Educate and Advocate: Certifications and Community Responsibility as a Joy with Jason Belk (1/2)

How could the skills learned as a video game tester be applied to different roles in technology? Understanding and documenting the steps needed to reproduce an error in a video game aren’t so different from understanding the steps to perform a specific task like removing malware from a laptop or replacing a hard drive. Jason Belk, our gest this week in episode 283, has consistently utilized the skill of building checklists over the course of his career, using them to develop and deliver instructional technology courses and to prepare for presentations at a conference.

In this discussion you’ll hear how Jason’s internship at Electronic Arts shaped what he wants from an employer, the experience he gained working in IT Student Services, how he landed a job at Cisco, and why he wanted to become a network engineer. Jason will give us advice on how to choose a technical certification and how we can each play a part to build talent in the tech industry.

Original Recording Date: 06-28-2024

Topics – Meet Jason Belk, Computer Science and Experience as a Video Game Tester, Working in IT Student Services, Learning to Give Presentations, Working on the Cisco on Cisco Team, Pursuing the CCNA, Technical Certifications in a Shifting Industry, Building Talent in Technology

2:23 – Meet Jason Belk

  • Jason Belk is a Senior Technical Advocate at Cisco and someone who tries to be a constant learner.
    • In this role, Jason is tasked to be a voice of customers and learners and gives feedback to teams at Cisco who are building platforms and content for training and certifications. Jason also builds content like videos, blogs, and tutorials to get people interested in Cisco’s training and certification offerings.
    • Jason is also tasked with community building like you would see in a developer relations role, and this is his second stint in developer relations.
    • “Developer relations is a newer iteration of what people have traditionally seen as a technical marketing engineer type role.” – Jason
      • Jason feels there has been an industry need to step beyond just a technical marketing engineer (or TME) and be more relevant to customers by bringing their perspectives and feedback to product teams. This can be achieved through activities like content creation, community building, ownership and improvement of documentation, and creating a better overall user experience.
    • In the past Jason worked in developer relations for Cisco’s NSO or Network Services Orchestrator.
      • Jason worked under the product manager for NSO at that time and sat in the team meetings. After being charged with improving the user experience, Jason worked with a group of contractors to transform the documentation for NSO to make it more relevant for users. They built a developer center for NSO so that it was geared less toward software engineers and more toward network engineers who needed to use the product.
    • In Jason’s current role working with Cisco learning and certifications, he is no longer focused on one specific product but the entire portfolio.
      • Jason knows he cannot be an expert in everything, but he has experience in network operations and achieved the CCNA earlier in his career also.
      • Jason is working to turn Cisco’s public-facing presence into “an empathetic learning experience for everybody who’s either already in a Cisco related career or looking to get into it.”

