Networking certifications help engineer excel

Pursuing a networking career takes a special breed. Here, we profile a senior engineer who left his previous job behind to begin a networking career with the help of Cisco certifications.

Networking careers aren't for the faint of heart. Just ask Michael Crocker, senior NOC engineer at Multimax, where he troubleshoots the world's second largest network, the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), which connects all Navy and Marine Corps communications onto one converged network supporting 500,000 users.

But Crocker says he wasn't always putting out network fires. Before taking the network plunge and earning various certifications to hone his expertise, Crocker was a human resources supervisor. He said that wasn't challenging enough.

"I've always been an analytical person," he said. "I've always enjoyed computers. I thought they were fascinating."

Not knowing exactly what area of technology he wanted to pursue, Crocker enrolled himself in courses at Tidewater Community College in Virginia in 1999. In 2000, he received Novell certifications. Later that year, he went back and followed the Microsoft path.

By 2001, the Cisco Networking Academy program opened at Tidewater Community College. Crocker said he enrolled in classes to receive his CCNA certification. "At that point, I knew what I wanted to do."

Crocker said the Cisco certs drew him in. The interaction with the equipment and the complexity of the network were enticing. He started flexing his muscles on Cisco 2500 routers with serial cables. Eventually, he was forced to build a network from scratch, using real lab equipment, not a pen and paper.

"I enjoyed the fact it's command line, it's not point and click," he said.

After his CCNA certification, Crocker received his Cisco instructor license and began teaching various courses. Throughout, Crocker said, he was working toward his CCNP, a certification he locked down by late 2003.

That CCNP, coupled with lucky timing and a job posting on Monster.com, led Crocker to Multimax. In late 2003, he had a 40-minute technical interview with the operations manager on the different network layers and the Cisco model. From there, it was a lock. He started the job in March 2004 as a support engineer.

"Certifications cement that you have the knowledge to do your job," Crocker said. "It's an invaluable asset to anyone who pursues an IT career. It helps land the job you want."

Crocker quickly added that achieving any Cisco certification is not a simple task: "You have to know the technology and know the devices."

Crocker was quickly promoted to senior NOC engineer, a post he holds now. His typical day, which is far from typical, starts at 5 a.m. and begins with running maintenance reports and emailing them to everyone on shift. He then assigns maintenance to others on shift, giving various engineers projects based on their level of responsibility and expertise. Then he runs pre-maintenance reports to determine whether anything from the previous day may have gone wrong.

"I have to handle anything that may go down," he said. "If someone can't get connectivity, I troubleshoot it out."

Crocker said his days vary from extremely hectic to terribly boring, but there's no way to tell which way the wind will blow. He typically works 12-hour shifts Sunday through Tuesday and every other Wednesday.

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"Some days, I'll come in at 5 a.m. and get on a conference call for eight hours," he said.

He's weathered ACL problems, spanning tree problems, VPN problems when a remote site goes down, and days when he couldn't ping the IP address on certain devices. "Depending on the day, there can be a multitude of things," he said.

The NMCI network, which monitors and troubleshoots 300 sites, is 95% switching, and because it's distributed, if a switch goes down, it could take anywhere from two to three hours just to get to it for repairs.

Part of what keeps Crocker going is the uncertainty, he said. "You may think it's one thing if we've had sites go down, everything looked like it was a piece of our equipment, but it was really our Internet provider," he said.

A few months ago, he said, latency between sites was causing problems with email and Internet; for some users it was taking five or six minutes to log on. No one could figure out what was causing it. After a while, Crocker and his team found out that employees were shutting down their PCs at the end of the day, while Windows was pushing updates. When the computer stopped, the updates stopped. The updates would resume when the machines were cut back on, causing traffic jams and introducing latency.

"It's kind of hard to describe what I do on a daily basis," he said. "Some days you may sit there for 12 hours watching CNN. On days when you have nothing to do, it gets boring. But if you're in an IT field and you're bored to death, you're doing your job right. If you're constantly putting out fires, something's wrong."

Crocker is now working toward the CCIE certification, a high-profile and difficult cert to obtain. So far, he's completed the written portion. He plans to take the lab portion of the exam later this year. He's heard the tales of peers taking the lab exam four, five or six times before passing, so he won't be disheartened if he doesn't hit a home run his first time out.

"I won't be discouraged," he said.

In all, Crocker said, obtaining the certifications will help him further his career and broaden his expertise, things he's willing to do to continue on his networking path, a career he said he loves.

"I like what I do," he said. "My dad told me, 'If you like what you do, keep doing it. If it stops being fun, it's time to find something else.'"

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