Packets Don’t Lie: Quality of Service for Technical Exploration in Network Engineering with Amy Arnold (1/2)

When something related to your current job or a job you think you want isn’t for you, how do you know? And how quickly can you make that decision? Much like quality of service is applied to enterprise network traffic, we can apply the same sort of prioritization to our technology careers through the process of technical exploration and curiosity.

Amy Arnold, our guest this week in episode 281, had originally planned to be an attorney but ended up dropping out of a pre-Law program after 5 days. From there, she decided to take networking courses, and though it was a new subject to Amy, something “just clicked” when it came to networking. A future network engineer was born.

Amy Arnold is currently a Pre-Sales Systems Engineer at Fortinet. In this discussion you’ll hear Amy’s technology origin story, how she progressed to become a network engineer, what working in the public sector is like, thoughts on mentoring and technical communities, and reasons for pursuing a role as a consultant while choosing a specialty in VOIP.

Original Recording Date: 05-30-2024

Topics – Networking Just Clicked, Program Advisor and Mentor, Technical Communities, The Path to a Networking Focused Tech Job, Embracing Exploration, Hitting a Stride and Progressing as a Network Engineer, The Nuances of Public Sector, A Move to Consulting

2:39 – Networking Just Clicked

  • Today Amy Arnold is a Pre-Sales Systems Engineer at Fortinet.
    • In this, role, Amy architects Fortinet solutions to solve problems for customers in the public sector. We often refer to this sector as SLED (state and local education as well as local government).
    • To contact Amy, you can find her:
  • Amy tells us she originally planned to be an attorney. After attending law school for a week, Amy dropped out, feeling it was not the right path for her.
    • Upon dropping out of law school and not having much of a plan, Amy decided to take some courses at local colleges – a coding class and a programming class.
    • “The coding class was…fine. But the networking class…it was amazing. I still remember my instructor when she told me what a router was for the first time. I was like, ‘tell more about that. I really want to know.’ And so, I was hooked. I took all the classes they had to offer in networking and ended up with a certificate in networking. And then I took certifications as well.” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy had grown up with a father who worked in technology, specifically in coding / programming. Amy didn’t feel compelled to pursue technology and didn’t see herself in that type of role just because she had some familiarity with it. After leaving law school and taking some courses, she gave technology another look.
    • Amy tells us she can do coding, but something about networking “just clicked” for her.
    • “Why not give it a try and see what area of technology might be a good fit? And that’s what I did. Honestly, like I said I didn’t even know what an ip address was until I took this first class…and the rest is kind of history from that point.” – Amy Arnold, on the decision to dive deep into networking
    • John points out how a few days in networking classes were enough to let Amy know she had an interest in the area, and she then decided to see if it was a passion.
      • While Amy enjoyed pre-law classes, there was something about the practice of law that just wasn’t for her. In fact, she didn’t even want to give it a year to see if things changed, feeling that would have been time wasted.
      • People may feel the same way in any job they have, being unable to pinpoint a specific reason but deep down knowing what they are doing is not for them.
      • With the networking courses, she decided at the end of each one to take the next one. Though Amy feels it was taking a chance, it worked out well in the end.
  • Nick likes the fail fast or gain value fast mentality. Once we land on something that really peaks an interest, how do we determine what to do from there and if something will translate into a different job / career?
    • Amy says she was pretty clueless at first and was a novice in networking.
    • The networking program Amy had entered was a flexible program. She had a young child at the time, which meant she could tend to her child during the day and take classes and do lab work in the evenings.
    • The program had a ton of hands on learning and many instructors with experience in the networking field. The program’s guided path focus was to produce capable network engineers, which worked to Amy’s advantage.
  • Being the mom of a young child while going to school at the same time seems like a very heavy load.
    • Amy’s husband (a software engineer) was consistently home in the evenings to support her work in the networking program.
    • Amy could also study while her baby took naps.
    • Having the support and dedicated time to study allowed Amy to work at her own pace, which was quicker than she originally expected.
    • The program was structured to allow students to progress to the next course once they complete a course (no requirement to wait until the next semester). It took Amy about 1 – 1.5 years to complete the program, and then she focused on obtaining certifications.

