Hi Kevin Wallace,
Welcome to Networkcareer!
Where do you work and what’s your role?
Back in 2014, I left a full-time job to start my own company. So, to answer your question, I’m the Owner of Kevin Wallace Training, LLC. What I do is write books and create video training courses for IT professionals, so they can earn certifications and advance in their career.
What kind of roles and work did you do before starting Kevin Wallace Training?
After college, where I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering, I went to work at GTE laboratories. My intent was to focus on telecommunications throughout my career. After leaving GTE, I went to work at Eastern Kentucky University and thought I was going to be the engineer that took care of their phone system. However, to my surprise, they also wanted me to build from scratch the university’s first data network. So, in 1989 I first laid hands on a Cisco router. It was an old Cisco AGS+ router, and I loved it. Over the next few years, I did more and more with Cisco routers and switches and decided to shift my career focus from telephony to data networking. My experience at EKU helped me get my dream job as a Network Designer at Walt Disney World in Florida. My family and I are huge Disney fans, and it was a great experience to work there. However, we needed to move back to Kentucky to take care of my mother, who was in poor health. Shortly after coming back to Kentucky, I got a job as a Lead Instructor teaching Cisco courses for KnowledgeNet, a Cisco Learning Partner. There were some acquisitions over the years, where KnowledgeNet was bought by Thomson NETg, and the Live Learning division of Thomson NETg was later acquired by Skillsoft. Throughout that time, I taught a variety of Cisco courses, focusing on route/switch and collaboration technologies. I was in that job for about fourteen years. During my time there, I picked up several Cisco certs, including CCIEs in route/switch and collaboration. While working there though, I was also writing books and creating video courses for Cisco Press/Pearson IT Certification. Then, in 2014, I decided to step away from Skillsoft and spend all my time writing books and creating video training courses, and that brings us up to today.
What have you learned in your career so far that you would like to tell the younger you?
When I was working on my BSEE degree in college, I incorrectly assumed that as soon as I graduated, I could pick from multiple job offers. That was definitely not the case. Instead, I received 50 rejection letters before I finally got the job at GTE Labs. By the way, that job was through a temporary agency, where I got low pay and no benefits. Back in college, I didn’t realize the importance of getting experience while still in school. So, I would tell my younger self to seek out internships while taking my college courses. The other big piece of advice I’d give my younger self is not to assume management is necessarily a rung on everyone’s career ladder. When I was at EKU, I spent the first few years, learning, installing, troubleshooting, and designing networks. It was a blast. But eventually, a management position became available, and I thought moving into management was the next logical step in my career. Unfortunately, managing other people was not my strong suit. What I didn’t understand was that I could still be financially successful, and make more money than that management position paid, while still being a hands-on engineer. However, that success might be with a different company, Disney in my case.
What are the most important skills you have picked up in your career so far?
It might seem odd, but the first skill that comes to mind is typing. When I first started working on computers back in high school, I did “hunt and peck” typing. Then, I took a typing course, which dramatically increased my speed. In fact, after passing one of my CCIE labs, it occurred to me that there would be no way for me to have passed that lab if I hadn’t learned to type fast. Another skill was learning to simplify complex concepts, and teach those concepts to others. My favorite Einstein quote is, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I think of that quote often as I’m writing books or shooting videos, and ask myself how I can use stories and metaphors to communicate technical topics.
What’s your opinion on degrees? Are they useful for someone in the networking industry?
I’m a big fan of college degrees. One reason is, if I didn’t have my BSEE, I wouldn’t have gotten the job at EKU, which is where I started to learn about Cisco routers. However, I don’t think degrees are for everyone. The big advantage of having a degree is you have more potential job openings you can apply for. The big disadvantage of having a degree is it takes years to earn and doesn’t necessarily equip you to work with current network technologies. So, my general advice… and I say “general,” because everyone’s situation is different… but in general, I recommend someone under the age of 25 get their degree. However, while they’re working on their degree, I think they should also be working on earning one or more Cisco certifications, like the CCNA R/S cert. If someone is over 25, I recommend that they jump right into certifications, and that they go deep into track they’re interested in, rather than going shallow… like picking up multiple CCNA certs in different tracks.
What about certifications? Are they losing their value?
I think having certifications are critical for a couple of reasons. First, let’s say you’re applying for a job, and you’re one of the candidates in the final round of interviews. Having higher-level certs than other candidates, gives you a competitive edge. Also, the process of preparing for a certification exam makes you a better network engineer. I learned a ton of stuff about voice and collaboration technologies when studying for my CCIE lab, even though I’d been teaching Cisco courses in that track for eleven years. I passed the lab on my second attempt, but even if I’d stopped after my first failed attempt, I would have been a much better engineer, because I had grown so much through my study.
Is the skillset of network engineers changing? What skills are important to have in the coming years?
