Learning from Peer Experience by Kim PedersenOne of the things you learn when you have been in the industry for a while is how much you don’t know. This sense of humility is one of the key drivers for many to keep improving and continually learning new things. I have also found that it’s one of the key attributes of successful people in the field.


But, gaining knowledge comes in many forms. The traditional way is reading, watching training videos and so on. However, almost nothing beats real-life experience with various technologies. It is also the most difficult approach, as it requires certain circumstances.


For one, you need to be in a job and/or position where you are put into situations where you can gain this knowledge in the first place. Second, your career will need to continually evolve so you don’t end up in a "stale" situation. However, even as you grow naturally throughout your career, that in and of itself will still be limited by the choices you end up making. For better or worse.


My suggestion is to take a different approach if you have not been able to gain hands on experience yourself, which is the "peer experience". This is actually learning from the experience of others! Simple, right? The answer is a resounding "No".


First of all, it involves having access to other people who are willing to invest their time and energy in presenting the results of their experience and choices in their field and really learning from them in a profound way. Secondly, you need to learn how to really listen to what others are telling you and try and use this information intelligently. This is something I have personally struggled with in the past. It is one thing to have information presented to you, but it is a different thing completely to really use this information in a manner which will further your understanding.


So how does all of this relate to the CCDE exam and/or the job-role of a designer? It is extremely rare that you will have intimate knowledge and experience with all combinations of technologies and their applicability (topologies, task domains etc.). Thinking "outside the box", it is a critical part of designers job role and hence also for the CCDE exam.


Access to the right people

But let’s tackle the first things first. There are many ways in which you can get to know people in this networking industry. There are communities such as Cisco Learning Network, countless blog sites and the social media networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter as well. I recommend being active in as many as you can in some way or another. Some of my best friendships have been made through these networks. There are also the live conferences such as Cisco Live, which I highly recommend you attend. It’s a great occasion to meet up with the people you may have only "met" online.


When you find like-minded people and you offer your time and energy to help them, they are just as likely to do the same for you. As with everything, it’s a give-and-take kind of thing. You get just as much back as you put into it. So be willing to put in a good deal of work and time to continue the cycle.


Don’t be afraid to ask people if they are interested in grouping together to help further the learning purpose of you both. My friend Daniel Dib has a series of blog posts here on Unleashing CCDE about forming and running a study group. Take a close look at those for further information on the topic.


Active listening and learning

The second part is where the difficulty lies. So now you have a new study buddy or even a group of friends. Now what?


I suggest that the individuals involved make a short presentation on where they are in their professional life, what sort of technologies they have used in the past and what they currently work with and also what their study objectives are.


The reasoning behind this is to give a backdrop for you to get to know your peers’ strengths. This also means you should actively ask questions. This doesn’t mean challenging or scrutinizing them, but to be genuinely curious to get a better understanding of whom you may potentially be working with. Try and put yourself in their shoes and see what sort of choices you would make if you were the engineer in charge of that situation.


After the initial presentation, pick different topics from your peers’ experience. If there are a couple of people working in the enterprise space, pick topics in that space. An example could be IGP design for the WAN. But don’t only focus on things you are familiar with. Again, if you are an enterprise guy, invite your SP friend to pick a topic relevant to him or her. This will be really valuable for you both. You will gain SP knowledge and he or she will have to analyse the circumstances of the topic involved. A win-win situation.


I would recommend keeping the sessions focused, to the point and as informal as possible. You don’t want some formalities standing in the way of doing the "peer experience". The sessions could be something as simple as a discussion on a Slack group, Spark room or it could be a WebEx Meeting. Whatever suits you all.


Let me give you an example. In our study group, we have people from all over the world working in all sorts of industries. I have often thought that service provider POP design had to look a certain way, but listening to the very clever people at other service providers, they have come up with completely different designs because of some factors that are not present in my environment.


When you get that sort of "Aha" moment, I suggest that you write down a few notes on what you have just learned from your "peer experience". After a session, take a look at your notes and play around with its implications. Is this something you can use in your environment/topology? If so, how and what sort of impact will it have? - If no, then why not? What other factors are involved that prevents its implementation?


Doing this sort of analysis is extremely valuable as a designer and/or studying for the CCDE exam. It helps to prevent you from only looking at technology in a certain way. It opens your eyes to a whole range of new possibilities!


So now you see where this is heading. You are basically taking the experience from others and applying it differently depending on where your thought process is heading. I have personally done this at least 15 times, some in more detail than others, but it’s been very valuable for both my professional life and in attaining the CCDE.


I wish you and your new study buddies good luck and as always, let me know if I can help!


About the Author

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Kim Pedersen (CCIE RS/SP #29189, CCDE #20170021) works as a Senior Network Engineer at Lytzen IT in Denmark. He works with their international MPLS network and medium to large scale customers in the VAR role to improve their network designs in a manner that aims to meet business requirements. He has a strong focus on Service Provider technologies as well as traditional routing and switching solutions.




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