Computer Networking, IT Infrastructure and Your IT Career: You’ve Got to Start Somewhere

by James Stanger | Nov 16, 2018

A man takes the first step toward his IT careerAs a graduate student in 1992, I got a part-time job at the University of California (UC) Riverside working on the internet. Specifically, I worked for a guy named Dr. Henry Snyder of the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research (CBSR), where I helped build (in a very small way) an online database called the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC). You could say that Dr. Snyder helped Google-ize all of the titles of books published in the United Kingdom and Europe between 1473 (the beginning of the hand-press period) and 1800 (more or less the end of the hand-press period).

Yeah, I know that sounds a bit early for someone to say that they had worked on the internet and databases back in 1992. But that really happened. Most folks didn’t start using the internet until the mid-nineties, right? But I got lucky: Dr. Snyder decided I was worth employing and started me on a longer journey than I ever thought possible. He ended up teaching me about more than 17th- and 18th-century history. He and his employees taught me how databases and the Internet worked. All of the underlying protocols. And, they taught me how to get creative, and how that creativity can end up benefitting people around the world.

For Dr. Snyder’s patient work helping me learn the internet and British history, Queen Elizabeth the II gave him an O.B.E of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services worldwide. No joke. Can you believe that? Just kidding – Henry received the O.B.E because of his pioneering work in digitizing historical resources for the United Kingdom. His noble work with yours truly was, at best, a (relatively) minor consideration. …

From PCs to Computer Networking

I remember him trying to teach me the concept of databases, networks and how computers worked. I was already pretty savvy about how a PC worked. In fact, I would fix Dr. Snyder’s computer now and again. He had a really, really temperamental old CD tower drive. It was a huge thing – about the size of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember diagnosing its problems and discovering that it had a loose connection on the back that was too expensive to fix. So, what did I do? I put a sticky note on the top of the thing that said, “Never touch this drive.” It was a fix that worked for years.

But I was worthless when it came to understanding networking and its foundations. In fact, I was pretty dismissive about the whole internet thing. After all, what’s the point of having computers communicate with each other? Isn’t that what phones are for?

When I asked him why this internet thing was a big deal, I remember how Henry decided to get all “Foundations of the Internet” on me. He trotted out a bunch of old books from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries to get started.

I still remember the sound of the cracking of the bindings, and the smell of the old leather covers. He used these antiquarian books to show how one computer communicates with another. I remember him saying, “You know, back in the day, these books were cutting-edge technology. Now look where we are!”

He then got out some pieces of twine to connect the books together and explain the protocols used. It was really amazing to see him describe his vision of how books in libraries around the world would one day be cross-indexed and searchable, allowing people to learn more about history than ever before.

Learning Computer Networking Basics

He realized I didn’t quite understand how computers talked to each other. So, he and some of his co-workers explained how they have to translate their unique MAC addresses with logical IP addresses.

He did so by explaining how the British Library has a physical address as well as a well-known name. He said that as humans, we can resolve these two things together, and computers, he said, have to do the same thing. He was very clever at analogies. I remember thinking about his analogies as I viewed files uploading across the internet at the incredibly fast pace of 36.4 Kbps. Ah, how infrastructure and networking has progressed these days!

Throughout all these mini-lessons and mini-bootcamps, Dr. Snyder and his co-workers inspired me. First, he taught me protocols such as Gopher, and Kermit, and eventually Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), and this “new thing called the web.” He also inspired me to want to teach this stuff.

Whenever I find time, I try to do the same thing to help other folks learn about technology. The problem is, my analogies are never as good as his. Thankfully I was able to take my foundational knowledge of networking and push it to the next level.

Networking as a Foundation for Cybersecurity

A few years after I worked for Dr. Snyder, I decided to pursue networking and the internet as a career. I took the CompTIA A+ exam and the then-relatively new CompTIA Network+ exam.

I remember when I passed them – it felt so good. As I studied about networking, I thought how I now fully understood how Henry’s databases really worked and how that little office in the basement of Rivera Library at UC Riverside was able to communicate with the British Library and other sites worldwide.

These days, I’m on a few advisory councils, including for Southern California’s Cerritos College, Utah’s Snow College and American Public University Systems (APUS), and even a couple of learning institutions in the United Kingdom. In fact, I was able to visit the British Museum and the British Library a few weeks ago after giving a lecture to students in the Cyber Ready program.

James takes a selfie with the Cyber Ready students

I can’t tell you how cool it was to talk about how they need to focus on essential infrastructure and endpoint concepts before they stampede into cybersecurity. I even discussed how when ransomware “beacons,” it’s messing around with Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) packets. And, if you don’t know ARP, then you have a serious hole in your knowledge. You’ve got to start with the basics, right?

Supporting Post-Modern Computer Networks

One topic I’ve seen repeated in these advisory councils is the importance of providing students a detailed, authoritative pathway that teaches how to support today’s (post)modern networking environments.

