I am often asked for career advice on how to break into the networking job market. While my answers have changed somewhat over the years as the market has changed, generally my responses have remained the same. This is because the core of networking has remained the same; it's still about getting two devices to talk with each other.
The basic methodologies for ensuring proper communication really haven't changed since the dumb terminal to mainframe via direct serial connection days. There has to be an initiation of communication, a response to the initiation and a response to that agreeing on how to communicate. In the IP world, that is the well-known "three-way handshake" involving SYN, SYN-ACK and ACK packets.
To land that first networking job, you must be able to set up a system to establish the communication between two parties before relevant data can pass. While there is always a certain element of luck involved in landing that first position, a few tips can increase the chances of being successful.
Specializing in a field
The term "network administrator" historically can refer to many types of positions. For example, in the '90s, it often meant Novell file server administration. Today, it may be listed in advertisements for Windows server administration positions. It may mean administering a LAN, WAN or even a SAN.
Acronym saturation is a fact in networking. A position may require knowledge with Open Shortest Path First or Border Gateway Protocol. On the voice side, there are network administrators whose primary functions are administering voice-over IP networks. Then there are necessary network services, such as Domain Name System (DNS), Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service or Active Directory.
Networking is such a broad field that it's important to decide on a certain niche and become proficient at it. Composer Billy Joel once said that he stood out as a piano player not because he was exceptional at piano playing, but competent in a field of mediocrity. It may be best to specialize in one particular aspect of network administration at the early stages of your career so you stand out against an average field.
However, as you progress down your chosen path, the reverse is true. Because of the intertwined aspects of networking, and IT in general, it becomes critical to understand how your specialized area contributes to the overall IT environment as you progress in your networking career.
When looking to gain a foothold in networking, it's advantageous to focus on becoming competent in one field while simultaneously expanding knowledge in other network and IT aspects. In reality, once you land that first networking position, exposure to the other elements occurs as a function of the position.