Take the Multi-Pronged Approach to IT Learning

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Take the Multi-Pronged Approach to IT LearningTake the Multi-Pronged Approach to IT Learning

The right mix of reading, studying, and hands-on learning and experimentation will get you the knowledge you need to further career in IT

Last week, I got an e-mail from Trevor Smith, a pretty regular correspondent with me thanks to this very blog. This time he raises an excellent question that’s likely to be of interest to much of the Tom's IT Pro readership:

“I’d like to understand how to configure a router, or a switch that has the need for VLANs, or a spanning tree or a routing table. It’s all fine and dandy to understand what they all do, but I’m having a hard time finding books that teach you how to physically build a network. Do you know what I mean?”

Yes, Trevor, I do know what you mean.

To some extent, it’s hard to find an out-and-out trade book like you’d find on bookstore shelves to address this kind of thing simply and directly. Once you venture outside the coverage that excellent books like Rich Seifert’s The All-New Switch Book: The Complete Guide to LAN Switching Technology(Wiley, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0470297156) can provide – and actually that’s quite a lot, which is why I recommend this book both seriously and enthusiastically – you really need to start digging into more device- and/or platform-specific books and manuals to get the down and dirty details on set-up, configuration, and troubleshooting.

Thus, for example, the latest CCNA curriculum is likely to prove helpful for dealing with Cisco switches and routers, but mostly useless for gear from other makers. You may even find vendor-sponsored (or –delivered) classes in their training or certification curriculum that more or less address your desire to learn how to do things for yourself, too. And if you take such a class, you may very well also get access to a lab where they use the same gear you’ve got in your workplace.  You can even ask the instructor to show you how to address stuff that’s entirely germane to your situation and your workplace needs.

Going further down the road to acquiring the right skills and knowledge, my advice is to use your favorite search engine to look for tutorials and videos on specific tasks you’d like to undertake, such as “assigning VLAN ports on a Cisco router” or better still “assigning VLAN ports on a Cisco xxxx router,” where you plug in the model designation where those xxxx appear. If you start out by reading the Seifert book, then dig into relevant certification curriculum (like CCNA and onto CCNP, if necessary), you should be able to cover the basics pretty well. Beyond that, it’s a matter of searching for information on specific tasks, and looking around for useful information.

Also, if you do have to call outside help, you should ask to sit with their field technician and learn as much as you can by observation and analysis of their activities. If your company will spring for a higher site visit fee, you might even want to ask your service provider to teach you as much as you can absorb during their visits (some companies aren’t terribly receptive to such requests, but it never hurts to ask). You do have to recognize that on-site time is worth money, though, and be willing to pay for extra time involved in dealing with you, rather than the quickest possible in-and-out transaction to deal with whatever work needs to be done to address your situation, or to resolve the current crisis du jour.

With the right mix of reading, study, and hands-on learning and experimentation you can learn to do this stuff. But the wheels of industry must keep turning in the meantime, too, so this may take a multi-pronged approach of learning and playing now for stuff you can do in the future yourself, plus paying as you go to deal with switch and router needs or problems you still can’t solve or handle on your own in the meantime.

Thanks for asking a great question.

Ed TittelEd Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom 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.

E-mail Ed at etittel@tomsitpro.com with your request for IT certification or career info, or your ideas for future blogs. If your e-mail leads him to a blog topic, he’ll have the Tom’s staff send you your very own Tom’s IT Pro t-shirt! Be the envy of your friends and colleagues, and help him help you with your IT career! If you do have a request for Ed, please read his How to Help Me Help You blog posting, and answer as many of the questions this post contains as are applicable to your situation and inquiry. Thanks in advance for helping make his job easier that way!

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