6:54 – Computer Science and Experience as a Video Game Tester

  • Jason studied computer science because he wanted to be in the video game industry and wanted to play video games for a living.
  • During his freshman year, Jason did an internship at Electronic Arts.
    • “My freshman year summer I got a huge amount of experience in terms of what it means to work in corporate life.” – Jason Belk, on his internship at Electronic Arts
    • When you are trying to figure out what to do for an occupation as a young person, Jason tells us you should not think about just the company, but also their cultures.
    • “The culture for the team I joined was not maintaining healthy work life boundaries and mental health boundaries that I wanted to have for the rest of my life…. I want to be in tech, but I don’t want to burn myself out.” – Jason Belk
    • Jason would work nights and weekends 12-14 hours per day all summer, executing and doing a good job but knowing deep down this kind of schedule was not for him long term.
      • Some people have such a passion for the gaming industry that they want to put in all of the extra hours and make work their number 1 priority.
      • Jason makes his first priority followed by his surrounding community (friends, church), and then his job third.
      • Jason wanted to find work at a company that did something he was passionate about but that encourages / supports mental health and work-life balance.
  • What was involved in video game testing specifically?
    • When Jason first applied at Electronic Arts, it was for a software engineering internship to align with his field of study. After hearing nothing for 2 months, he applied for the game tester position.
    • Game testers required critical thinking and documentation skills. Testers were tasked with using a bug tracking software to categorize errors in game play.
    • Each day testers would be assigned a specific part of a game to test for bugs (usually a section that would be impacted by an upcoming software release), but it would be delegated by a manager / supervisor. If there was no directive given by software engineering teams, testers would be playing through the entire game and trying to break things.
  • Any slow downs in game play, crashes, or visual glitches would need to be reported. Testers would need to share the steps needed to reproduce the issue and determine how often the issue could be reproduced.
  • The most challenging issues to find were those that only presented themselves when you played through an entire game.
  • Working in this environment gave Jason a mindset focused on critical thinking and reproducing errors. Jason feels like this set him up for success in future opportunities.
    • Jason tells the story of walking around the Santa Clara Library with his father when they were approached by a gentleman who, after a brief conversation, offered Jason the chance to work in IT Student Services. Jason said yes.
    • “Whenever I see an opportunity come to me, if it’s reasonable and I have the time for it, whether that’s coffee with somebody or a potential job opportunity, I never shoot them down outright. I just say ‘let’s hear how it goes.’ That actually helped setup one of the things for the rest of my career.” – Jason Belk, on new opportunities
  • Did Jason have to learn to communicate differently as a result of the need for heavy documentation in his role at Electronic Arts?
    • Jason says he was a strong writer going into the role – articulate and precise. Poor writing skills could be a barrier to entry for some people.
    • In any job where we work with other people, communication needs to take place. Jason has worked remotely since 2017 and is used to communicating expectations, deliverables, the things he is struggling with, and what he needs to complete.
    • The game testing job didn’t give Jason the writing skills but rather an opportunity to use those skills and sharpen them in a corporate environment.
  • The environment at Electronic Arts wasn’t a toxic culture, but the vision was executed such that one could easily see the expectation to put in as many extra hours as is possible (at least from the perspective of game testers).
  • “People want to make work the number 1 in their life permanently, and then you just go from project to project to project…and then suddenly you retire…. For some people that’s a cost they are willing to make because they love their work so much. But I think for me, knowing myself, I love my work, but it’s definitely not 100% of what I do.” – Jason Belk, reflecting back on the culture at Electronic Arts

15:04 – Working in IT Student Services

  • What were some of the things Jason did as part of the role in IT Student Services that he really enjoyed?
    • The manager of this team (Michael) wasn’t a student and was a military veteran. Contrary to what we might think for someone managing a team of students who would be replaced with new students within a few years, Jason tells us his manager was concerned about the development and happiness of all team members, wanting each person to grow in technical skills and presentation skills.
    • Jason says having a manager who really cared about him as a person and modeled good leadership skills made a big impact. Each team member was given the opportunity and the support to try things just outside their technical reach.
    • Coming into this team, Jason had built his own computer for gaming but not much more than that. He had never removed viruses or formatted hard drives, for example.
    • The manager would have senior members of the team mentor the more junior members to teach new skills.
    • If a customer was treating a member of the IT Student Services team unprofessionally or had unreasonable expectations, Jason’s manager would step in to help de-escalate or reset expectations.
  • How well aligned to computer science was the work Jason was doing in IT Student Services?
    • “I actually felt like my time in IT Student Services was more useful than most of the classes…. I think just the curriculum and the way it’s structured is supposed to give you a little bit of everything. Especially at an undergraduate level, you walk in with no experience, and you walk out with enough experience to hopefully start a job somewhere.” – Jason Belk
    • Jason mentions there were a number of programming courses in different languages required for his computer science course of study, but he didn’t necessarily know which would be the most useful or applicable with no other experience in the field.
    • In IT Student Services, it was very clear what worked and did not work, what was useful and not useful, because Jason could see the impact on experience of the end user.
    • “I have a skill that every time this comes up I can now apply that skill to that situation.” – Jason Belk, on building repeatable skills while in IT Student Services
  • Nick says the development of checklists or processes (a series of steps) for different tasks is sort of like the next iteration of reproducing the steps needed to hit a video game bug. Being able to develop these checklists is a skill that can be leveraged when we venture into a new area. Did Jason continue this later in his career?
    • “I think the way in which those checklists happen has become less and less formal over the years as I’ve kind of internalized my own checklist for how I operate, but it gives me a sense of comfort….” – Jason Belk
    • Jason gives the example of not having done a conference talk until a few years ago. His experience as an instructor for Network to Code gave him the skills to build a class curriculum. Jason developed a checklist for building and executing course curriculum.
      • One part of the checklist was the flow of the material in the course. As long as he knew the material well enough he could speak off the cuff when needed as certain topics came up.
      • Another aspect of courses were technical demos. Jason liked to demonstrate what he was working on step by step and explain any assumptions.
      • The skill of understanding presentation flow and understanding demo flow from teaching courses had to be used together to re-contextualize the material for a 45-minute conference talk. *“That helped me a lot because before I taught a lot of classes, I didn’t really have the confidence to know the vibes I would need and the mental checklists I would need to just walk up on stage and start talking.” – Jason Belk