10:27 – Program Advisor and Mentor

  • Did the program Amy was part of connect students in it with potential employers, or was the guidance more from expertise of instructors?
    • There was a little of both. Amy tells us what she learned in the program helped her land her first technology job.
    • Amy currently serves on the advisory board for this program. She helps with curriculum development so participants in the program can develop practical skills from it.
    • The program currently has internships with which to align students and has for a number of years.
    • This particular program has a technical focus and has an industry advisory board. The goal of the program is to produce candidates with useful, entry level skills upon existing the program.
      • Amy and other members of the advisory board meet with the program faculty a couple of times per year to discuss courses, their current relevance, and any gaps in curriculum which will better serve participants.
      • The program has been adjusted over time to account for industry trends like the rise of public cloud, emphasis on automation and scripting, etc.
  • Amy says it’s very rewarding to have gone through the program and now see the success of program candidates. Amy now serves as a mentor to multiple people who have gone through the program.
    • Even outside the program, Amy is mentoring a number of women in network engineering. She is passionate about increasing the talent pipeline for network engineering as a discipline and enjoys helping women engineers get started.
    • Amy enjoys mentoring others because she didn’t have a mentor when she began in network engineering.
    • Amy highlights finding unofficial mentors to learn from on Twitter, through Packet Pushers, and via Tech Field Day.
      • “If I can help women getting started that maybe don’t have those same connections get started, I feel really strongly about that…. A lot of network engineering positions, especially getting started are…you’re a part of one potentially…. You might wear several different hats. That’s tough to do when you’re on your own. So getting the right resources, helping people, giving them the support that they need…I think that’s important in the industry, and I think that’s something network engineering community does really well.” – Amy Arnold

14:42 – Technical Communities

  • Since Nick and John were systems administrators who got into virtualization, they are curious about communities specifically for network engineers.
    • Amy mentions the Packet Pushers Slack Group as one example and cites the usefulness of Twitter and LinkedIn.
    • Amy is the co-leader of the Dallas / Fort Worth (DFW) Networking User Group (or NUG) and calls this out as her favorite community group.
      • Amy tells us these are great opportunities to nerd out with other network engineers in your area.
      • All of the networking user groups (or NUGs) roll up to the (US)NUA, an organization that helps find venues to make group administration easier.
      • Any talks given at an event are vendor neutral. Attendees are a mix of network engineers across customers, vendors, and partners / resellers / consulting firms.
      • Visit this page to learn about other Networking User Groups and see upcoming events.
    • Amy is a member of Women in Cybersecurity (or WiCyS and attended their conference in Nashville earlier this year.

17:18 – The Path to a Networking Focused Tech Job

  • Amy’s first tech job had very little networking focus, and that was disappointing.
    • Her title at this company was something related to special projects. The company wanted to hire her but wasn’t certain what to do with her skills.
    • At his job, Amy learned about servers and obtained a MCSE. She also learned about desktops.
    • Though the role was not largely focused on networking, Amy pursued networking certifications and continued to build skills in her area of interest, often spending her personal time to do it.
  • An opportunity came up to do project management, which was something she had been curious about, and Amy went for it.
    • The role was focused on technical project integration and enabled Amy to get a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification.
    • Amy spent about 8 months in this role. While she loved making project plans and rollback plans for herself, there were aspects of the role as a project manager she did not like, such as “herding cats.”
      • “That’s one thing as we kind of talk through career choices…I think sometimes you have to try things. And maybe they’re not your favorite thing, and you learn that about yourself.” – Amy Arnold, on trying project management and being thankful she did
    • As soon as a pure network engineer role came up Amy applied for it and got it.
    • “My first probably 2 years in tech was not a ton of networking…a ton of technology but not a ton of pure networking.” – Amy Arnold
  • How was Amy’s networking experience looked upon when applying for some of the roles that were not 100% networking focused? Did hiring managers think as a result she could figure out other areas of technology as a result?
    • Amy believes they did. In fact, each role has allowed her to learn a lot.
    • She learned about servers, for example, which helped Amy realized she liked networking better than servers. Learning about general systems administration and endpoints was also helpful.
    • Project management was something interesting to Amy but once again not where she wanted to focus.

