would to be a systems administrator somewhere. What certs do you think I should pursue for that field?

Thank you.

John J.

Peoria, IL

Dear John:

Thanks for your recent email.

If you want to get into networking, it’s hard to find a better entry point than the various Cisco certifications available to networking professionals. However, if you’re feeling rusty on Cisco, you may want to start out with the CompTIA Network+ certification. In fact, Cisco recently announced that their CCNA and CCNA Security certs, along with CCNP and CCNP Security, have received ANSI accreditation. This might not sound terribly significant, until you stop to ponder that many IT-related government jobs (especially those related to the Department of Defense and its legions of contractors and contract organizations) are required to obtain and maintain such certifications to perform such jobs. In addition, OSHA and the FDA at the Federal level also adhere to this stipulation, as do countless state government agencies and their contractor networks. All in all, it adds significantly to the value and reach of these Cisco certs, and might even open up some unexpected opportunities for yourself, should you decide to travel that road.

To that end, I’d urge you to look into the CCENT (CCNA part 1, basically) and CCNA certifications as a way of getting yourself back into the swing of networking technology. The nice thing about Cisco certs is that they’ve got a long ladder of credential that you can climb -- to CCNP, CCIE, and even architect (CCAr) level -- and make a great lifetime career.

As for returning to school, and pursuing a degree, this has to be a matter for you to ponder seriously and intensely. Sure, you can get into an academic program and chase down a degree, but it will take time, effort, and money to do this, so you have to decide what kind of quality of life and lifestyle changes you’re ready to assume before you can do this. That said, given your current interests, you may want to check out the University of Phoenix’s so-called "CCNA Associate’s Degree" program. It might be just the thing to let you combine your networking interests with the benefits of a two-year degree and extensive prep for the CCNA certification. It’s pretty intense, though, so if you want to keep working while you also have to finish a course every five weeks (that’s their schedule), you’ll have to be committed, and stay both focused and organized to work your way through that curriculum.

But with this kind of background to draw on, you will find lots of job opportunities to work as a network administrator (that’s really a much more fitting title for this kind of study and certification than the "system administrator" to which you refer in your e-mail to me). My guess is that you’ll have to commit yourself to some serious effort over the course of one to two years to get where you want to be. You’ll probably want to stay employed while you’re doing this, so again you must be prepared to sacrifice most of your leisure time and activities to career development. If you can put yourself through this kind of regimen, however, I have to believe you’ll experience a real and valuable career boost as a result.

Thanks again for writing. Good luck with your career planning and development activities.

Best wishes,

-- Ed

Ed Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the , who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

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