Educating the next generation of telecommunications talent

Male student in college class

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I recently had the chance to do a different type of networking, one that didn’t involve any subsea cables, points-of presence or cards. The audience was the next generation of potential employees and future leaders in the telecommunications industry, and the forum was NANOG U.

NANOG U is a series of two-day sessions sponsored by the North American Network Operators’ Group (NANOG). The goal is to give students an opportunity to interact with professionals in the computer sciences, information technology and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Even though I had a great deal of fun with my presentation, participating in NANOG U opened my eyes to two realities facing telecommunications.

Two realities facing telecommunications

First, events like these are incredibly relevant and critical to our industry’s ongoing growth. We all should more frequently engage with students while they are making their career plans, helping them understand their options, identify resources, and provide guidance. This is one of the best ways to address the “talent gap” occurring in our industry and many other tech sectors. 

Second, although we’re making great strides toward diversity and inclusion (both at Telstra and throughout  the telco industry), there’s still work to be done. NANOG U is just one example of building an effective pipeline to different types of talent with new  ideas and fresh perspectives.

More than just a sales engineer

I felt uniquely qualified to take on this challenge, as a “nerd with a personality.” In other words, I can talk about the technical aspect of my job – “speeds and feeds” – but I’m also personable and good with people.

At NANOG U, my presentation was titled, “Rising to New Depths with Telstra; Connecting the World While Charting Your Career”. I began by describing my role as a pre-sales engineer, what that entails and how I got my start. I wanted to present my job as a viable employment path and perhaps give other “nerds” like me career considerations that might not have been on their radar.

The audience was mostly undergraduates, and even though they all had an interest in some field related to telecommunications, most had no idea about the job responsibilities of a pre-sales engineer. Because the role has sales in the name, some people can be turned off immediately. Although, in reality, the role is more closely aligned to a consultant. 

That’s an important distinction because whichever direction their tech careers take them, at some point they’ll likely end up working with a vendor or customer. For them, it’s tremendously helpful to have a pre-sales engineer (or expert consultant) that can work with them to identify the best solution for their needs. 

After talking about my personal journey and the role of a pre-sales engineer, I gave an overview of the importance of Telstra’s subsea network infrastructure using a real-world scenario. Network issues happen all the time in our industry (it’s just part of the job); and in this scenario, which involved a problem arising out of a lack of due diligence, I positioned the role of pre-sales engineering as being instrumental in identifying a proper solution to help correct a situation.  

Through my presentation, I was able to educate the students about how, in the role of a pre-sales engineer, I’m constantly learning and never bored. Furthermore, it’s fairly easy to achieve high visibility within an organization, and there are countless opportunities to challenge the status quo.

They likely left the session knowing much more about subsea cables than they cared to, but, in the end, they recognized how important network infrastructure can be for their “always-on” lives.

The future of telecommunications looks bright

The events of NANOG U were cause for optimism on several fronts: the next wave of employees looks incredibly strong, and there is hope for the continued diversification of our industry.

One panel featured people – well, except me – that had a diverse, international background. One woman from India recalled how she had to run away from home to land her first job because, at the time, women in that country weren't expected to work.

Another man grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and he started his talk by saying he likely had many distant cousins and relatives at the Alabama-based conference. Freetown was a town built from slaves that had been transported from the southern United States. As an African-born descendant of slaves, he came here with nothing and built a career – at one point working at Walmart during the day while taking night classes and ultimately landing a senior position at Amazon Web Services. 

Attending NANOG U drove home the point of how, as an industry, we all need to do better and do more: do better recruiting, create more internships and do a better job at mentoring. 

In the world of technology, we’re supposed to be innovators constantly pushing the envelope. We need these constant infusions of fresh talent with new perspectives to reinvigorate the status quo and help take the industry in an entirely new direction.