How did you gain your networking expertise?

Feedback to a recent article on certifications indicated that many admins gain valuable knowledge and experience by setting up a home test network. We'd like to know how you set up such a network to prepare for certifications and gain experience.

One of the common assumptions about any profession is that those who work in it followed a particular career path and obtained training specific to their chosen career somewhere along the line. However, in reality, many professionals—including networking professionals—obtain their experience and training off the beaten path.

While IT certifications and formal training play a key role in the success of net admins, many obtain hands-on experience before they ever attend a class on networking and long before they ever take a certification exam. We’d like to hear from you about what steps you’ve taken that deviate from the normal training route to obtain your networking knowledge and skills.

Responses to our recent article on Net+ certification changes and to a follow-up article indicate that many of you acquired some networking experience outside of a formal IT job and outside of the classroom. Many of you noted that setting up a home test network gave you the hands-on experience you needed to land a job in IT and ultimately find success as an IT professional. And in fact, some managers said that they prefer to hire “home cooks” who dabble with networking in their homes.

This kind of experience is obviously valuable, especially in light of the Net+ exam changes that require some practical, hands-on experience. One way to break into the IT field and escape the apparent catch-22 of experience vs. certification is to simulate on-the-job experience—in effect, to create your own experience.

Obtaining experience isn't always easy
One of the biggest challenges facing those in the IT profession is getting the practical experience necessary to get a toehold in the career they want to pursue. The debate that arose from our previous articles was whether it was better to have experience or certifications. A key point that emerged from the discussion was that some combination of the two is essential and that actual hands-on experience of any kind is a big plus.

Members had various suggestions for striking the necessary balance, from setting up home networks to prepping for exams with manuals and study guides to obtaining experience that translates into real-world skills.

Member Rick Brightwell, Level III Server Support Tech for Cingular Wireless, offered his advice for the best way to get ready for the Net+ exam.

“Grab yourself a book, do a little studying, and set up a lab at home or work to play around with.”

Systems engineer Mark White endorsed the home-cook approach.

“I once hired a junior admin not because of the N+ on his resume but because he had built a 17-host network in his basement, running every flavor of Windows and Linux OS, plus an old DEC Alpha and a SPARC 5.”

Feedback like this tells us that those who experiment on their own may have an advantage in the certification and job arenas.

Getting from there to here
It's not always easy to find a formula for success in the IT field, but many of you have found innovative ways to get the experience you need. How many of you are home cooks? How many of you used your home networking hobby to study for certification exams or to get practical, hands-on experience that has helped you on the job? How did you get the practical experience that enabled you to effectively perform your job duties? Let us know what you did to get started by posting a comment below or by sending us an e-mail.

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