All the Networking Things: Project Management, Pre-Sales, and Broadening a Technical Specialty with Amy Arnold (2/2)

When should we adjust from focusing in a specialized area to something more broad? Amy Arnold left technical consulting because she missed working on “all the networking things.” The former network engineer who worked in public sector would boomerang back for a time before taking a role at Fortinet in pre-sales. The theme of technical exploration in Amy’s career story continues this week.

In episode 282 you’ll hear how project management skills have helped Amy Arnold progress as a technical consultant, in her role as a network engineer in the public sector, and in her current role as a pre-sales engineer at Fortinet. Also, we have some good discussions on effective communication through writing and the value of participating in technical communities.

Original Recording Date: 05-30-2024

Amy Arnold is a Pre-Sales Systems Engineer at Fortinet. If you missed part 1 of our discussion with Amy on her early career getting into networking, check out Episode 281

Topics – Applying the Skills of Project Management, Shifting from Troubleshooter to Architect, Picking Pre-Sales vs. Post-Sales, Moving to Fortinet and Working for a Tech Vendor, Writing and Communication, Technical Community Involvement

2:47 – Applying the Skills of Project Management

  • How did project management training help Amy in the role as a consultant?
    • It definitely helped. Even though Amy did not enjoy a formal role as a project manager, she tells us using project methodologies and managing your own projects is essential for the network engineer and especially for the consultant.
    • Because a consultant is “working on someone else’s stuff,” they need to understand and communicate timelines, deliverables, expectations, resource constraints (i.e. people), and dependencies (i.e. network readiness). Project planning skills are extremely helpful.
    • In Amy’s role as a consultant, she acted in both a pre-sales and post-sales capacity, participating in both the sales process and post-sales implementation.
      • It is important to understand the role of a consultant could mean both or it could mean only one of pre-sales / post-sales. Read job descriptions carefully!
      • Amy worked for a medium-sized reseller in this consulting role. In the smaller or medium companies, you may perform both functions (pre-sales and post-sales). In larger companies a person may be dedicated to either pre-sales or post-sales.
  • Was this Amy’s first exposure to pre-sales?
    • Yes – the closest experience Amy had before this was selling her projects to city management and to different departments to get them approved for funding. Her input into any quotes or statements of work from vendors or resellers was slightly different than working for the vendor or reseller to generate those same deliverables to a customer.
    • Amy says she had done project requirement gathering and meeting with her internal customers on a smaller scale for the city, but in being a consultant she did this for many different customers.
  • Would Amy have appreciated a manager managing her with project management methodologies?
    • Amy tells us it depends. She mentions project managers would get assigned to large projects.
    • Some people just want to be responsible for the technology and get told to “show up,” preferring to be managed more closely within the overall project (possibly due to a lack of overall skillset). Amy has the project management skills and prefers to have more control of how things go from a project standpoint.
    • No matter what, if something came across as micromanagement, Amy would not care for it.
    • John says this sounds like the way an account manager for a customer might manage someone who is part of a pool of pre-sales engineers, using project management techniques to keep consistent engagement with a customer and making sure timelines are met.
    • Amy says this may also depend on a person’s workload. If you are overwhelmed by all the technical aspects of working with a customer (i.e. doing both pre-sales and post-sales), it is very welcoming to have someone else handle the “other stuff.”
    • Amy found a dedicated project manager resource most helpful when there was a need to coordinate with several different people and making sure the right personnel show up at the right time. She would rather build a project plan for an implementation, for example, and let someone else handle the resource coordination.
    • In Amy’s role as a pre-sales engineer currently, her project plans might not need to be as detailed as someone in a professional services / implementation role would need to be.
    • Effective project managers according to Amy are most useful when you as a technical resource get overwhelmed and need help re-prioritizing or deciding what can be dropped off the to-do list.
      • John restates this as having a project manager solely focused on the people and the process (i.e. status of timeline, meetings and activities that need to happen, etc.) rather than being focused on the technology. Amy would prefer someone else deal with these specific items.
  • John had wondered which skills from obtaining the PMP certification would help a technologist in their career. Even if someone did not work toward and get a certification, there are ways to gain project management knowledge and skills.
    • We highlight the PMBOK or Project Management Body of Knowledge as a possible resource.
    • John says there are likely skills from project management someone might highlight as the most valuable to the technologist, even if their primary job skill is not managing projects.
    • Amy tells us there are a number of things in the project management certification which someone would not have to do very often. She gives the example of calculating critical path and says what is more important is to ensure we have enough time to complete everything when there are dependencies on other people.
    • The project management certification goes into detail understanding risk of failure or a timeline slipping.
    • The terminology isn’t as important as understanding the concepts such as the drop dead date for a project and the risk of any steps or tasks within the projects not being completed according to Amy.