As I participate in these councils and travel worldwide to talk about the internet, the CompTIA Infrastructure Career Pathway and cybersecurity, I sometimes think about how I’m going further down the path that Dr. Snyder showed me. I think about how endpoints have changed so radically from those old PCs and wired connections to internet of things (IoT) devices connecting (soon) via 5G networks.

I’ve been able to recommend approaches such as the CompTIA IT Fundamentals+ (ITF+) education program, for example, which has morphed and modernized big time. Similar to Steve Harper, I sure wish it had been available when I was first starting out – I love how it covers networking protocols, but also databases, endpoints and even a bit of programming/scripting.

Educators and network professionals worldwide have been talking about the latest advances in endpoints, switching, routing and IP for decades now. But it’s always surprising – and immensely pleasing – to see how today’s networking professionals have gone beyond the “Let’s go with Cisco,” or “Let’s teach AWS now” types of discussions.

Instead, the conversations focus on very different questions:

  • What skills do students need to learn to better support cloud-based solutions?
  • When it comes to network resilience, what are the protocols students need to learn?
  • How do network professionals create more resilient networks today?
  • Now that we’re seeing IoT impact networks, what do we need to teach about how endpoints communicate via IPv6 today?

It’s been gratifying – and a little spooky– to see how these discussions match those that CompTIA Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) have been having as they update the CompTIA ITF+, A+ and Network+ exams. It’s really cool to see people catch the vision of networking – it’s like they’ve continued down the road that Dr. Snyder set me on all those years ago.

One thing I’ve noticed in these discussions is the importance of creating a solid foundation in networking before moving on to other things. I think that’s vital; too often, I’ve had conversations with IT pros who have incredibly deep knowledge in certain areas – such as databases – but still don’t quite understand IP addressing, how the Domain Name System (DNS) works, and even how endpoints use ARP.

In fact, in my upcoming Office Hours with James webinar, I’ll be covering the essentials – and a few more things – of network monitoring

We’ll be discussing Wireshark, as well as network-monitoring tools such as Ntopng, iftop, nethogs, iptraf, Monitorix and more. I’m hoping you’ll find it to be a rewarding way to spend your time, especially if you’ve got the right foundation in IP addressing, ARP and how TCP and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) work. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the CompTIA ITF+ or CompTIA Network+ or CompTIA Linux+ level. Just join in and start learning.

Also, if you’re reading this after November 20, don’t worry: The webinar will be available on demand; just register, and you can view it as time permits.

Enjoy, and all the best as you continue your IT networking journey!

Register today for the November Office Hours with James.

6 Comments

  • Andrew Gifford

    Sunday, November 25, 2018

    Hi James! I happened upon your article while looking some things up about certifications. Many of the links you provided and your story has been very helpful, especially the laying out the order of advancement and learning. As far as my computer knowledge goes, I can build and fix most computers, set up home networks etc and generally know my way around computers. I am disabled though and was looking to work on computer certifications to further my education and possibly obtain a job that would let me work from home ( I know high goals lol ). If I am correct, according to your roadmap, I should be starting out with the CompTIA IT Fundamentals. I like the road map you laid out showing the pathway to take. Would this be the best course for me to start with and would you suggest anything else I should maybe learn or take along with that course? I have seen a lot of articles suggesting to go for the CCNA and a few others first. I am trying to figure out the best one to start with and with all the information and suggestions out there it is difficult to determine where to start. I want to make sure I have learned and have a solid foundation of the fundamentals before moving on to the more in depth classes. Thank you for your article and your time. I appreciate any advice or direction you could give me. Thank you!! Andy

  • James Stanger

    Monday, November 26, 2018

    Great to hear from you, Andrew! You know, it's always good to set lofty goals - and with effort, you can certainly achieve them! The infrastructure and cybersecurity pathways are pretty cool, aren't they? They're a terrific place for you to start. We wanted to create an authoritative, well-defined set of paths, because our research has shown that IT pros haven't been given a clear set of options; traditionally, folks have found that it has been kind of a "forge your own trail" sort of approach for a long time. The pathways are designed for you to enter at the best place for your own situation. So, consider your history. If you already have some good networking and "end point knowledge (e.g., you already know Windows 10 or Linux pretty well), then maybe you can skip ITF+ and get right into A+ or even Network+. If you're just starting down the infrastructure pathway or need a refresher, then ITF+ might be a good place to start. ITF+, A+ and Network+ make for a terrific foundation for you to continue on to something such as CCNA or even AWS training and certification. We've found that if folks go into a vendor's program too quickly, they tend to have gaps in their knowledge. I've noticed that in my own IT life. So, I'd focus on learning how end points and basic networks operate (e.g., A+), then focus on how these end points work together (e.g., Network+). Most of all, focus on practicing what you learn using practical labs. That will get you good experience. One thing you can do is get some virtualization going with VMWare, VirtualBox, or AWS. Then, you can start getting practical knowledge of how things work together, and how to troubleshoot them when they don't work together well! Keep me posted, man, on how things are going! You can follow me on Twitter (@jamesstanger), or on LinkedIn, if you wish. All the best!