20:38 – Embracing Exploration

  • Nick feels like Amy has a fast filter that helps her determine what is both an interesting topic to learn and something enjoyable to do as part of a job. It’s almost like she is doing per packet forwarding for SD-WAN and sending the packets down the strongest link or dropping them based on these criteria. What is the decision making process behind this which others can learn from?
    • Networking has so many areas within it, and Amy tells us it is very difficult (especially when getting started) to know what you will like and where you will focus.
    • Landing a job and gaining exposure to different areas can help you determine what may be a better fit.
      • It is important to separate areas in which you’re unskilled and have the potential to improve because it interests you from those you classify as “not for me.”
      • In project management, Amy got better at and was good at it before deciding it was not for her.
      • In networking, Amy knew she was a complete novice and was initially stressed at all the things she did not know. But as she learned more, things got better, and her enjoyment of it perpetuated.
      • “Sometimes you have to stay in a position longer than you want to. But what I’ve found and what I love about networking is that if you really know your stuff and you can show people you really know your stuff, you can transition between a lot of different things. So it’s really hard to get bored, and it’s a lot easier than some fields to move into something you enjoy more.”- Amy Arnold
  • John says it sounds like Amy is encouraging us to do more exploration in our careers, especially in the beginning.
    • Amy tells us people who started in help desk are some of the best network engineers she knows because of the variety of things they have seen.
      • In addition to the above, translating what an end user is asking / saying is a skill in and of itself.
      • A variety of scenarios and technologies may help you determine what is most interesting. Amy gives the example of deploying an access point as some of the experience needed to understand if a person likes working with wireless or radio frequencies.
      • “I think that one thing folks try to skip though is those fundamentals. I don’t think you can skip those. I think you have to understand basic networking before you start branching out….” – Amy Arnold
      • Amy says we can try things we think we’re interested but don’t have to feel like it’s the only option and our decision is final.

25:41 – Hitting a Stride and Progressing as a Network Engineer

  • When did Amy hit her stride after doing some exploring?
    • At her first network engineering job, Amy was excited to be able to apply all of the information she had gathered through self-study and certification.
      • Amy was translating some of the networking theory into practice outside a lab environment.
    • Around this time Amy started seeking out other network engineers. She was the only one who specialized in networking.
    • Getting a job as an actual network engineer was validating. It confirmed Amy’s hypothesis that she would really like doing the job.
    • Amy highlights public sector as a great opportunity for potential job candidates and the need for talented people.
      • While public sector may not pay the most in the market, working within it can offer job candidates the chance to do many different things.
      • Public sector needs smart people who can adapt. Amy says it’s a way to gain a lot of experience very quickly.
  • Taking a role in the public sector gave Amy the chance to learn many areas of networking.
    • Domain controllers and the Citrix deployment also fell under the network team’s purview for some reason.
    • “I was able to really get that holistic picture of how everything works together, which is one of the things I really like about my job – being able to see how things go together, the dependencies, how you can solve problems or create problems within the network with applications and servers and end users and all that together.” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy mentions that in her experience network engineers might get roped into solving all kinds of mysteries because people just don’t know who else to ask. After verifying and proving the issue was not with the network, Amy would seek to help end users solve the problem they had brought to her.
    • Amy mentions learning virtualization through her job in public sector. Overall it was a great opportunity to upskill.
  • A role as a network engineer doesn’t mean you just work on networking equipment all day long and stay in a bubble. Networking technologies connect other technologies that a network engineer will need to understand to be effective. Be sure to read job roles and responsibilities carefully!
    • According to Amy, sometimes you act as a “network janitor” and have to clean up all sorts of messes.
    • Working on problems that seem outside your area to find the underlying cause (or culprit) of the problem can really sharpen troubleshooting skills.
      • “That’s one of the reasons I love packet captures…. Packets don’t lie. This is your issue right here.” – Amy Arnold

