Skills Competition Retrospective

On May 1, 2009, I finished the last day of my field placement at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, Ontario, and completed the final course that I needed so that I could graduate from Cambrian College in the CETY (Computer Systems Technology) program. The following week I travelled to Waterloo, Ontario to represent my college in the Skills Ontario competition in the IT and Network Support category. I ended up winning first place in that competition, and I then travelled to Charlottetown, PEI a few weeks later to the Skills Canada competition to compete again where I also won first place. It has been 15 years since I competed at both events, and I wanted to go over the experience.

This is a multipart series on my experience at Cambrian College, the Skills Ontario, and the Skills Canada competitions. I attended the Skills Ontario competition in Waterloo, Ontario on May 5, 2009, and I attended the Skills Canada competition in Charlottetown, PEI from May 19 - 23, 2009. More information on both competitions can be found here:

There is nothing significant about 15 years since these events, I just wanted to finally write something about these competitions. I am getting older, and I wanted to document it as best as I could since these were important events for me. I am glad that I went to the trouble of taking photos and taking notes back when these events happened when I could, as I had a bit of trouble remembering every single detail. It is entirely possible that I have misremembered some details, especially with the Skills Canada Competition as a lot happened over a short period of time. I have also found that a lot of details have been lost, so I wanted to take the time to document what I could.

This series of posts ended up getting a lot of additions and corrections. This is due to me finding additional details that I had written down, or things that I decided to add as I thought they were important details to mention. If I have made any errors or have left out important details, please contact me and I will correct it.

Table Of Contents

Disclaimer

This is not a post describing in-depth details on the Skills Ontario or Skills Canada competition and how to win those competitions. This post is just describing my experience with Skills Ontario and Skills Canada, and the events leading up to the event and everything that happened afterwards. This also happened 15 years ago, nothing that I could say is no longer relevant as the competitions have changed since then.

All information that I discuss or reference in this post is based on information that can be found on the Skills Ontario and Skills Canada website. All documents that I link to that are related to those competitions are the property of Skills Ontario and Skills Canada. They have not been modified in any way.

Cambrian College of Applied Arts and Technology

From a young age I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in something that involved computers, and eventually I knew that I wanted to get into an IT role in some capacity. I have always enjoyed the hands-on aspect of computers, and I have always found networking to be challenging, and I wanted to pursue those areas in IT. As much as I enjoy programming, which is something that I do as a hobby to this day, it was not something that I ever really wanted to do as a career. As I have gotten further into my career, I stand by that decision every single time it comes up.

I attended Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario from September 2006 to May 2009. During that time, I successfully completed a three-year diploma in Computer Systems Technology (CETY). The program focused on networking and operating systems (Cisco and Microsoft), as well as having a strong focus on security which applied to both. At the time when I attended Cambrian College, they were an authorized Cisco Networking Academy and Microsoft IT Academy (both of which they still are to this day, and they are now also a Red Hat Academy). The teachers that I had were all extremely well versed in their subject areas, and in some cases worked directly or indirectly with Cisco and Microsoft.

Computer Systems Technology (CETY) Program

I had the choice to go to many different schools for what was the same type of program on paper, as all colleges in Ontario offered the same basic program. As I discovered during my research for what school to attend, was that not all programs at all schools were created equal. I found that some schools would only offer a simplified version of the same program and would spread it out over a three-year program. For example, I found that some colleges that offered Cisco courses would only go as far as the CCNA curriculum, where others would go through the entire CCNP curriculum. That is a huge difference, as the amount of content in the CCNP curriculum is vastly more complicated than the CCNA curriculum. I also found out that the CETY program at Cambrian was well-funded and had a large amount of networking lab equipment available for students for practical labs and assignments.

