Interview – Interview with Gian Paolo Boarina

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Hi Gian Paolo,

Welcome to Networkcareer!

Where do you work and what’s your role?

Hi everybody, I work for SAIV, a system integrator/VAR in the north-east region of Italy. My company recently joined Axians so now we’re in a transition phase from a small company to a big multinational with over 8k employees. I’ve been working in SAIV for almost 10 years now. I started as junior network engineer then moved to a senior position, project manager and now I’m the assistant of the technical manager.

What kind of roles and work did you do before arriving at AXIANS-SAIV?

Before joining SAIV in 2007 I worked at a computer shop fixing and assembling computers. After that I got my Microsoft MCP certification and started a new role as Sysadmin for a few years. That’s when I fell in love with networking, got my CCNA and moved to another company to get a chance to have some experience. Thanks to that experience I had the opportunity to join SAIV and start a career in networking. The two lawswere quite real at the time.

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

Technical certifications where the differentiation point for my career. They were not easy to achieve in late 90s/early 2k. I’d tell my younger self to start earlier. A CCNA in year 2k was a big deal.

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

In my point of view the most important skills are soft skills. That may sound strange for someone who works with technology most of the time but I think hard skills are somehow easier to acquire. Soft skills require to change how you relate to other people, to inspire confidence and trust and that’s quite hard to learn.

I worked for almost four years in a remote support position using Dameware, remotecmd and phone. I was in my twenties and on the other side of the phone I had bank directors quite upset with a long queue of people in front of them and computers not working. That’s a classical scenario where you either learn to swim or to drink. At the time I was a bit scared but now I think that was a great experience that improved my communications and stress management skills very much.

Many people panic or lose their mind in front of stressful or unknown situations. That’s the moment when your mind must be clear and training kicks-in with a structured problem-solving approach and cold nerves.

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

I don’t have an university degree and I know many IT professionals that don’t have it either, or have one in a complete different field. I think a degree really helps today but when I started my career some technical certifications and field experience lead to better roles and salaries than a degree.

Missing a degree may be a problem later if you want to move to a manager position, it really depends on the company you work for.

I think that today if you really want to learn networking, in a market that change so fast, there’s plenty of high quality study material available for free or very cheap. A degree looks like a nice to have optional, not a strict requirement for a technical career.

What about certifications? Are they losing their value?

Certifications are a big topic for discussion, the would deserve more than a few lines. How much space do I have? 😉

Let’s start from the beginning: certifications were created by vendors to ensure people would be able to sell and install their products with a guaranteed level of quality.

Certifications then became a differentiation factor for any professionals willing to start a career or to prove skills acquired on the field over the years.

Then all the system got messed up. Vendors started to require partners to do (too) many certifications, people started cheating to get the certifications without study or experience, partners loosen their requirements to hire “paper-certified” people to fulfill the vendor requirements, CCIEs rented their digits.. that was bad.

I think now we’re in a more mature phase. Companies need actual skills to be in business so interviews are harder and cheaters are spotted at the first few questions. Nobody likes to pay a CCIE who can’t do even basic tasks.

But on the other hand there’re too many certifications now and it may be hard to find a path that maintains value over time. That’s like currency, you should invest in the ones that you believe will keep more value, it depends on the vendor behind them.

My advice is to use the certifications as a tool. They provide a structured learning path to acquire the skills that are useful at the beginning of the career and could be used to validate expert skills – like CCIE and CCDE for example.

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

The skillset is changing indeed but I’m not sold at the idea that neteng will be forced to be a developer eventually. I write scripts, I automate where I can but I’m not a developer.

I think the most important skill today is to understand the business you’re in and find a way to add value to the whole business process. That’s the one skill that will improve your career.

What skills are important for Network Architects?

I think as an Architect it is important to understand the basics of how networks really work, ARP, TCP, routing and so on. But it is also important to abstract, take a step back and look of the whole picture.

A common error I see when I discuss architectures with the customers is the lack of consideration of scalability and maintainability of the design. It’s easy to get excited with the brand new cool technology but the Architect must keep in mind that someone will have to maintain and troubleshoot the network they design, that’s a big responsibility. An Architect should know what to add and what to remove from the design, or deploy a roadmap of incremental steps to reach the final goal while having time to train people and fix issues during implementation.

I’ve never worked a full time Network Architect, usually I do design and part or all the implementation, that’s the reason why I prefer solid over risky designs, unless a more brave approach is discussed and shared with the customer.

But keep in mind vendor recommendations are sometimes just recommendations, with a strong tech background and the right approach it is possible to push the technologies where nobody have been before and create a new path. I did myself a couple of not-recommended design that ended quite well, I’m proud of that.

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

Generalist may sound as bad attribute, it comes to mind “one mile wide, one inch deep”, but I prefer the “”Jack of all trades, master of none…is oftentimes better than master of one” approach.

Let’s be clear: a generalist is not someone without skills, it’s someone very curious, with an “hacker mind” who wants to learn outside the boundaries of his/her title or position. You can see them as the “default gateway” everybody calls when they need an advice.

The uber-expert will always be an important part of every project, he/she knows how to make a specific piece of hardware or software work.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance of the experts, but it’s the generalist that can bridge the business requirements and the technical solutions to deliver the expected results.

So I’m proud to define myself a generalist, that means I can add value on more than one field 😉

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

As I said before soft skills are the most important skills. I can list stress and time management as the two most important ones followed by communication skills and a clear understanding of how you can contribute to the business you’re working in.

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

Definitely not. I had the opportunity to work with some SDN and orchestration tools, there’d still a lot of work to do in the underlay and to troubleshoot when the GUI fails. And it fails.

SDN will create space for less skilled (net)workers with that will allow experienced one to move up the ladder.

In my dark days I see a future scenario where vendors will hide everything under a nice GUI, professionals and customers will just be “button pushers” and experts will work for vendor’s technical support/professional services where all the knowledge will be. But I hope that will not happen.

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

Coding and scripting are skills most network engineers already have today. The reason is simple: typing on the CLI is a boring and error-prone activity, an hacker mind does its best to avoid that kind of tasks so code/script is the way to go.

I personally write Python and bash scripts, nothing too complex with thousands line of code but enough to save me thousands of lines of CLI commands and a good amount of typing errors. I think that reason is enough to step out the comfort zone and start learning something new.

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

That is a great question. Every day something new and cool comes out from the networking industry. If you take security in account it’s a continuous feed of information very hard to manage.

I personally use the best filter available today: the great network professionals communities.

I trust my fellow network engineers to keep me updated, via Twitter most of the time, and to filter the useless marketing advertisement. I must admit this is working quite well so far.

On my feed I can find all the best vendor announcements, blog posts and links to the most useful and updated documentations.

I try to contribute myself sharing what I find and writing blog posts to give back to the community.

Social media can be a huge wasting of time but this is an example of how many people who share the same passion can do something beautiful and useful that improves the quality of the work of strangers worldwide. Keep up the good work tweeps!

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

Follow you passion, find a mentor and a study buddy, don’t give up if the results don’t come soon, sometimes the opportunities arrive late but good work is always rewarded, be positive.

Thanks to Gian Paolo and @gp_ifconfig on Twitter and his blog is at www.ifconfig.it

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