  • Dustin Newt

    Friday, November 30, 2018

    Hi James, This article was truly a great read and very informative! I recently got my CompTIA A+ Certification and have started working on earning my Network+ Cert before I finish my military service as an IT Systems Tech. Unfortunately some of the concepts behind Net+ have been a bit confusing, but I figured it might be because of the large amount of information on the subject of Networks and whatnot. What kind of study tips and resources do you feel help with mastering the concepts behind networks? I currently have the latest Net+ edition from Mike Meyers and have the companion videos to the books. Thank you for your time and hard work!

  • Trevor Smith

    Saturday, December 1, 2018

    I couldn't agree with James more. As being myself a disabled person who grew up with braces on my legs until I was 13, was only 4'5 until senior year, and was born with a half dozen disabilities of physical, learning, and mental like ADD, ADHD, nonverbal, and autism to name a few I know what it's like to feel like the world is very hard and I know what it feels like when people look down upon you like you can't do anything!! . believe me I know, and I always just wanted to wait til the day I was better than them. I was lucky enough to go to a now defunct boarding school in Williston, VT called Pine Ridge School and it taught me the skills to excel. CompTIA however taught me the skills to success. CompTIA's core offering as I called them the "Trifecta Fundementals" being the A+, Network+, and Security+ are needed for you to have the baseline skill to perform analytical troubleshooting, a taste of advanced level thinking and security, as-well as the soft skills needed in all of the more advanced IT training. Plus being able to under the flows of all aspects of IT is a talent that helps you in more ways than you can imagine, trust me. A number of years ago I was very hungry just like you and I wanted to wear the big boy pants and just say "put me in a Data Center coach and let me do it" but there is a lot of moving parts. I'm very glad I did do those three 1st and also the now defunct Storage+ before moving into a higher level certification, VMware. I'm now after lots of work a VMware VCP 5/6 DCV and VCP 6 NV cloud engineer and frankly it would have been possible to study for those course without CompTIA but I don't regret the decision to have CompTIA as the framework. I've recently passed the CompTIA CySA+ and currently on track for the CompTIA CASP+ journey and I think that what CompTIA offers is something that is not appreciated enough in the industry and I'm so glad they now have the CySA+ and Pentest+ course that augments the CASP+ exam. I personally feel that once the CASP+ is behind me and the PenTest+ that my next conquest the MCSE: 2016 will be much easier. As my advancement further down the track into VMware goes in my personal pursuit of a Cloud Architect the foundation knowledge gained from CompTIA's will always be a cornerstone I'll never forget. :) If I could give you any pointers: 1. It would be to read 1:30 hours a day and then decompress or take a nap for 22 minutes before reading again. Google 22 minute naps, there is pure science behind it. 2. Don't just read books check out Udemy, ITPro.TV, Pluralsight and watch those videos until your eyes bleed. 3. Schedule the exam you procrastinator! -- yup I said it and you know what I'm talking about, the biggest motivation hurdle is to set a date two months out and schedule the exam. Once you have it scheduled and paid for you more motivated to study and prep. Otherwise your always like "I'll do it tomorrow and tomorrow never comes". In closing, if you ever want inspiration and to learn check out my blog: https://www.G15IT.com and my twitter handle is @Mid_Hudson_IT -Trevor Smith

  • James Stanger

    Tuesday, December 4, 2018

    Thanks, Dustin, for reading the article - glad you enjoyed it, man! Yeah, some of the concepts in Network+ are a bit . . . involved, aren't they? Here are a few ideas for moving forward: 1. The best thing you can do is find ways to implement some of these concepts practically. Using a Windows or Linux system, reconfigure it for manual IP addressing, and then for DHCP. Configure a basic DHCP server. Also, read: Some of the resources I like to use include reading the original Request for Comments (RFC) documents for the protocols (http://rfc-editor.org). I also like to grab resources of the Web and also formally-published books and compare them. You've found a terrific author in Mike - now supplement what he has to say with other authors, and cross-reference them. Implement the ideas and concepts, as I said earlier, in an operating system or two. Then, you'll find these things come together in your mind nicely. Also, try looking into good YouTube resources put out by respected authors and authorities. 2. Grab a mentor: Get someone who can answer a question or two, or point you in the right direction. See if you can befriend a network admin; if I know my IT Pros, you'll find that he or she will be happy to share resources, ideas, and ideas. If you're interested, join in my Office Hours with James sessions each month. Those might be good ways for you to see how some of these protocols work. Great to hear that you're learning networking - keep me posted! James

  • James Stanger

    Tuesday, December 4, 2018

    Great points, Devin! I think one of the best things you can do (between naps, I'll grant you) is to get has hands-on as you can with the knowledge that you gain. It's very good to read from good authorities. Once you've read the stuff, put it in motion by grabbing some networking equipment (e.g., a switch or router or hub and a few computers/mobile phones) and start connecting them. You'll be surprised how quickly things will start coming together. All the best, and keep plugging away, James

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