We all have to make a decision, at some point in our career, about whether or not we get into the management track. At Cisco, there is a very strong path for individual contributors (IC). You can be come a principal (director-level), a distinguished (senior director-level), and a fellow (VP-level) as an IC, never having to manage a soul. When I married my wife, I told her: “Never expect me to get into management, I’m a technical guy and I love being a technical guy, and I have zero interest in managing people.”
Thus, I surprised myself back in 2016 when my boss asked me, out of the blue, to step into management and I said yes. Partly it was my love of the Technical Marketing Engineer role, partly my desire to have some authority behind my ideas. At one point my team grew to fifty TMEs.
All technical people know that, when you go that route, your technical skills will atrophy as you will have less and less hands-on experience. This is very true. In the first couple of years, I kept up my formidible lab, then over time it sat in Cisco building 23, unused and consuming OpEx. I almost surrendered it numerous times.
Through attrition and corporate shenanigans, my team is considerably smaller (25 or so) and run by a very strong management team. Last week, I decided to bring the lab back up. I’ve been spending a lot of time sorting through servers and devices, figuring out which to scrap and which to keep. (Many of my old servers require Flash to access the CIMC, which is not feasible going forward.) I haven’t used ESXi in years, and finding out I can now access vSphere in a browser–from my Mac!!–was a pleasant surprise. Getting CIMCs upgraded, ESXi installed, and a functional Ubuntu server was a bit of a pain, but this is oddly the sort of pain I miss.
I have several Cat 9k switches in my lab, but I installed Cisco Modeling Labs on one of my servers. (The nice thing about working for Cisco is the license is free.) I used VIRL many years ago, which I absolutely hated. CML is quite slick. It was simple to install, and within a short time I had a lab up and running with a CSR1kv, a Cat 8k, and a virtual Cat 9k.
When I was in TAC I discovered IOS on Unix, or IOU. Back then, TAC agents were each given a Sun Sparc station, and I used mine almost exclusively to run IOU. (I thought it was so cool back then to have a Sun box on my desk. And those of you who remember them will know what I mean when I say I miss the keyboard.) IOU allowed me to define a topology in a text file, and then spin up several virtual IOS devices on the Sparc station in that topology. It only supported sinulated Ethernet links, but for pure routing protocols cases, IOU was more than adequate to recreate a customer environment. In 15 minutes I could have my recreate up and running. Other engineers would open a case to have a recreate built by our lab team, which could take days. I never figured out why they wouldn’t use IOU.
When I left Cisco I had to resort to GNS3, which was a pretty helpful piece of software. Then, when I went to Juniper I used Junosphere, or actually an internal version of it called VMM, to spin up topologies. VMM was awesome. Juniper produced a virtual version of its MX router that was so faithful to the real thing that I could pass the JNCIE Service Provider exam without ever having logged into a real one, at least until exam day.
It’ll be interesting to see what I can do on virtual 9ks in CML–I hear there are some limitations. But I do plan to spend as much time as possible using the virtual version over the real thing.
One thing I think I lost sight of as I (slightly) climbed the corporate ladder was the necessity of technical leadership. We have plenty of people managers and MBAs. We need leaders who understand the technology, badly. And while I have a lot of legacy knowledge in my mental database, it’s in need of refresh. It’s hard to stay sharp technically when reading about new technologies in PowerPoint.
The other side of this is that, as engineers, we love the technology. I love making stuff work. My wife is not technical at all, and cannot understand why I get a thrill from five little exclamation points when a ping goes through. I don’t love budgets and handling HR cases, although I’ve come to learn why I need to do those things. I need to do them so my people can function optimally. And I’m happy to do them for my team.
On the other hand, I’m glad to be in the frigid, loud, harsh lighting of a massive Cisco lab again. It’s very cool to have all this stuff. Ain’t life grand!