Networking

Eight ways to strengthen your Cisco networking skills

Trying to find a Cisco networking position without any experience is very difficult. So how do you get the Cisco experience you need to get your foot in the door? Here are eight ways you can start strengthening your Cisco experience.

In the past couple of weeks, I've written a couple of articles about Cisco certification that generated a lot of response from TechRepublic members. The most recent article, "What you need to know about Cisco's CCNA certification," garnered a lot of excellent comments, many of which focused on gaining experience.

More than once, the old "chicken or the egg" conundrum came to mind as readers asked, "How do I get a Cisco job with no experience, and how do I get Cisco experience without a job?" TechRepublic member nacht probably said it best:

"What you have here is a chicken and egg problem: You can't get the experience because you don't have the certification, but the certification doesn't help when you don't have 'enough' experience."

This really highlights the problem that so many aspiring network engineers have when they're starting out. Member PhilTkgh said not to bother with earning a CCNA unless you have the experience. Member llapi2000 said the key point was finding a way to get experience because employers won't hire you unless you have it.

So how do you get the Cisco experience you need to get your foot in the door? Here are eight ways you can start strengthening your Cisco experience.

#1: Work for free

Two years ago, a friend of mine had no Cisco networking knowledge; today, he earns a significant salary as a network engineer. What happened? He got his experience by volunteering to work on Cisco equipment for free.

In his case, he volunteered at his church. Someone donated a Cisco VoIP Call Manager and phones, along with a bunch of Cisco switches, to the church. While working at the church in another area, he spent his spare time reading and researching the new Cisco equipment, learned how it worked, hooked it up, and managed to earn his CCNA certification in the process. After a number of months maintaining the system, he found a full-time job as a network engineer.

In other words, one way to get Cisco experience is to offer to help for free. Let's say you're a Windows expert. Plenty organizations out there need your help, and many of them also have Cisco equipment. Besides doing good by helping a local organization, you can also gain valuable experience that you can list on your resume and use during a technical interview.

#2: Use simulators or rent a rack

Member Rand777 said that one way to get experience is to rent racks of Cisco equipment online. For more information, read my article on the subject, "Rent Cisco practice racks from online providers."

A less expensive option is to use a Cisco IOS simulator, which imitates a rack of Cisco routers and switches. Here's list of eight Cisco IOS simulators.

I've heard that the CCNA exam has a number of simulation questions these days, so either of these options is a good idea. However, it's not enough to just pay the money; you have to push yourself to use the equipment to learn more about Cisco networking.

#3: Buy used routers and build a home lab

Member Bill Pate argued that the best way to get experience was to build a home lab. It doesn't get much better than having your own rack of routers, which can be surprisingly inexpensive. Member wade.alexandro pointed out that you can often pick up 2500 series routers for about $25 each.

#4: Volunteer at work

Member j.s.davis recommended befriending fellow admins at work, and I couldn't agree more. Perhaps your networking department could use some help shipping routers or taking inventory of hardware. No matter how small the department is, there may be some way you could help and get your foot in the door. An offer of free help can go a long way.

#5: Attend the Cisco Networking Academy

Member c.stockwell recommended attending the Cisco Network Academy. This is an excellent place to start gaining some experience working on real routers and switches. In addition, it's a great opportunity to network with students, instructors, and potential employers.

#6: Make new friends

Find ways to make friends who use Cisco routers and switches. This is a great way to learn more, gain experience, and maybe find someone who will give you a chance even though you have limited experience. Use social networking on the Web, or join a local Cisco users' group.

For example, in my area, we have the popular DFW Cisco Users Group. And there are Cisco user groups around the United States and the world.

What if there isn't a user group in your area? You can start your own group with as few as 10 people and begin receiving benefits from Cisco Press.

#7: Participate in forums

There's a plethora of Cisco-specific forums on the Internet where you can learn more about Cisco networking. In addition, you can share your knowledge by helping others with Cisco questions. While that doesn't automatically give you experience, it does get your name out there and help you network with others. Maybe you'll even meet a future employer by volunteering to help with a networking issue.

Here are some forums I recommend:

#8: Start at the bottom

Member michael.brodock said that one of the best ways to get experience is to start from the bottom. If you really want to break into a new field and get experience, sometimes you're going to have to suck it up and start from scratch. This often means taking a pay cut and starting over at the bottom of the ladder.

But look on the bright side: The bottom is also where the most openings are, and where you have more opportunity to get into the field.

Summary

Trying to find a Cisco networking position without any experience is very difficult — even if you have a CCNA certification. However, there are many things you can do to network, promote yourself, and gain Cisco networking experience. Don't get caught in the "chicken or the egg" conundrum.

David Davis has worked in the IT industry for more than 12 years and holds several certifications, including CCIE, MCSE+I, CISSP, CCNA, CCDA, and CCNP. He currently manages a group of systems/network administrators for a privately owned retail company and performs networking/systems consulting on a part-time basis.

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