Ravi asks the following…
I’m trying to figure out what makes a network engineer truly a “senior” engineer. What skills, mostly non-technical, do they possess in order to bring value to the work place?
I’ll share my opinions based on my experience having held junior and senior IT engineering roles, as well as multiple managerial stints with engineers as direct reports. I’m mostly going to address IT engineering broadly rather than networking specifically, as my opinion is the same no matter which tech silo an engineer might hail from.
As Ravi asked about “mostly non-technical” skills, I’ll be brief here. From a technical perspective, I believe a senior IT engineer is primarily differentiated from a junior in one word–experience. The senior engineer has installed more systems, planned more changes, fixed more problems, and survived more outages than a junior engineer in the same organization.
Ideally, that experience has led to wisdom about how technology can best serve the business needs of an organization. This wisdom will tend to eschew needlessly complex designs, nerd knobs, and “science experiments” conducted in production. This wisdom will also result in difficult problems being resolved more quickly. Experienced folks know somewhat instinctively the root causes of many problems because they’ve been there before.
Certification aficionados might believe paper credentials are the fastest road to seniority. Shouldn’t technical prowess count for something? Of course, technical skills are crucial to an engineering team. However, I would place an uncertified network engineer with ten years of experience into a senior role before a CCIE with two years of experience. With all kindness to any wunderkinds, I view a CCIE with only two years on the job as a potential risk to be carefully managed.
From a non-technical perspective, I believe a senior IT engineer has many of the following characteristics. To me, a senior IT engineer…
Understands the business. A senior engineer understands the role they and the IT team at large plays in furthering the business goals of an organization. A senior grasps the organization’s mission, competitive landscape, business & accounting cycles, crucial IT systems, and ongoing projects. With this context, a senior can more ably balance the riskiness and usefulness of an IT initiative and advise business stakeholders appropriately.
Engages other IT groups. A senior IT engineer recognizes that application delivery is facilitated by an integrated IT stack. Their technology silo doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Therefore, a senior doesn’t blindly fulfill tickets from other IT groups. Instead, the senior reviews requests with a systemic view, engages requestors to understand what’s driving a request, and then fulfills the request with a solution that’s best for the business and the IT system as a whole.
Documents. A senior engineer creates and maintains clear procedures and accurate, relevant system documentation. A senior engineer’s documentation is prioritized, enabling the rest of the team, and therefore the organization, to function capably in their absence. If an engineer is the only one able to perform certain tasks, then the organization they serve is at risk.
Mentors. A senior is willing to share their technical knowledge and experience, and possesses the ability to do so effectively. A senior does not hoard knowledge or accrue exclusive system privileges to themselves.
Shares glory. A senior IT engineer gives others on the team the opportunity to succeed, and gives credit where due.
Is reliable. A senior engineer can be relied upon to show up to the workplace whether remotely or in person for the culturally expected hours. They are performing their expected work, and can be counted on by their teammates and co-workers across the organization to play their part.
Takes ownership. A senior leads & drives projects by seeing themselves as a stakeholder. They care about their projects, and want to see them delivered well. During an outage, a senior owns a problem resolution rather than being defensive about their pet technology or insisting, “It’s not me!” Whether the problem is with “their” tech or not, they commit to helping find a resolution that will put the business back on track.
Finds answers. A senior stays abreast of relevant technology, researching industry state and making potential recommendations to the business. While researching, the senior, due to a healthy skepticism, avoids breathless hype cycles.
Understands problems clearly. Trouble tickets often lie. For example, the classic “the internet is down” ticket rarely means that the internet is down. A “network down” ticket citing an HTTP 500 error as a symptom indicates the network is, in fact, up. A senior knows how to obtain the information necessary to quickly facilitate problem resolution.
Communicates clearly. Clear communication involves understanding the audience and sharing the data key to that audience while avoiding both over- and under-communicating. Seniors have honed their communication skills in IT meetings, in project discussions where business stakeholders are present, and in writing to technical groups (usually project-related) and to non-technical groups (such as outage or maintenance notifications).
Pushes back maturely. A senior engineer appropriately pushes back when too much is requested of them. Capable engineers sometimes develop a martyr complex, where they’ll take on work beyond their scope of responsibilities or that would diminish the work they are chiefly engaged to do. Senior engineers recognize the danger of burnout and risk to a business when too much is being asked of them, and can properly present this risk to leadership, no matter the outcome.
If you have more thoughts on how to separate junior and senior engineers, please let me know. Maybe you disagree with my categorizations. I’m happy to field those comments as well. Send them my way. My DMs are open on Twitter as well as the free Packet Pushers Slack group.