I have a lot of positive things to say about the CETY program at Cambrian College, and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without it. Aside from being a Cisco Networking Academy and a Microsoft IT Academy, there was also a lot more to the program. Over three years I took classes in:

  • Customer Service and Support
  • Database Support
  • Desktop Support
  • Linux and UNIX Support
  • Project Management
  • Small Business and Entrepreneurship
  • Software Development
  • Technical Writing and Documentation

Cisco Networking Academy classes were a lot different in 2006. At the time, all the labs and training that I did were completed with physical hardware. This included switches, routers, and firewalls, plus all the necessary cabling. An average day in class was to sit through a lesson for the first part of a class, and then get 3 or 4 devices to work on as part of the practical component for the lesson. Some of these tasks were done in groups or individually. Cisco Packet Tracer was new at the time, and even though it was an option for us to use we always used physical hardware for everything (which I preferred). As a side note, since physical hardware was being used, extra care had to be taken while using it since there was a possibility of connecting it to the school network. The local IT staff at Cambrian College had to put in a router in the switch closet that connected all the computers in the classroom to ensure that we didn’t unintentionally break the local school network (which apparently happened more than once).

Microsoft IT Academy classes were focused entirely on infrastructure roles that Windows Server could provide, and focused on troubleshooting issues that arose with those roles. At the time all the Microsoft IT Academy curriculum was related to Windows Server 2003 (R2) and Windows XP Professional. Very little of the course used Windows 2000, and it was only ever referenced when we would learn about security issues with older versions of the operating system. Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 were released while I was still in school and were only discussed in detail during my last semester. All lessons involving Windows Server were completed using virtualization software using Microsoft Virtual PC 2004, and later Microsoft Virtual PC 2007. Hyper-V wasn’t even released until the summer of 2008 and there was no time to integrate it into the existing curriculum, so it was never used (I’m not sure if it ever was used after I graduated).

In the final semester of the CETY program was a six-week field placement. I did my placement at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, Ontario, which was the largest hospital in northern Ontario. They were in the middle of a consolidation from another hospital that was being shut down due to its age, and there was a lot of work going on to accommodate the influx of staff and equipment from the facility that was closing. It was a great way to finish the program, and it gave me a good thing to put on my resume for my first job out of school. It was a good experience to see how a large-scale IT operation worked, and the staff at the hospital were very helpful and were always open to answering any questions.

For the Cisco classes, there was a classroom that was dedicated for this purpose and was not used by students that were not in the CETY program. This classroom had network racks and additional cabling setup so that we could simulate real world networks as closely as possible. In my final year in the program, I would occasionally work as a lab monitor for students who needed extra time to work on their assignments or study, so one afternoon before I graduated, I took some photos of the classroom while it was empty.

Please excuse the quality of these photos, I took them on a BlackBerry Curve 8330 which only had a 2-megapixel camera and had poor lighting capabilities. They are obviously a product of the time:

Cisco classroom workstations. Cambrian College was very obviously a Dell shop at the time.

Cisco classroom workstations and network racks. The patch panels on the racks terminated on the desks.

Cisco classroom network racks and hardware.

Cisco classroom network racks and hardware.

Cisco classroom network racks and hardware. There are various 2600/2800 routers, 2900/3500 series switches and PIX firewalls.

Cisco classroom network racks with cables to be used for labs.

The CETY program had NETLAB, which was a system that allowed for remotely working on labs and assignments on real hardware. It was a great addition to the program and was used a lot by students to complete complex labs from home (I used it a lot in my final year):

NETLAB hardware which allowed remote access for working on Cisco labs on real hardware. I used NETLAB many times in my final year.

Time was everything since we were working on physical devices. We would go to a lot of effort to write network configurations ahead of time since the configuration formats were always known for Cisco devices. This meant that we could setup a physical lab in a matter of minutes, attach cabling, load the configurations, and then demonstrate everything working correctly. We would be required to show certain outputs and answer questions about the work that we did, and I still have a lot of text files with outputs showing that everything was working correctly.

