When you swipe a credit card at Starbucks, it instantly processes your information. Within two seconds, the transaction is complete. But this lighting-fast exchange is not solely due to the application installed on the touch pad, it’s due to the network. If the network is slow, or not working, the application is useless.
That’s the importance of networks in a nutshell, as explained by Michael Quinn, VP of Global Labs and Sustainability Technical Services of Cisco Systems.
Cisco Systems is one of the largest networking companies in America, with its headquarters in San Jose, California. But Quinn is originally from Cranston.
Last week he visited with juniors and seniors at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center to talk to them about careers in technology.
After graduating college with a degree in electronics, Quinn began applying for jobs.
“Applied to Electric Boat all the other places a Rhode Islander would apply,” he told the students. He also applied for a job with the Rhode Island State Police, who hired him.
“But they wanted to put me in a patrol car for three years,” he said. So he declined the job. Quinn didn’t want to waste his time or his talent doing something he didn’t want to do.
So where did Quinn end up working? The Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA. Working in counter-intelligence, Quinn traveled the world.
But eventually, Quinn got offered his current position at Cisco.
“How hard was it to make the choice to leave your government job?” asked a student last Wednesday morning.
Quinn said it wasn’t a tough decision because he knew if he wanted to go back to the CIA, he could.
“But I never did,” he smiled.
Quinn explained that two Stanford University students started Cisco in the 1980’s because they wanted to communicate with each other across campus. Working out of their home, they wrote what’s called a “multi-protocol router,” which allows various kinds of computers to communicate with each other.
At the time, they sold their first router for $85,000. Today, Quinn said the same router would sell for about $19.
That’s how quickly technology changes, which is why Quinn said the students in the classroom were both “valuable” and “perishable.”
By learning the newest skills, they could find employment easily, but if they let their industry knowledge slip, they’re outdated.
Quinn said in the past, electrical engineers were considered “real” engineers while electronic engineers or technicians were considered the “bench guys.”
“Today, they’re equal,” he said.
What sets these engineers apart from the rest of the pack is the Cisco certification. Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts (CCIE) make 35 percent more, according to Quinn, earning a starting salary of $85,000.
The students are currently studying Cisco Systems and networking, and are in the second and third level of training.
To become CCIE certified they must take the course, complete labs and pass an exam. Quinn said the exam has about a 42 percent success rate.
“It’s a bar in the industry that we continue to raise,” he said.
“It’s perfect because it’s difficult, if it was easy, wouldn’t have the quality of individuals that we do.”
Quinn said those wishing to maintain their CCIE status must re-take the exam every three years.
Liz Sharette, the Cisco Networking Academy instructor at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, instructs her class on the basic fundamentals for a career in information technology. Each year students visit the Cisco Systems location in Foxboro, but they have never had the opportunity to meet with someone from the California headquarters.
Sharette said hearing about Quinn’s experience in the field was a valuable lesson for her students.
“They’re looking for their future,” she said. “They’re asking, ‘Where are we headed?’ This validates what they’re doing. It makes it real for them.”
Alexander DeFrance sat in on Quinn’s speech, even though he is enrolled in CCRI.
“I enjoyed hearing about the business side of the industry and how the industry has grown,” he said.
Dillon O’Brien, a twelfth grader who started his Cisco training last year, said he thought Quinn’s opinion on piracy was interesting. Piracy refers to the unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted material like software or music.
“I liked when he started talking about piracy, which is a big issue with me,” he said.
O’Brien and Quinn engaged in a conversation about SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) which would allow the government to more strongly regulate copyrighted material online.
“I wanted to see what his take on [piracy] was how it affects software companies,” said O’Brien.
Quinn encouraged and welcomed the students’ questions, leaving them with a sentiment of his gratitude.
“Thank you for taking this program. I’d worry if people weren’t sitting in this classroom,” he said.
Quinn said talking with students in Rhode Island is just like speaking with students anywhere in the world.
“They don’t differ much from their peers in other places,” he said. “They’re searching for what they want to be and what they want to do. They’re dabbling in things they previously may not have had the chance to do.”
One thing Quinn did notice about Wednesday’s class was the ratio of females to males: only about three women are enrolled in the class.
“It’s hard to get women involved in the class,” said Sharette.
Quinn said the class accurately represents their presence in the industry.
“Where it starts isn’t the parents, it’s the school systems,” he said about girl’s lack of presence in the field. “In middle school all the girls and boys are taking pre-calc together… and then in high school all the boys are in the advanced math courses. And boys are probably the worst math students.”
Quinn said it’s important to create a diverse work force, and because of that, female IT experts are in demand.
“Half of the engineering staff at Cisco is female, but that’s by design.”
He said other companies often scout females and offer them more money for the same job, just because of their gender.
“They’re in demand. If I was a young girl I would get my degree in technology.”
Sharette said she jumped at the chance to be trained in Cisco Systems.
“There’s no heavy lifting but it’s mentally challenging,” said Quinn of the industry. “And it’s never dull.”
In the 22 years he’s been in the industry, Quinn says a year hasn’t passed without change.
So what does the future hold?
“Cloud computing is the ultimate future,” said Quinn. “Although some say the cloud is just the internet in a new suit.”
Cloud computing allows the sharing of resources, like software, via a network. He used the example of the classroom computers.
“What if a class in New Zealand was able to access and use the computers in this class when you went home at night, their day?” he asked.
The students nodded their heads. That’s a technological future they hope to be a part of.