Hello World, and Random Career Thoughts

being a systems engineer

I've had a lot of people ask me a lot of questions lately, and I am not certain by any means that I am the best source of advice, especially when it comes to careers- but for some reason many people ask me about theirs and what they should do. One question though recently hit me, I was asked, "what is the best job you've had, and why?" Now normally I'd whip out some quick, witty, and sometimes sarcastic answer, but for whatever reason I took this question quite seriously. After one of those random moments of awkward silence where the person asking you the question wonders if you really paid attention when they asked it hit me- I was the happiest when I was a systems engineer. For me this was probably the most formative time in my career, and if you've ever read Malcolm Gladwell's recent book "The Outliers" (thank you to Anuradha for recommending this one to me, a good quick read) for me being an SE was my personal equivalent of the 10,000 hour crash course. Here's why... An SE at Cisco is one of the coolest jobs around- you get to meet with your customers, learn about their networks, and help design some of the neatest networks and systems around. I was an SE in FY98 and FY99, and about half of of FY00. (Cisco has a Fiscal Year that starts and ends around the end of July, never was really sure why, but we had fun 'New Years' parties and lunches in late July) I must confess I was extremely fortunate. Talk about right place right time- I originally didn't pursue an SE role in Sacramento covering Gov't and Education customers, I felt I would have been bored. But a few months later I received a job offer as an SE in San Francisco, covering the financial customers on the west coast. It didn't work out so well for me in the financial group and I was re-deployed to 'commercial'. Now 'commercial' is all the un-named accounts, those accounts smaller than 1000 employees which generally, especially in 1998, meant 'people who really didn't need most of your products'. As the first SE assigned to commercial it was rather ground-breaking but was not really viewed as a positive career step at the time. But fate shined on me, because if you think back to 1998 about the types of companies that existed from Menlo Park, through San Francisco, and up to Napa and Sonoma counties? I ended up with every dot.com you could imagine. I had the coolest companies, the craziest business models, the fastest growth, and more fun than anyone. I had the roommate- Sean D. Murphy. Sean was a Cisco Account Manager I supported. Down the street lived Ann- Ann was the other Cisco AM I supported. See in commercial we didn't have 1 SE to 1 AM back then. Life was a bit interesting when you lived with your partner-in-crime. Suffice to say vacations were few and far between and Friday blurred right into Monday too often. Mondays and Wednesdays I would pretty much support Sean, with Ann on the alternating days. What this ended up meaning were 4-5 customer meetings a day with Sean, 3-4 the next day with Ann, then repeat. Whereas man of the SE's on the 'named account' or 'enterprise' regions would have these goals to present one or two presentations to their customer per quarter, I was doing 10-15 a week. It was, in Malcolm Gladwell's analogy, like the Beatles in Hamburg playing eight-hour sets. Friday was catch-up day with network designs, TAC case follow-=up, Bills of Materials, and taking the time to educate and train our channel partenrs on our new offerings. I was also fortunate to have these two managers, Jim Middleton and Bruce Parelskin. They had wildly different styles, but quite complementary- the short version is that Bruce would critique every customer engagement I ever did and could pretty much always find very good ways for me to improve. Jim was always trying to find opportunities to highlight to the rest of our management chain the things I got right. (I did a great job of denying him lots of opportunities...) What makes a good SE? That I learned from my customers. Know your products. Don't bother representing something you are uncomfortable with, either don't do it, or bring in someone who knows that product. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Be there for your customer on Friday night or Saturday morning if they are doing a cut-over or having problems- they are there, you should be too. It's better not to win the deal than to compromise on your principles - don't sell something that won't work. I could go on and on, and tie some relevant example to every one of those points. I know at Cisco some people still think it is better to be in Global Accounts, or Enterprise, or Service Provider. But I always have felt that the best SE's come from the ranks of those who have to support not one, but hundreds of different customers through small networks, and large ones, IT intensive businesses, and more brick-and-mortar types. Breadth of experience is invaluable. Good luck. dg (SE II for life) Follow me on Twitter Or at loopback0, my tech blog

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