We’ve all heard about how network programmability is going to shake up our industry. I’ve heard lots of people concerned that their traditional Cisco certs aren’t going to matter much, because they’re not a programmer. For over a year I’ve been saying that network engineers still need traditional CLI skills, for configuring Cisco devices. But, in addition to that, I think network engineers need to retool and start learning how to program. Then, at Cisco Live in Las Vegas earlier this year, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins kept talking about the concept of a “hybrid engineer.” Think of a Venn diagram with two circles. One circle represents CLI skills. The other circle represents programming skills. And those two circles slightly overlap, and it’s in that area of overlap where we have the hybrid engineer. Yes, the hybrid engineer understands the CLI commands. They don’t just flip switches to turn features on or off. They truly know what’s going on in the background. But in addition to their CLI skills, they’ve learned some basic programming that lets them scale their CLI knowledge. Programming and working with network controllers like Cisco’s APIC or APIC-EM lets them quickly setup or reconfigure multiple network devices. So, to answer your question, I wouldn’t really say the skillset of network engineers is changing. I’d say it’s increasing, meaning that you still need the underlying CLI knowledge, but you also need to know some programming to scale that knowledge. And when it comes to learning to program, I recommend starting by learning the Python programming language, because it’s commonly used in network programmability.
Will the need for networking experts go away? Is it better to be a generalist than an expert?
My personal belief is that the big rewards come when we go deep in a track, instead of going shallow across multiple tracks. For example, I think it’s more valuable to have a CCNP R/S cert that three CCNA certs in different tracks. The reason I say this is, as you go deeper in a track, you’ll be able to offer more advanced and more optimal solutions for your customers or employer. Also, the deeper you go in a track, the less competition you’ll have in that track when going after your next job.
What do you think of soft skills? Do we need them in the networking industry? If so, which ones are the most important?
I think we as network professionals definitely need soft skills. If we don’t work well with others, our impact is limited. If we don’t have self-management skills, they we could make the all to common mistake of not putting first thing’s first. Stephen Covey’s quadrants come to mind. We want to spend a big chunk of our time in what he defined as Quadrant 2. That’s where our growth happens. If we don’t have good self-management skills, we might find ourselves spending too much time in Quadrant 1 where we’re doing “firefighting,” or Quadrant 3 where we’re distracted, or Quadrant 4 where we’re wasting time. As an introvert, some of these soft skills didn’t come easy to me. For example, public speaking is an incredibly valuable soft skill, and I used to be terrible at it. So, I took the Dale Carnegie Course in Public Speaking. Going through that course gave me the skills I needed to teach, which dramatically changed the direction of my career. Having a growth mindset is another critical soft skill. By growth mindset, I’m talking about intentionally learning new things. For example, after working somewhere for ten years, we want to have ten years of experience, not one year of experience ten times. Personally, I attend lots of technical and non-technical seminars, and I’m always going through some online course. I recommend that my students create a “learning calendar,” where they go into their calendar, maybe at the beginning of the year, and schedule what they’re going to be learning, or what course or seminar they’ll be attending, each month of the year.
What’s your best advice for staying updated in the networking industry? How do you stop the sipping from the firehose?
While there are a few unicorns out there with five or more CCIEs and who seem to be experts in all major Cisco technical tracks, sadly, I’m not one of them. While I do my best to stay at the top of my game in route/switch and collaboration topics, it’s just not practical for me to stay current on everything. The good news is, I don’t think I need to be an expert in all those different technical areas. Instead, I just want to have a basic understanding of those other areas, so I can better understand how all components of an enterprise network work together. My primary way of doing that is by going to Cisco Live, where I attend introductory-level sessions in areas I don’t work with on a day-to-day basis. For example, I’ve recently attended sessions on wireless and cyber-security. That at least lets me carry on a conversation with someone who’s an expert in those areas.
Before we close out. What would you want to give as a final piece of advice to the NC readers?
My advice is to always be learning and to do it strategically. My favorite Jim Rohn quote is, “Rich people have big libraries. Poor people have big TVs.” While some people have taken offense at that statement, I think it drives home the point that we get ahead by continually learning, as compared to spending our time in distraction. But we also need to be very strategic and intentional about what we’re learning. When I was just starting out in this field, I’d go to a book store and look through the technical books seeking out bargains. I remember buying a Cisco Press book on ATM at 50 percent off! I was stoked at the deal I got. Unfortunately, I didn’t really need to know about ATM at that time. These days I approach my book store shopping very differently. Instead of looking for a bargain, I look for the book that can help me the most. A couple of years ago I was looking at a huge built-in bookshelf I have in my home, where I had carefully organized the books I’ve read over the years. Then it occurred to me, in my lifetime there are only so many books I’ll be able to read, and it’s much more important to pick impactful books, rather than whatever happens to be on sale at the moment. So, today, I’m super-selective about the books I read, the courses I take, and the seminars I attend. Finally, I want to give you a big thank you for asking me to be interviewed and to your readers for hanging with us through the interview. And since a big part of this interview has been about how to succeed as a network engineer, I’d like to offer your readers a free copy of my e-book, “Your Route to Cisco Career Success.” It covers mind-mapping your career, what to do when life gets in the way of your goals, what study resources are out there, the mindset to have before an exam or lab, and lots more. They can get their free copy by visiting http://kwtrain.com/success Also, I’ve got a ton of free video training on my YouTube channel your readers might want to check out, including some of the topics we talked about today, like SDN, APIC and APIC-EM controllers, and Python programming. To watch those videos, they can head on over to http://youtube.com/kwallaceccie
Thanks again for having me!