Interview – Interview with Malcolm Booden

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Hi Malcolm,

Welcome to Networkcareer!

Where do you work and what’s your role?

I currently work at a network integrator called Provista who are a Cisco gold partner based in Scotland (UK). My job role is Solutions Architect where I act as a design authority for the Provista core (DC hosting, MPLS and ISP peering) and our customers’ networks, producing high and low level designs mainly across LAN, WAN, security, DC and wireless technologies.

At the time of writing I’ve been seconded into the projects team for a few months to deliver an SD-WAN project, so I’m also excited about this!

In addition to customer facing and internal design projects, I also operate as a final technical escalation point for customer related design, project delivery and occasionally operational issues so the role is very varied and keeps me technically sharp, which I enjoy.

What kind of roles and work did you do before arriving at Provista?

My first job in the IT industry was an IT Support Engineer role at a UK based construction company where I worked for 6 years and the final 2 years of that were as a Network Administrator. There was around 300 network connected sites via MPLS and IPSec VPN, along with a DC network which hosted our infrastructure servers and perimeter security within the HQ. Since then I have worked with Atos as a Senior Network Projects Engineer, Intrinsic Technology (Cisco Gold) as a Network Consultant / Technical Architect and finally a Network Architect for an ISP called Updata. In that I role operated as a TDA on bespoke regional MPLS core networks for public sector / government organisations in the UK.

I’ll be putting some articles out in the future on the Network Careers site explaining my different roles and what was involved, so I won’t dwell too much on this for now!

What have you learned in your career so far that you would like to tell the younger you?

Work hard.

Be positive, honest, humble and helpful wherever possible.

Avoid office politics.

Find a good mentor who you trust and stay in touch with them every few weeks even if you don’t work together directly.

Reach out and ask people stuff, leave egos at the door, accept being wrong and learn from it, but don’t beat yourself up or dwell on things.

What are the most important skills you have picked up in your career so far?

Aside from learning about multiple IT related technologies, being able to articulate complex solutions to different audiences from detailed technical engineering to exec CXO level is integral to my current role.

I find that in many technical discussions (high or low level) a picture tells a thousand words; therefore, I would recommend a good approach and skill to take into many situations is using a whiteboard to draw a quick diagram, then explain what’s in the picture. This also saves time as opposed to lengthy email / IM exchanges or phone calls trying to explain something which is complex.

Communication skills are key and it’s important to be able to communicate across any medium in the correct way. IM / Phone / Email has their place and for me personally in that order – I try to use email as a last resort or if it’s low priority / to communicate that I’ve shared a file or something!

What’s your opinion on degrees? Are they useful for someone in the networking industry?

Obtaining a degree was my first notable academic success and therefore I personally value having a degree. Being honest I was probably an unlikely candidate to obtain one, given I left school at 16 years old with minimal qualifications.

It was not easy as although I was academically capable, studying, reading and taking exams did not and still to an extent doesn’t come naturally. I’m more of a practical person who likes to be shown how things work and figure out the best way to problem solve by “doing” rather than solely reading books.

Looking back now though, I highly value the skills I gained throughout my degree and have only good things to say looking back as it has been a door opener for me. Also, nobody can take a degree away from me, but certifications expire, which leads me onto the next question…

What about certifications? Are they losing their value?

Certifications have played a huge part in changing my life in respect to opening doors and providing opportunities.

Perhaps some of the traditional certifications should be supplemented by more cutting edge technology certs. If you only have a CCNP R/S and CCDP then look at doing an AWS Solutions Architect certification for example.

Whatever you do, don’t think “networking is done, I’ll let those expire as everything is automation or cloud based now and forever”.

You can’t automate something effectively that you can’t configure manually (in my opinion) and certification is what makes people disciplined in learning the tech. The goal is to pass the exam and to pass the exam you must learn the technology.

In summary, I do not believe certifications are losing their value as they provide constant development for candidates and benchmarking for employers.

Is the skillset of network engineers changing? What skills are important to have in the coming years?

The fundamentals which network engineers need to have are the same and will not change but are being supplemented with new tools and approaches to deliver solutions differently than in the past.

It’s something new to learn where most of us have done this our entire career – learned new skills and technologies.