31:42 – The Nuances of Public Sector

  • Generally when people say public sector this refers to anything which is publicly funded / funded by public dollars.
    • Though privately funded universities would not be public sector according to the definition, we might hear the classification SLED in the vendor and partner world, which include them.
      • The SLED classification of customer accounts refers to state and local governments and education. Education includes IDSs (independent school districts and higher education institutions).
  • What sort of technology nuances exist in the public sector that wouldn’t in the private sector?
    • Amy has spent most of her time working in local government, specifically working for a city.
    • Cities have a wide variety of services to deal with like parks, animal shelters, public safety, fire, police, dispatchers, permits, building inspectors, public works (streets, utilities, sewers, etc.). Each has its own set of applications.
    • “You’re dealing with a lot of different priorities, different sectors, different applications, and you also deal with different compliance, especially in public safety….” – Amy Arnold, on working in public sector
      • Criminal background checks require a connection to state systems to look up drivers licenses. All of this has to be secured and requires certain types of encryption in transit, for example.
      • Schools (independent school districts / lower education institutions) have to deal with CIPA compliance related to web filtering for children.
      • People forget that both schools and local government deal with credit cards. Though they try not to store the payment card data, there is security hygiene required for taking payments.
    • There is so much technology in public section which people may not realize.
      • Local governments have SCADA systems that run water plants, irrigation, and sewage plants. Amy gained a great deal of SCADA experience in her work for the city.
      • Schools have things like smart boards and IoT devices.
    • “They don’t necessarily pay enterprise rates for your service, but you can get a wide variety of experience doing it.” – Amy Arnold
  • Does experience in public sector make you a more attractive candidate for a different role within public sector compared to a candidate with experience outside public sector?
    • Amy can’t speak for all hiring managers, but hiring someone with public sector experience means that person understands what the environment is like.
  • Everything in the public sector is funded by projects, tax money, and grants.
    • “There’s never enough time, there’s never enough money, and there’s never enough people. And one of the reasons that I really actually like working in SLED is because those are problems and challenges that I like solving. How are we going to get the quality and the service that they need…given these constraints?” – Amy Arnold
    • Sometimes the constraints are substantial, but the solution has to work within the budget. Amy and her co-workers for the city were well aware of these types of scenarios.
    • Within municipalities and school districts, a review board or council determines if technology (or any other type of) projects will be funded. Different solutions have to be prioritized appropriately as a result because it isn’t just IT asking for things.
      • “Everyone’s asking for money, and you’re not going to get all of the money. So it’s dividing up that pie.” – Amy Arnold
    • Public sector also has certain purchasing regulations to follow which ensure entities are being responsible with money.
    • Amy learned how to align technology with business goals while working on the job in public sector, and it is part of the reason she’s been able to progress into her current role at Fortinet. It was the experience being a part of those conversations and knowing what was likely or not likely to get approved.

38:40 – A Move to Consulting

  • Amy’s husband was thinking about teaching high school, and she didn’t think it was wise for them to both work for the government.
  • Amy had wanted to try consulting and made the move. It was a “mentors” kind of setup where she would have more senior folks to ask for help.
  • She didn’t just choose consulting but chose to focus on a specific technology within networking – VOIP (voice-over-ip).
  • “I wanted to see what it would be like to know something really deeply…. Consulting is a whole different animal…. People are constantly setting their own environments on fire, and they are calling you to fix it.” – Amy Arnold
    • Amy was a consultant for several years and became very good at it.
    • Though many of her customers were public sector customers, consulting was “a different world” that was fast-paced.
  • “It’s a lot of fun. It’s also got some high stress to it. I definitely recommend folks who think they might want to do it give it a try. Ultimately I decided I liked being the demanding customer.” – Amy Arnold, on consulting and why she left it
    • Amy liked having more input in projects, which was part of the reason behind her decision to move back to the customer side.
    • Consulting was a great experience for Amy. It can teach you how to talk to customers and expose you to many different environments.
      • Amy also tells us you get to meet many different people and do a variety of different things.

Mentioned in the Outro

  • Amy might be the only guest who has shared details on the depth and breadth of technologies inside the public sector (as well as compliance requirements). Did you know cities had all that technology within their operations?
    • Public sector seems like an option to gain experience in areas outside your current focus if you’re working in the private sector today.
  • Amy highlights focusing on the fundamentals of networking as a way to determine what we find interesting and where we may want to place more focus in the future.
  • Amy chose to specialize in VOIP because she wanted to be deeply skilled at something.
    • This came only after learning the fundamentals of networking.
    • It’s important to understand Amy was a consultant for only a certain amount of time. The specialization was not forever, and she hints at moving back to working for the city again after being a consultant.
    • Pursuing a specialty for a time can make us a better generalist later just like taking a broader focus could make us a better specialist later. We need to understand one decision to specialize does not lock you into it forever.
  • We emphasized technical communities specifically for network engineers like:
    • The (US)NUA or US Networking User Association is the organization that helps local Networking User Groups like the one Amy co-leads in Dallas / Fort Worth, and its mission for community groups is to be “a vendor neutral environment to talk networks.”
      • Maybe these groups are a way to find some mentors who can help you progress as a network engineer.
    • Packet Pushers also has a community you can join here and a job board that is free for technologists to use.
      • To learn more about the Packet Pushers job board, check out our discussion in Episode 277 with Ethan Banks.
  • We never used the words quality of service in the discussion. Similar to quality of service for network traffic, Amy has been able to apply quality of service at a whole new level, prioritizing topics and areas that were both interesting to learn and seemed interesting to be part of her job.
    • Amy’s technical exploration phase allowed her to consistently reprioritize.
  • As you progress in your career, it’s important that we have support from others (friends, family, etc.). Amy had this as she progressed as a network engineer.

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