21:21 – Learning to Give Presentations

  • In IT Student Services, the manager had formal team trainings. During these meetings, senior members of the team would present to junior team members for educational purposes and as an exercise in presentation skills.
    • Usually the presentations would focus on different scenarios one might encounter as an employee working in IT Student Services (i.e. removing malware from a laptop, etc.).
    • The manager would coach team members before a presentation to understand the flow of the presentation and so that they knew his expectations for what needed to be communicated.
  • The first time Jason was asked to do a presentation, he felt utter fear.
    • Any time Jason does a presentation, he is excited to share the content, but Jason also points out gaining expertise required building some habits and confidence over time. Jason refers to himself as an introvert.
    • Early in his career when first asked to present, Jason did not have habits built or confidence. In those early days, he felt less comfortable just speaking about the topic and relied heavily on flash cards / notes.
    • There’s an irrational fear that can hit you as a presenter (especially when everyone is looking at you). Jason says we want to deliver an experience that will meet an audience’s expectation.
    • “I think one of the big things that shifted my mindset for that was realizing that the people in the audience want you to succeed…. They don’t come to the presentation because they want to see you fail. They don’t come to the presentation because they want to see someone who’s nervous and confused and stuttering. Those things can happen. We all have bad days. But, they come to a presentation because they’re eager to learn something new. They’re eager to be entertained. They’re eager to have an experience where it can’t be replicated…. If we’re doing anything live and in person, there is something special about that still that we can’t replicate with technology…. I think for me understanding the specialness if being in person with somebody…and taking that responsibility as a joy and saying ‘I’m here. They want to hear what I’m saying. They want me to succeed….’” – Jason Belk
    • In presentations, Jason likes to focus on one person at a time as if he were just speaking to them instead of focusing on a large crowd all at once.
      • We should also understand that some people might not appear happy in an audience for whatever reason (a bad day, natural facial expression that doesn’t appear happy, etc.). They may be having a bad day, and the presenter cannot be psyched out or rattled if this happens.
  • If someone listening is hesitant to do any kind of presentation, where should they start?
    • Jason says choose an area that has a small splash radius for damage. Make sure messing up won’t be career limiting.
    • Consider presenting to your teammates on something you’re learning or an expertise you have. Jason liked to do this kind of thing with his teammates (sharing ideas in a verbal form).
      • We can build confidence to present by preparing using our writing skills. Jason feels he is stronger in his writing skills.
      • “A lot of times the things I am comfortable in speaking on, I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about because I had a written version of that same presentation where I’ve solidified my thoughts in such a way that they have a coherence to them. The process of me synthesizing all those thoughts into a written form to communicate to someone else in a teaching manner gives me the tool to then communicate that to other people.” – Jason Belk
    • Local meetups are another great chance to present. Even if there is not a meetup for your niche, there is likely a meetup in your area just for technical people or business people.
      • Jason shares his recent experience at a local meetup. He did not give a talk, but local meetings often have people giving presentations. Find a meetup in your area on