12:10 – Shifting from Troubleshooter to Architect

  • Amy made the move from someone making a case to decision makers for a project within a local municipality to helping someone put together a project plan, helping understand scope, and maybe building an architecture. What was the progression like going from the troubleshooter of things and systems to building architectures for things and systems, and how can people make the shift to thinking more about the architectural system implications of a new project?
    • “I think there is a reason that solution architect roles are usually at the top of the advancement in career…because it takes some time, and you need to see some things before you really understand why this is best practice or why things are designed this way…. But to really design a solution that meets people’s needs, that’s addressing the problems that they have or the things that they are going to encounter takes more than just ‘I understand how VRRP works and failover.’ You’re really going to have to understand what they want to fail over, under what circumstances will failure happen…. And designing for those particular problems I think takes time and practice. I don’t know that I could ever mark a place in my career where I was just like ‘today I got it. Today I’m an architect.’” – Amy Arnold
      • Some of the above is book knowledge and understanding technical requirements of implementing a solution.
      • Amy feels like it can take a couple of years to know what you’re going to find out and how a solution should be designed. She highlights the importance of asking good questions in situations you don’t know well to think through how it needs to be designed. This thinking and questioning is you relying on previous practice and experience.
      • Doing a lot of reading is a way to help us gain knowledge. Amy mentions there are many networking textbooks, blog posts, and videos that helped her make the shift faster.

15:15 – Picking Pre-Sales vs. Post-Sales

  • Nick mentions this is building muscle and knowledge based on exposure to different areas. As a consultant, Amy was on the pre-sales side and the post-sales side. What made her want to go from doing both to needing to pick one?
    • “I actually really liked both sides of the equation – designing it and implementing it. But one of the reasons I went back to the city I had worked for was because I was missing doing all of the networking things.” – Amy Arnold, on being a consultant and moving out of that role to an eventual pre-sales role
    • Amy had developed skills and deep expertise in voice technologies (VOIP), but she missed being able to work on the entire network like routing, switching, voice, and building cohesive solutions.
    • In her role at Fortinet in pre-sales, Amy doesn’t have a production environment like before, but she has a lab in which she can tinker, test theories, and break things.
    • “I’ve always been a ‘I still want to tinker’ kind of person, even in a solutions architect type role.” – Amy Arnold
      • Amy mentions some people move into the architecture role and want to avoid any hands on keyboard work. That is not the case for her.
      • One of the reasons people can design solutions well is the experience doing the implementation and seeing what doesn’t work. There are reasons behind the way things are designed.
      • It’s important to test theories to see if they work the way you expect so that you don’t become “all theory and no practice” as Amy refers to it.
  • John points out the interesting parallel to Amy’s previous comment about the most well-rounded network engineers starting off in help desk. Working the help desk means you have seen things go wrong in multiple different ways. Being someone in post-sales and implementation allows you to see many ways in which a pre-sales architecture can go wrong.