Every semester we would always work on a project that applied everything that we learned up until that point in the class. Depending on the class, it was either done individually or as a group project. Here are photos from the final group project that I completed in the CETY program:

Cisco assignment rack setup.

Simulating connections to remote locations as per the assignment.

I had to include a picture of my Acer Aspire A110L netbook (running Gentoo of course).

As a fun exercise I might go through some of my old projects and post some of the information. It has been over 15 years since I completed those projects, so it might be interesting to review them and see how relevant some of that work still is. It would also be interesting to see if I could get any of them to run in Packet Tracer, since I don’t think I ever tried doing that at the time.

At the end of the day, I have nothing but positive things to say about my time at Cambrian College. I simply wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to that school. I am grateful to the amazing teachers that I had for three years, they were all fantastic.

How Did I Get Involved with Skills Ontario?

I had heard of Skills Ontario a few years before I went to college, but I was reminded about it when I went to an open house at Cambrian College in the spring of 2006. During that open house I met several teachers in my program, and they mentioned Skills Ontario to the group since the year before one of their students had won second place in the competition. I also remember on my first day of class in September and hearing about it again, because the student that went to the competition shortly after the open house won first place at Skills Ontario and won third place at Skills Canada.

Cambrian College and the CETY program had only started sending students to Skills Ontario (and Skills Canada when they could) starting in 2005. Until the year that I went to the competition the results were great:

Year Skills Ontario Skills Canada
2005 Silver
2006 Gold Bronze
2007 Gold and Silver
2008 Gold and Bronze Silver

Until that point no one from Cambrian College had ever won first place at the Skills Canada competition in the IT and Network Support competition. In 2006 they won third place, and in 2008 they won second place.

On my first day of class in September 2006 I was just a student in a group of over 90 students, and I never thought I would ever get the opportunity to compete in something like Skills Ontario. I didn’t put much thought into it at the time, but in the fall of 2007 and 2008 I heard about the other students in my program that went to the competition and how well they did. The competition in 2008 was their best year at that point, having won first place at Skills Ontario and second place at Skills Canada.

In March 2009 I was finishing the classes in my final semester, and I was about to begin my field placement at Health Sciences North. I got an email a few days before finishing to drop by the office of my program coordinator to discuss something. Since I was working as a lab monitor, I assumed he wanted me to continue helping for the next few weeks. Instead, he asked me if I was interested in representing the college in May at the Skills Ontario competition for the IT and Network Support category.

My immediate reaction was that I was the wrong choice. I thought there were at least two other students who should go instead of me. When I asked why he chose me, he said he thought I could win first place. Even if I didn’t win first place or win at all, he told me it would be a great experience and I should go. It felt like a lot of pressure knowing the current “streak” that they were on, and I was afraid that I would ruin it for them.

How Did I Do?

I won first place in the IT and Network Support category at the Skills Ontario competition on May 5, 2009. This qualified me to compete at the Skills Canada competition a few weeks later, and I won first place in the IT and Network Support category at the Skills Canada competition on May 22, 2009. Skills Ontario and Skills Canada gives out medals for the top three winners (gold, silver, and bronze), so I technically won gold in my competitions:

Skills Ontario and Skills Canada Gold Medals (2009).

After the Skills Canada competition I was given an all-expenses paid trip from Cisco to travel to Cisco’s main campus in San Jose. I got to meet a lot of the people from the Cisco Networking Academy and provided feedback on my experiences using their curriculum and other course materials. They were also nice enough to send me home with a lot of free equipment and other stuff.

A former classmate of mine who now works for Cambrian College sent me a photo a few years ago showing me a banner with my name in my old classroom:

Skills Canada banners in my old networking classroom. The network racks are now missing.

I volunteered as a judge for the Skills Ontario competition for a few years in 2018, 2019 and 2021. Due to work and family commitments, I haven’t really had an opportunity to volunteer since.

Skills Ontario and Skills Canada Competitions

More information on my experiences with the Skills Ontario and Skills Canada 2009 competitions can be found here:

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