Advice for Young Engineers


I've been "friended" on social media by hundreds of network engineering students and young people just beginning their IT careers. Mostly they're people who are aware of my books, or possibly even read one or two of them, and have been bamboozled into thinking I know what I'm talking about. They'll frequently contact me with some variation of the following request: "Can you advise me on how to be successful in my career?"

Of course what they're usually asking is for advice on what certifications they should get, what they should specialize in, what kinds of companies they should try to join, and that sort of thing. But, shoot, you can find all that stuff out with a little research on the Interwebs. The advice I give them is not at all what they were looking for.

So I thought I'd share that advice here. It's probably not what you're looking for either. But if you really want to make a difference in the networking industry, these steps can help you build foundation skills that are almost as important as going after that CCIE or landing that job at the Next Great Start-Up.

Take a Creative Writing Class

Not technical writing.
Creative writing. Learn how to use language that is precise, entertaining, and to the point. Learn how to tell a story. Be the Cormac McCarthy of the networking world.

All of us in engineering read endless white papers, manuals, and specifications that are dull as dishwater. So dry (as Bill Bryson would say) that you could use them to mop spills. We suffer through technical articles that leave us wondering what the heck the author is trying to say. It doesn't have to be like that.

Every engineer has to write reports, deliverables, how-to's, or instructions. But no engineer has to torture his readers. Even if you are writing a protocol specification, you can grab your reader's attention, make them laugh a little, intrigue them, surprise them.

Learn how to tell a story!

Beyond just taking a class, you should also read good stories. Mix a few novels in with your network studies, expose yourself to good writing, and your own capabilities will improve by osmosis. Not to mention, it's a far better way to unwind than turning on the Boob Tube.

Last, arm yourself with good writer's tools. Every desktop should of course have a dictionary and a thesaurus, but you should also have Strunk and White's
The Elements of Style, Miles' First Principles of the Essay, and perhaps the Chicago Manual of Style. Beyond those basic references, there are a few terrific books to help you improve your writing. Here are my own favorites, that I re-read every now and then:

  • Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style, by Arthur Plotnik
  • When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, by Ben Yagoda
  • A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words That Work, by Jack Hart

Take an Acting Class

No, I'm not kidding. Stop giving me that look. Just as you're going to have to write stuff throughout your career, you're also going to have to occasionally stand in front of an audience and present stuff. Maybe you're presenting to your peers at NANOG or APRICOT or IETF. Maybe you're updating your corporate executives. Maybe you're assisting a sales effort. Maybe you're teaching a class. You can put your audience to sleep, or you can make it interesting and entertaining.

Certainly you can take a public speaking class, and I do encourage that. But most public speaking classes are going to teach you the do's and don't's of standing in front of an audience and making a speech. An acting class is going to help you learn to put on a show. It's the in-person version of learning to tell a story. You're going to get techniques for rehearsing and memorizing a script. You're going to learn how to loosen up on stage, be a character that pulls the audience in, and use the stage to hold interest.

You don't have to become the next Meryl Streep. You just want to learn how to be interesting, relaxed, and convincing in front of an audience.

Beyond taking a class, there are some wonderful resources available for you to continuously improve your speaking skills. Most of them are on YouTube. Look for videos on public speaking and presentation skills of course, but also look for speakers that you personally enjoy. They could be industry speakers, politicians, actors, or comedians. Oh, definitely study stand-up comedians. They live or die by how well they can keep an audience engaged and laughing. Watch TedTalk presenters. Watch Steve Jobs, but skip the ubiquitous "How to present like Steve Jobs" videos.

One of my personal favorites is James Whittaker of Microsoft:

Take an Art Class

Okay, maybe I am going a bit too far with this one. What I really mean is, get a sense of design. An art class might be one way of doing it. When you put together a paper, don't just make the content interesting; make the paper itself interesting to look at, logical, and well-organized.

And for heavens sake, learn how to build and use a Powerpoint deck. Or even better, learn how to make a presentation without one.


You Can Do It

That's pretty much it in terms of career advice. Develop your writing skills. Develop your presentation skills. Learn to make your material attractive and interesting. Be a storyteller.

A personal disclaimer: I'm not holding myself up as any model to follow. I'm a pretty good writer, although my editors at Cisco Press and Addison-Wesley make me look better than I actually am. I'm a mediocre speaker, although I'm comfortable on stage; when you see how shy and boring I am in person, you'll realize that I'm at least better on stage than I am face-to-face. And, darn it, I can put together a decent Powerpoint slide. My only real talent is that I'm good at explaining things. That alone has gotten me published a few times, gotten me in front of a
lot of audiences around the world, and has convinced hundreds that I'm smarter than I really am.

Here I am near the end of my career, and I still work on improving my writing. I still study good speakers and try to learn from them. If you're nearer the beginning of your own career, take my advice to heart and it will pay off for you. Just plan on continually improving your communications skills throughout your long and, I hope, highly successful tenure.