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Network AF, Episode 6: Cat Gurinsky on mentorship and the shared languages of network engineering

Director of Communications
December 02, 2021

Cat Gurinski

In the latest episode of the Network AF podcast, your host Avi Freedman welcomes his friend and networking pro Cat Gurinsky to the show.

As a senior network engineer with loads of experience, Cat is most passionate about automation and troubleshooting, and especially loves to use Python and Arista’s pyeapi frameworks in her pursuits. She’s also the current chair of the NANOG Program Committee, and previously worked for companies like Best Buy, Switch and Data, and Equinix. She lives in Austin, Texas with her family, where outside networking, she owns and teaches at her dojo, Immortal Tiger Kenpo Karate.

Cat joins Network AF to discuss:

  • Her path to networking
  • Mentorship experiences
  • The pros and cons of automation
  • Martial arts and operating her dojo
  • Advice to network engineering newcomers

The path to networking

Cat credits her father, who was a computer lab teacher, for introducing her to tech. From there, she attended technical school after her daily high school classes were done, and she says that helped her break into the industry with an early job repairing broken hard drives and computer equipment.

In her college days, Cat went to Valparaiso University to study Japanese, and she used her early tech foundation to land a student job in the school’s IT department. As a post-grad, a friend encouraged her to apply for an open network engineer position. This experience became more like an apprenticeship, and Cat’s skillset, especially with programming languages, quickly grew.

Throughout her career, Cat has focused on several core areas: Arista BGP deployments for large data centers; writing scripts to make operating switches more efficient and easier for her teams; and on automating network inventory tracking.

On mentorship

Mentorship means a great deal to Cat, and she thinks having someone to bounce ideas off of and to learn from is how we can all become more approachable experts. During the episode she talks with Avi about how NANOG is putting together a formal program for creating more mentorship opportunities to support learning complex network engineering skills. And because there is no complete guidebook for the types of problems one will encounter while managing networks and infrastructure, Cat says that having safe space with a mentor to break and unbreak things offers a better ability to understand processes.

Cat reflects on the mentorship she’s received and notes that now is the time to go find mentions. This will also help in finding the next generation of engineers.

The pros and cons of automation

As the topic of automation comes into the conversation, Avi asks Cat about the biggest outage she’s caused without automation. She says shortly before the Switch and Data merger with Equinix that she was tasked with a week’s worth of collecting information from show commands. During that process, one of the switches rebooted and came back without a config, which Avi responds to with shocked eyes describing it as a RAID erase.

Cat says she repeatedly did the same commands until realizing that automating the process would be much faster. However, for all the good it can do in considerate hands, she offers a reminder that your links and work need to be correct before wide deployment. And that even changes like incorrect cabling can confuse other network engineers when running scripts causes incorrect labels.

Advice to network engineering newcomers

What advice does Cat have for those interested in learning about automation and network deployment? She tells Avi that she knows it isn’t for everyone, but she recommends taking an intro class to understand the framework so that you can pursue self-taught lessons more successfully.

She also recommends virtual labs as a way to become acquainted with fundamentals without having the risks of disrupting services. Regardless of the road taken, become familiar with the different languages the industry works with, say advises.

Cat says she learned a lot of PHP and C++ before eventually needing to learn Python to interact with Arista.

Martial arts and operating a dojo

Outside of her work world, Cat notes that operating a dojo implies serious commitment to the craft. She laughs about how it all began with a friend convincing her to “take a sword class to learn to be like Kenshin,” referencing the anime Rurouni Kenshin.

Curious about potential similarities between her karate and networking passions, Cat says each as their own language. “Martial arts is a language of the body. Networking is a language of the switches. And programming is a language of everything to interact with each other.”

But more seriously, Cat says the dojo gives her a break from her day job and gets her out of her office chair.

Parting advice

In the closing minutes of the episode, Avi asks what advice Cat has for her younger self, looking back at everything from anime sword fighting to her early career. She says she would tell herself not to be in a rush to grow up — to take her time. She never took the chance to study abroad in Japan and regrets how the rush to graduate early came at the cost of traveling abroad.

During adulthood and growing a career, it’s harder to get the chance to do something like this for an extended period, she says. Her parting advice? “If you’re thinking about it, do it. There will not be time later.”

Listen to Avi and Cat’s full episode. You can also follow Cat across the web on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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