19:26 – Moving to Fortinet and Working for a Tech Vendor

  • After a long stint back in public sector, Amy had seen many things and felt like it was time to do something different.
  • Amy heard about an opening in DFW (Dallas / Fort Worth) in the SLED vertical at Fortinet. She had many years of experience working with Fortinet’s Fortigate technologies. In addition to that, Amy loved the public sector mission (which aligns to the SLED customer focus).
    • Amy decided to apply for the role, and as of this recording, she has been at Fortinet for 4 years.
    • “I love it because…they have all the Forti-things. And so I’m still doing wireless, route / switch, security…there’s even some voice in there…. So I’m still getting to do the things I love, but nobody is calling me at 3 AM because I can’t wreck production. It’s a really nice balance of being able to do solution architecture, still be hands on, still get into that holistic view, and it’s security first…. It feels like a nice culmination of the things I’ve done in my career to have this role.” – Amy Arnold, on making the move from public sector network operations to pre-sales at Fortinet
    • The fact that security is no longer an afterthought is very refreshing to Amy. Throughout a large part of her time as a network engineer, security was an afterthought.
    • Amy mentions she has done her share of on-call type work. Now the only things she breaks are in her own lab.
  • Are there nuances to working for a consulting firm compared to now working for a technology vendor?
    • Amy was used to being on the consulting side and working with many vendors. Now she is on the vendor side and works with many partners (or resellers).
      • A reseller or partner can sell many different vendor technologies, so a specific vendor may not be top of mind for them.
      • Despite Amy’s work in having her end customer as the primary focus, it requires maintaining a relationship with the customer and the partners / resellers who service that customer as well.
      • Amy has worked on the partner side, so she understands how it works and what life is like for people who work for technology partners / resellers.
    • Amy says her experience both on the customer side and the partner side help her understand motivations and where to focus her energy.
    • In this discussion we are defining a partner as a company that can resell vendor technologies and provide services to deploy / manage a solution that contains that technology.
      • These could be referred to as channel partner, consulting firm, reseller, or VAR (value added reseller).
      • John mentions there are systems integrators that fit into this designation.
      • Amy tells us most of the partners she works with are resellers. Some but not all can do professional services.
      • Technology vendors usually have resources dedicated to enabling partners on the technology, but Amy mentions pre-sales engineers like her work with technical counterparts at partners to provide enablement.
      • When we say PS, we mean professional services, implementation work, and staff augmentations for customers (what we might call a residency). The PS umbrella would include architectural services as well.
  • How have the PMP skills helped Amy (if at all) in her work as a pre-sales engineer?
    • “I should never be surprised at how skills you pick up along the way…it’s amazing to me how they get used later in your career. And PMP is one of those….” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy tells us there is very little micromanaging when you’re in technical pre-sales.
      • She is paired 1-1 with an account manager that she works with daily.
      • It’s up to Amy to figure out how to manage things like completing required training, customer appointments, appointments with partners / resellers, etc.
      • In many ways, it is an unstructured kind of job. Some weeks Amy focuses more on training, and some weeks there may be lots of meetings and no training.
      • There is a lot of follow up needed in the role. Amy emphasizes the need to check in on customers to see how they are doing, especially if they’ve just purchased something.
      • “It’s a lot of people management. It’s a lot of project management and study plan management. And nobody’s telling you how to do it and when or how much time you need to spend on anything…. And you really have to be a good planner to do it.” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy does not work for the account manager but rather with that person. The account manager also has a separate leadership chain from Amy’s leadership chain.
      • Amy has regular check-ins with her manager and her account manager. There are also check-ins with her team of peers.
    • Amy tells us communication skills are an important aspect of the role (and not just a PMP skill). Her bachelors degree was in arts and humanities (which contributed to written and verbal communication skills).
      • “But it is one of those things where when I had an arts and humanities degree and was a law school drop out, it was like, ‘what am I going to do with this?’ And now, through all of the different jobs I’ve had, I realize how important it is to be able to communicate, speak, gather requirements, put things into an orderly thing that people can understand…absolutely vital.” – Amy Arnold, on the importance of communication skills

31:00 – Writing and Communication

  • John has heard that writing it really effective thought.
    • “If you just have a thought, and it’s not recorded and never refined and never examined then that’s not really effective thinking.” – John White
    • Amy would agree with the above. She started blogging at the suggestion of a community member with the intent to get thoughts down in a clear way which would help her remember them.
      • “One of the lies I tell myself is ‘I’ll remember this later’ and then realize ‘no I didn’t remember it later.’” – Amy Arnold, on writing to help herself remember things
      • Even if you’re just writing something down for yourself, you have to understand it to write it. And if we write something down that doesn’t make sense, we can rewrite it and refine it until it’s something we understand.
      • Amy likes to take written notes to help herself study.
      • Even if we never share them with someone, writing notes in a note app is helpful for remembering and also to help understand concepts.
  • Did Amy leverage her blog as evidence of effective communication when applying for jobs?
    • Amy did not write it for this purpose, but when she applied at Fortinet the hiring manager had read her blog, Amy Engineer. It made the hiring process pretty smooth.
    • “I’d definitely encourage people getting started…not everyone wants to have a social media presence. Not everyone wants to write a blog. And maybe not everyone should. But, I do encourage them to try…even if it’s just to write their own notes in their own format.” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy thinks people should blog or find some other way of giving back to the greater technical community. So many of us have benefitted from the knowledge shared by others. Consider being more than just an information consumer but rather a producer of information to share with others.
    • “Start figuring out ways to be coherent in your thinking. If you really think you want to do pre-sales, you have to be able to be put in front of a customer. And I have known so many network engineers who are brilliant, but they can’t hold a conversation. They can’ talk to the customer. They are uncomfortable. They look down. They can’t ask questions…. And maybe this podcast doesn’t show it. I’m completely introverted…completely. I do so many extroverted things it’s insane, but you have to do that in this field. I think you should do that in this field. I think that you will find that the community is worth it.” – Amy Arnold
  • What is Amy’s advice to those who want to blog?
    • We should write what we find interesting. It could be something we’re learning or a story we have to tell.
    • “I haven’t blogged in a while, but when I did blog more consistently, it was still maybe only once a month. That’s all I had time for. But I would have these really interesting stories I’d run into, and those made for great blog posts to bring up different concepts…. I got thrown into the deep end of voice as a network engineer, and I figured I probably wasn’t the only one.” – Amy Arnold
      • Amy felt what she was writing as a blogger would be helpful to someone.
    • People don’t just have to blog. They can get involved in a networking user group, post in community forums or a Slack / Discord group to help others, etc.
      • Posting questions and answering questions in a community forum is still writing. It’s still communication. It’s still formulating thoughts.
      • Nick feels like every time he writes a post for LinkedIn or an episode summary it brings a new observation on what was discussed that wasn’t in his head during the actual interview.
    • “I do think you should find that thing that gets you into a community that you are doing something to pay it forward, being able to leverage that knowledge that you’re getting. Maybe it’s mentoring people…. Even if you’re just getting started there are still ways that you can engage with the material and with the people so that you’re really propelling yourself forward and bringing people along with you.” – Amy Arnold
      • Amy mentions two of the women she is mentoring are now helping each other study and learn.
    • John says even if you keep what you write completely private, it can become a personal knowledge store. Amy agrees in the value of doing it even if you keep it private like this.
      • John also has maintained a blog over time and would now and then search for something and end up remembering he had blogged about it.
      • “And if people feel really nervous about putting themselves out there they should know that everyone feels really nervous about putting themselves out there…. By and large the networking community is super supportive…. If you show any true intent of ‘I just want to understand this,’ people are always reaching out and helping.” – Amy Arnold

