Why Choose Networking?

This was something I wrote on a forum in response to that question. Consider this to be career guidance for any young person looking to get ahead in the world.

The first time I left teaching, I got into IT. I realized that it was like the Wild West as far as careers went. See, I had a great-grandfather that got to be an engineer for the railroad because there was an opening and he learned quick how to use dynamite. He later found out the opening was created because his predecessor apparently didn’t learn the ins and outs of dynamite quickly enough. No college degree required, no certification exam, just hands-on, can-you-do-it stuff. If you said “yes”, you got a shot at proving yourself. If you were wrong, you didn’t last long. If you were passably good, your career was set.

That’s how it was in the 90’s. If you could spell “PC”, you had at least an entry-level job. As I watched my compensation packages grow from job to job and over year to year, I thought that the pay would eventually draw in millions more people to the profession, like medicine, law, and business had in theirs, and that the requirements for job qualifications would get more stringent. I thought then that, by 2005 or so, everyone would need a CS degree and post-graduate certifications on the lines of a bar exam/MCAT/CPA/brokerage license in order to be a practicing networking professional. Like engineering, the Wild West days would fade to more structured qualification procedures and regimented courses of education, just to weed out the people that wanted the money, but didn’t have the talent.

When I taught economics for 11 years after leaving IT in 2001, I kept up with what careers had good prospects and which ones were getting harder to get in to. I was always pleasantly surprised each year as IT jobs remained hard to fill. People were not flocking to them. If you were a talented person that wanted to rise quickly, relative to other jobs, IT was the way to go. There was a rough patch in the early 2000s when there was the outsourcing craze, but that has passed over and IT jobs are back on native soil. Because of the lack of talent in the field, the jobs are still Wild West jobs. Can you do it? If you don’t blow yourself up, you have the job. If not, consider your last brush with dynamite to be your exit interview.

2008’s crash changed a lot of things. It ended the days when a college degree meant an automatic job, regardless of your major. Those jobs are going, going, and gone, either because the company that did that stuff is closed permanently or because a Python script can now do that same job – which means a business can stay profitable in a recession/depression, but only if it cans the humans that are less productive than a script. Read this, especially if you have children: Oxford report on employment.

The summary is simple: computers are replacing people in low-skill and semi-skilled jobs. Pages 57-72 show a list of jobs and the probability a computer takes it over. Network admins? 3% chance of losing a job to a computer. Compare that to Cashiers at a 97% chance of getting canned in favor of a computerized system. 47% of US jobs are at high levels of risk of being lost to computers, and many of those jobs are where the middle class used to eke out a living.

I wanted to leave teaching in 2013, and because the IT world still had many jobs and few qualified persons, I returned to the Wild West. My teaching job is still there, but it’s no longer the kind of teaching I want to be doing. Although the Oxford survey I cited puts a low chance on teachers being replaced by computers, teaching itself is giving way to online content delivery, with the teacher being a sort of combination child psychologist/prison guard that follows a strict syllabus in lockstep content delivery. My job here in IT still affords me great leeway to apply my professional knowledge and I am happy to say that I am well compensated for my skill.

True, I have to put up with constant recruiter emails, but that’s a nice problem to have. I see people desperate to get minimum-wage jobs where they have to put up with all kinds of awful, picky, petty requirements in order to keep those jobs. I see people crowding into colleges because that was the rat maze path that used to deliver the cheese at the end. They graduate with massive debt, no job, and misery awaiting them as they get in line to get a minimum-wage job where the assistant manager is a guy that started there right out of high school.

Take the same guy that has a knack for thinking well and, instead of putting him into a college, get him to spend a few thousand dollars on equipment and certification materials. After a few months, he’s ready for an entry-level IT job. Salaries there are in the $40K area, well above the average starting salary for a college graduate of $30K, which is down $3K since peaking in 2008. The same guy getting $40K also has no student loans to pay off, so he’s ahead of the recent grad in that respect, as well. If you look at the time spent, college means exchanging four years of drawing a salary in the hope of getting a bigger salary with that degree. Compared to an IT career, it doesn’t add up. The guy that spends a few months getting a CCNA starts out at $40K, and earns that much or more for the next four years while his counterpart is living in a dorm at the university. After those four years, the IT guy can be a CCNP, possibly in multiple areas, and will be contemplating a CCIE and a six-figure income, if he doesn’t have that already. The guy with a BA in some liberal arts area? $30K, *if* he gets a job, and it’s a long, hard slog to the top. A BS in engineering can get a person to the $60-80K area, but that’s still with debt. Meanwhile, our CCNP is already clearing that much or more after 4 years, debt-free. It’s not a life of luxury, but it *is* a life that affords many opportunities and options because of the amount of money being earned.

Let’s say that our networking guy is being considered for a management position and he’d like to get into that area, but he needs a college degree. Guess what? He’s probably now at a company that will pay for his college, provided he makes good grades. Worst case, it’s on his own dime, but he’s earning his way through college the right way, with a full-time job in a career with potential.

That’s why I’m in networking. It offers an exceptionally rapid career development phase for a person with talent. If poets were similarly rewarded with a similar dearth of qualified persons in the profession, I’d be slinging rhymes and anapestic hexameters for a living. They’re not, so I’m a networker. Very early on in networking, you’ll have a job that pays better than 75% of the available jobs out there. That cutoff for that better than 75% number is an annual salary of $50K, by the way. When you hit your stride in the mid-range of IT jobs, you’ll be in the top 10%, easily. Again, it’s not cruising around the world on your yacht as you work remotely 15 minutes per day, but it *is* decent and cheap life insurance quotes, retirement, paid time off, and flexible workplace policies for the most part. Considering the outlay and the return on investment, it’s one of the best things one can do as far as career choice goes.

Yes, I enjoy what I’m doing, but I also know there’s a lot of crap they can throw at me that’s mitigated by my compensation package. This is not a minimum-wage job that I can do no better than the next shlub waiting in line behind me. This is a field in which most employers know that if they’re not offering a good deal that their IT talent can walk out the door at any time and start somewhere else where there is a good deal. This will continue until kids decide that this is where the gold rush is and swarm the profession. That is not likely to happen for two reasons: math and smartphones. People see numbers and they panic, typically. Subnetting turns away most folks not already scared off by the 10 in 10BaseT, let alone the 100 in 100BaseT. Smartphones mean that kids that would have been tinkering with their PCs no longer have those in their hands, so there are far fewer PC/Network gurus in the making among the rising generation than there were in GenX and GenY. It’s going to be wide open for a good, long time, and while I’m not planning on becoming complacent, I’m also not worried about a Python script suddenly doing my job. This is a good field to be in, where merit and talent are proportionately rewarded with quality of work and compensation packages.

If a kid out there can learn to get over the natural human tendency to be afraid of numbers and then gets his hands on a PC and some second-hand routers and switches, he’ll be well-placed to enter a dynamic, rewarding, challenging career in networking. Given the costs and rewards of the alternatives, it’s easy for me to see why one should choose a career in networking.

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