27:34 – Working on the Cisco on Cisco Team

  • Jason had never heard of Cisco until a friend in the computer engineering program told him about it. This friend had done 2 internships at Cisco, planned to go and work there after graduation, and was doing University recruitment for Cisco.
    • Jason’s friend seemed very happy with the culture at Cisco. After the experience at Electronic Arts, Jason wanted to work somewhere that valued people.
  • There were two internship options open at Cisco – one as an IT Analyst and one in Engineering.
    • Jason was not confident in coding skills and knew he didn’t want to sit in a room and code all day. But, he did want to do something in tech.
    • When asked if he considered himself a strong coder during an interview, Jason said the following:
      • “I understand what’s going on but feel like I’m better in positions where I’m explaining the technology and having to translate it between people that are technical and not technical.”
      • He knew he wasn’t going to be the one to build the next hot iPhone app.
    • Jason answered honestly and was placed under the manager who had interviewed him. He was an IT Analyst and became part of the Cisco on Cisco team.
      • The Cisco on Cisco team were IT operations team members who would speak to customers about how Cisco’s technology organization used its own products across datacenter, networking, collaboration, etc.
      • Jason had a chance to shadow some of the presentations to customers.
      • “I knew enough to be dangerous from my undergrad, but there’s so much to IT technology that is not covered in the course curriculum as products continually come out and as technology evolves. I was just trying to absorb it all up.” – Jason Belk, on shadowing other members of the Cisco on Cisco team
      • The types of conversations with customers were not product demonstrations but more focused on the outcomes and results of using Cisco technologies.
      • Jason remembers getting to travel to other countries and attend conferences as part of the role with the Cisco on Cisco team.
      • Jason worked the booth at conferences and could have introductory conversations with people about the impact the team was making. Nick sees working the booth as public speaking experience even though it’s a dialogue. Jason points out this kind of experience as another low risk form of public speaking.
  • Jason’s experience as an IT Analyst gave him enough context to know he wanted to pursue a career focused on networking. He had enjoyed the networking courses as part of his undergraduate work, and working for Cisco post-internship made sense.
    • A friend of Jason’s was a network engineer inside Cisco, and Jason told his manager he wanted to become more technical and eventually work as a network engineer.
    • Jason also decided to pursue a CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certification.

32:52 – Pursuing the CCNA

  • Since Jason was at Cisco, it was easier to choose the right certification.
    • He had teammates who held associate and professional level certifications, and they recommended Jason pursue the CCNA as a next step for his career.
    • Jason remembers one member of the team, Cyrus, would go out of his way to mentor others. Cyrus would take the time to explain concepts on a whiteboard and then have people like Jason teach it back to him for practice.
    • Jason mentioned he would go and sit in the network team area a couple of times per week to watch them troubleshoot and to absorb what was happening. Even though he didn’t have access to any systems, it was helpful to be there.
  • How did Jason’s tendency to build checklists translate into learning material for the CCNA?
    • Jason had a book to guide his studies, but it was hard to find useful resources outside of it. He had never worked on a network device and barely knew how to use a console at this point.
    • “For me the checklist was finding material that was hands on and demo heavy.” – Jason Belk
    • The book would give high level concepts but not the practical application of them.
    • Jason found an online course taught by Chris Bryant that was demo heavy and was a great help.
    • Jason highlights Cisco U. as a resource listeners can use to find courses that help prepare you for different Cisco certifications (see this link for the full list).
    • “Having someone who’s able to demonstrate the skills and explain every step of the process was really critical for me because I felt like it wasn’t really clicking when I was just reading the book.” – Jason Belk, on the value of an instructor in his CCNA journey
    • Getting hands on with the software was a critical step for Jason because he needed to build the muscle memory with the technology before taking the exam. You do not want to be trying to find the right command or syntax in an exam situation.
    • Jason mentions Cisco Modeling Labs (CML) as a low cost option for hands on self-study. It allows building a virtual networking lab on a laptop without needing a bunch of physical hardware.

38:18 – Technical Certifications in a Shifting Industry

  • How can the person who wants to get certified decide what area to pursue?
    • “If you have no preference, pick ones that are relevant to the career you want to be in, even if you’re not there right now.” – Jason Belk, on certifications
      • When Jason was working on spreadsheets as an IT Analyst, he thought networking was cool and felt it allowed him to understand computers at a deeper level. Jason also knew people who worked in the networking field, and they acted as his mentors. If he had known people in other fields, his career may have turned out differently.
    • Jason would encourage us to evaluate the relationships with others in fields we might want to pursue and the opportunity to further build relationships with people in an industry of interest.
    • We can look at current job descriptions and see what certifications are expected for different roles of interest.
    • Pick the right certification based on your experience. If you are new to tech or have no experience in an area, start small with a course Coursera or Udemy to gauge your interest.
    • If a course doesn’t quite click or help you understand the concepts, try different instructors before moving in a different direction.
    • “Do you have the passion? Do you have the interest? Do you have the relationships? And are you going to make money with it?” – Jason Belk, on deciding an area for certification
    • Jason would also encourage we do some research on technology trends. What is becoming more popular, and what is dying off, for example? Python and Go Lang continue to gain popularity.
    • “IT organizations don’t change that quickly, and they don’t change that much…. Realize that not every career is going to be doing the latest and greatest technology, but you want to be building skills, getting certified on technologies that are relevant to where the direction is going. Also, networking itself is foundational to so many other areas. If you understand networking it helps you understand security. It helps you definitely understand cloud much better than a lot of people.” – Jason Belk
  • How are certifications / certification programs reviewed over time?
    • Part of Jason’s role within the certification group is being the voice of the customer and understanding industry trends well enough to weigh in on changes to programs.
    • Earlier in 2024, Cisco updated the list of topics on the CCNA blueprint.
      • Jason was a part of the team having the discussions about what needed to change.
      • For example, the team wanted to ask something about generative AI but needed to determine what that should look like.
    • It’s also important to understand what products customers are actually using. Jason mentions the team has established open lines of communication with Cisco product teams in a regular cadence to align on and understand product roadmaps.
      • Cisco certifications get a minor update each year and then can have a major update every 2 years. Check out the CCNA Minor Update v 1.1 summary of changes.
      • Puppet and Chef were highly emphasized on the CCNA exam in previous years, but this year it’s been changed to focus on Ansible and Terraform based on customer relevance and mindshare.

