RF Engineer in an IT World
Back in 2010, I was working at a large defense contractor as an RF Engineer sitting in a cubicle day after day when I decided I wanted to make a change. I was trying make a move down to the DC metro area and given my experience in defense contracting it seemed fitting that I would stay in the defense market. I took an interview with a consulting firm, which was new to me as I was a stereotypical engineer at the time (hated presentations and being the center of attention).
Leading me to this post, I wanted to talk about how I made the transition from RF engineer with a defense contractor to IT Systems Engineer with a leading Wi-Fi vendor.
Dive Head First
Don't be afraid to take career risks that challenge you. As the saying goes, "fake it until you make it."
I left a position as an RF engineer with a defense contractor to become a wireless consultant. My new position not only required knowledge of RF, but also broadened to include satellites, cellular, secure communications, and Wi-Fi. I knew nothing about Wi-Fi or networking at the time, beyond tweaking my home network. The new position challenged me both technically and professionally. I had to learn how to be a valued consultant rather than an engineer behind the scenes.
If I didn't make the change, I would still be sitting at my cubicle designing RADAR systems with little personal satisfaction or career growth. It was the best decision I ever made for my career and I'm thankful I looked past my fear and uncertainty.
While you're "faking it" you have to work on the "making it" part. The IT industry has a ton of resources that you can learn from. There is no limit to the amount of knowledge you can acquire for free or at least very affordably.
Check out the resources on this site
Read industry blogs
Watch videos on YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
Listen to industry podcasts
Read books (some of the best around are the CWNP study guides)
Read, watch, listen... repeat!
Attend Industry Conferences
There's a conference for everything, even within the Wi-Fi world there are different types of conferences that each have their own unique benefits.
Vendor Specific - Cisco Live, Aruba Atmosphere - These are great for learning about the latest technology from a specific vendor. Often these conferences have technology sessions and training available to facilitate learning their products.
Vendor Neutral - CWNP Wi-Fi Trek, Wi-Fi Now - These are often a combination of learning sessions, product expos, and vendor presentations. Some vendor neutral conferences lean towards teaching general Wi-Fi knowledge, while others are a showcase for the latest vendor solutions. Depending on your job role one may be better suited for an engineer versus a sales/manager role.
Community Based - Wireless LAN Pros Conference or WLPC for short - Headed up by Wi-Fi legend, Keith Parsons from wlanpros.com, is a conference for Wi-Fi engineers by Wi-Fi engineers. There is little to no product promotion and is intended to be technical focus. The best part is the amount of industry experts you interact with all while collecting some of the most useful swag in the business!
As in practically every profession, having mentors and colleagues to help you out in your new career will exponentially increase your knowledge. The Wi-Fi community is extremely welcoming, almost everyone is willing to help when you're in search for answers. You'll even find people that work for competing vendors willing to support each other without reservation.
The Wi-Fi Twitter community is one of the most active and close groups I have seen. If you're not already on Twitter sign up now; it's free, easy, and one of the best places to get to know who's who in the Wi-Fi world. Then attend a conference and get to know your Twitter friends in person.
Build A Lab
Nothing beats hands on experience for learning. At the start it may be tough to build up thousands of dollars worth of equipment and licenses. I recommend you at least try to get your company to build a lab environment at your office or try to browse the GUIs after hours to familarize yourself (in read only mode of course).
Then try to work on getting a home lab either start slow with leftover old models that you can get from work/colleagues. Some companies may even pay to get you equipment for your home to test on. Conferences are also a great way to get test gear, the WLAN Pros Conferences gives out a ton of Wi-Fi software, equipment, and tools for free as part of the attendance fee.
While getting certified alone won't magically make you an expert it will force you to study specific topics in an organized method. Wi-Fi can be a complex technology and if you try to learn everything at the same time it may be discouraging. The CWNP program is great for this as it is organized by different job roles (Administration, Design, Analysis, Security). After you get the basics down, I recommend you then try to focus on vendor specific certifications that will be specific to using a vendors product. Most companies are willing to pay for certification exam fees, books, and training courses. Don't be afraid to ask your boss, it will only help your company if your trained in the end.
Wi-Fi and engineering in general require lifelong learning. Standards are updated, new technologies emerge, and companies come and go. Don't be locked into a single technology or vendor. That's why I say learn the basics first, if you know the underlining standards then you can always learn a new vendor if needed. The Wi-Fi industry is changing fast, you not only need to know how to design and administer a network but you will be asked to make sure it is secure, be able to troubleshoot issues, and going forward automate/program.