I’d suggest learning about cloud networking but not just how they work. Be that person who can not only list off the endless positives about moving to the cloud or but also highlight the risks around security, compliance, feature parity to on-prem equivalents of the cloud service.

Know the pros / cons and be able to provide a balanced assessment and recommendation based on facts and requirements.

What skills are important for Network Architects?

I progressed into an architect role from being an IT generalist on the service desk, then a field engineer and eventually into a network specialist and although I don’t think that route is imperative, what it taught me is the impact is to end users of something network related not working.

If a network consistently falls over and/or is unavailable then it’s not just about a link being down – companies cannot transact business and remember transaction of business pays your salary. It is a Network Architect’s job to understand this and design the network, ensuring it meets the business requirements in respect to performance, availability and scalability.

From a technology perspective, I believe it’s imperative to have previously deployed most technologies you are designing and have around 5 – 7 years’ experience producing LLDs / interpreting HLDs prior to moving into architecture. This is not prescriptive but seems to be generally how I have seen my colleague’s careers taking shape (and my own).

Will the need for networking experts go away? Is it better to be a generalist than an expert?

The need for networking experts will not go away, but how the solutions are delivered will change.

Things are changing – there’s no doubt about that; however, the fundamentals remain the same.

You can’t be an expert in everything, but being competent in most areas of networking and having the ability to delve deeper when required, combined with expertise in one or two specific areas is a good combination.

I would say that having expertise in security, data centre or wireless technologies would be a good career path to pursue and specialist skills in these areas (but not limited to) will be in high demand over the next 5 years or so.

What do you think of soft skills? Do we need them in the networking industry? If so, which ones are the most important?

The concept of soft skills is straight forward for me and natural soft skills are something you’re either born with or have to develop which comes with experience – I fell into the latter category and have developed mine over time by being exposed to many different situations – some high pressure, some not so much.

My simple advice around soft skills would be…

Listen carefully to colleagues and customers, don’t react immediately if you’re unsure or annoyed at something (we’re all human!) – it’s OK to take something away for consideration then come back with a well thought out / optimal answer and finally focus on solving problems rather than making them or being negative.

With SDN, orchestration etc. can we throw the “traditional” networking knowledge out the window? Why or why not?

No, because SDN is still based around the foundational skills, technology and protocols associated with “traditional” network engineering.

Understanding what is going on behind a pretty GUI is extremely important for many roles from engineer up to architect level.

Having the traditional networking knowledge allows for a good understanding of expected protocol and traffic flow behavior, where these affect design and operational tasks / challenges.

Should someone in the networking industry learn to code? Why or why not? What is your language of choice?

I want to say yes, but being honest I haven’t really made it far down this route yet other than investigating some automation tools such as Ansible which includes some coding logic, so I’m not really in a position yet to give solid advice.

I have other projects on right now and for the next 6-8 months, but it’s my intention to investigate learning to code “something” later in 2017 or early 2018.

Some feedback I’ve had within the industry when speaking to peers who are coding, is that full data centres can be stood up within a matter of hours – on prem and cloud based.

I’m sure others on the Network Careers site will have more useful input on this subject matter than myself right now, but it’s on my radar!

What’s your best advice for staying updated in the networking industry? How do you stop the sipping from the firehose?

When the next project comes in for cutting-edge technology that everyone else runs 100 miles from, volunteer yourself to lead it. I’ve noticed a trend over the years where some engineers just do not like change, stick to what they know and avoid these types of projects, but you need to move with the times as if you don’t then there’s a danger of becoming irrelevant.

Never stop learning and continuously develop yourself via self-study, whether it’s technology related or otherwise.

Attend webinars, local meetups / study groups and technology updates from the leading vendors in the industry when possible to keep updated with where things are heading.

Before we close out. What would you want to give as a final piece of advice to the NC readers?

Network engineering and design is a very interesting and fulfilling career path that will bring lots of challenges along the way.

We live in an age where it is easy to reach out to people to ask for their advice so utilize the social networks which are at your fingertips. Use LinkedIn, Twitter, CLN, Slack etc. to meet new peers and friends with common interests to help you work towards your goals.

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