I can tell you to take a million classes and get a bazillion certifications, but that would only work as long as you have a network to manage.
What I mean is that your education is only as good as the hands-on experience you can acquire as you go along with your career. Getting to know the intricacies of your network is mission-critical when you are talking about advancing your knowledge.
Think about it this way. A doctor can have all the theoretical knowledge in the world, but if he doesn't learn from each of his patients and each emergency situation he is thrown into, then he will never progress. Networking is the same way.
How do you know the range of your router recovery knowledge if you've never had a router go down? How do you know if you can boost bandwidth on the fly if you've never tried? How can you be sure that you know how to work with partners if you've never had to build an extranet to their networks?
It's what you do on the job that makes you a better network manager. It's also all in the listening and learning. Monitoring your network closely is the most important experience you'll have. Knowing the ranges and limitations of your network makes you the expert in your field. Don't expect to know all of this right off the bat, it takes time, practice and oftentimes that ugly word: downtime.
The first step to getting to know your network is to put into place tools that let you get to know the idiosyncrasies, the ups and downs you face every day. For instance, how does your network react when marketing sends out an e-mail blast? What are the hotspots when the CEO broadcasts his monthly message? Does your new voice-over-IP solution mess with traffic patterns? You can learn a lot about your network just by testing and monitoring new applications.
But for every new application you test, make sure you have a debriefing period. Gather your team and find out what everyone noticed about network and application performance. Are there problems communicating with remote offices? Did other traffic suffer? Are there enough quality-of-service tools in place? Document this debriefing so that you can refer back to it. Also, talk with the application vendor to find out if the reactions you are seeing are normal. They might already have a fix for what ails you. You also should brainstorm on a solution. Do you need more bandwidth? Do you simply need a bandwidth manager? Do you need a different application?
As you go through these scenarios over and over, you will become the force behind your well-run network.
Sandra Gittlen is events editor for US Network World's Seminars and Events.