42:21 – Building Talent in Technology

  • How can we each do our part to bring fresh talent into network engineering?
    • “…The social avenues you have, if you understand how those industries work, it’s partially your responsibility to educate people on how cool it is to work in our industry.” – Jason Belk
    • Jason tells us people might not see the enterprise side of technology jobs if they don’t work in tech. They may only see the consumer facing technologies and think that is all there is.
    • “I feel like people have taken for granted so much of the transformation that’s happened on the consumer side, they don’t realize what’s happening behind the scenes on the business side. So it’s our job for people who are in these fields to let them know all the stuff that’s happening behind the scenes and the job opportunities that are there.” – Jason Belk
    • When people think about changing careers, they think in terms of what they know, which might only be consumer facing technologies. Technology and our reliance on data has changed so much over time. People do not realize the variety of roles available within IT, and we can do our part to educate.
    • If you don’t live near a large city, remote work presents an opportunity to work in technology.
    • Jason tells we can view our jobs as way to provide for our families by doing something in which we find value.
    • Part of the mission of our show is to educate others on just how many other jobs they might be qualified for based on previous experience.
    • Jason was at a meetup group recently, and a young woman shared her excitement for coding with him. She had been working as a medical assistant, was taking JavaScript courses on the side, and needed some advice. Jason emphasized the importance of
      • A willingness to learn
      • A willingness to try new things
      • A willingness to figure out what does and does not work
      • Understanding what skills are marketable
    • While JavaScript is popular in a lot of consumer facing websites, Jason encouraged the young lady to consider learning Python first. He found Python less confusing than JavaScript. And, there are so many tools built on Python that make business processes more efficient (i.e. ways to manipulate spreadsheets, reading e-mails, scraping websites, etc.).
      • One of Jason’s first Python projects was something he built to download inspiring messages from some of his favorite speakers.
      • “You need to find something that’s related to your hobbies and interests that is just outside of your reach. And I think that’s a really hard place when you’re first beginning to know where that point is.” – Jason Belk, recommendation to a meetup group attendee on finding a good project
      • Jason shares how one of his small projects with Python expanded from initially pulling specific inspirational quotes to randomizing them. He recommended the young woman at the meetup use Python to build a small project to interact with a web resource and extract some information from it.
      • Jason also mentions knowing someone who likes to extract data from NASA APIs

Mentioned in the Outro

  • Nick wonders if exposure to the value of teaching like Jason had in IT Student Services and when he was working to become a network engineer had an impact on Jason’s selection of roles with a teaching element.
  • Preparing for presentations can be a checklist for us just like it is for Jason. We can start by writing an abstract for the presentation (a few sentences) and making an outline to add high level points / concepts to cover. This provides more structure when we start to which we can add detail over time to help us prepare and deliver.
  • You might need to take multiple passes at a subject to determine if it really interests you. This could be taking multiple courses or seeking out only the mediums through which you learn best.
  • We can leverage industry relationships to help us make decisions about technical projects in addition to guidance for selecting certifications.
    • If you are someone in technology looking to make a shift into a different role, maybe your technical project should be partially focused in a new area you want to learn but have a component of an area you know well. This can make it easier to branch into a new area without getting overwhelmed and might be a way to keep yourself motivated and interested.
  • We are all responsible for educating others on working in technology. It’s important that we talk to others about what we do and why we chose to work in this industry as a way of getting more talent into our industry.

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