39:57 – Technical Community Involvement

  • What lit the flame for Amy on being involved in a technical community in the first place, and where did she find them?
    • “I have had a lot of success in my career that I would love to say was ‘I planned it that way completely.’ And that’s just not entirely true.” – Amy Arnold
    • When Amy was working in public sector as a network engineer, she was looking for ways to connect with others she could learn from who knew networking. She started following people like Tom Hollingsworth and Ethan Banks on Twitter and later got to meet them at the Cisco Live conference.
    • “I learned so many things that would have taken me so many more years to have gotten on my own.” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy would encourage us to participate in the community, even if it’s uncomfortable. Many in this industry are introverts.
      • “You’re really just kind of in the room with a bunch of people that are nervous about being in the room too…. You get so much information from listening, and if you’re contributing too, it’s just a really good way to be in this industry, even if it is a little against our introverted nature.” – Amy Arnold, on participating in communities
      • Amy recounts introducing herself to people she followed on Twitter and how awkward it was. She encourages people to do it anyway.
  • What’s the proper avenue to seek out mentors?
    • Amy says it depends on what you are seeking from a mentorship standpoint.
      • Many people seek or give advice in Slack or Discord channels. Amy cites the Art of Network Engineering Discord (link to join the Discord is here).
      • Amy sometimes has people reach out to her on LinkedIn and takes the time to answer questions.
      • The people Amy mentors are local. This is a different level of mentoring because she likes to meet with them over lunch and talk face to face.
      • Amy recommends against finding someone randomly on Twitter and asking them to mentor you. It is best to build some kind of relationship or rapport with someone before asking for mentorship.
      • If you’re just looking for advice, many people on social media channels like Twitter, Mastadon, Blue Sky, Threads, etc. are usually happy to provide general advice. LinkedIn has become a common place to ask for advice as well.
  • To contact Amy, you can find her:

Mentioned in the Outro

  • The spirit of technical exploration is still present in Amy’s decision to specialize in VOIP and then later come back to a more networking generalist role.
    • After a time, Amy understood it would be more interesting to take a broader focus in networking and that she would enjoy it more than the specialization (i.e. focus on more than just voice).
    • Pursuing a specialty doesn’t have to be forever. While you’re working in a more specialized area, you can make the determination that something broader / more general would be better for you and make a shift.
  • When John was asking the questions about project management skills for the technologist, it’s a bit like our discussion with Josh Duffney back in Episode 234. After reading multiple books, Josh was thinking about writing a book on Go that someone could read and build something useful in that language.
    • What skills of project management, if focused on intently, could help the technologist deliver more value with these skills in their role quickly? That’s the idea behind John’s line of questions.
  • The importance of spoken and especially written communication keeps coming up with guests. Amy encourages us to write what we find interesting.
    • We can do this in a blog or in an online forum (even Reddit) to show evidence of a well-formed thought. Something publicly accessible counts as public proof of work and proof of producing effective thoughts.
  • Special shout out to listeners in Finland, Poland, Germany, and Singapore for putting us on the Apple podcast charts. Please rate us 5 stars and write a review with what you found valuable from this episode!

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