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How Are Networking Jobs Changing?

source codeEarlier this year I was both a speaker and a moderator at Network World’s Open Networking Exchange (ONX) conference in Chicago. While the thrust of the conference was the varying technological approaches to implementing SDN, I asked the speakers a very important question: How are SDN and all of the other changes in the industry impacting the jobs of networking professionals?

The response that I got most frequently from the speakers was that there is building pressure on all IT professionals to develop an increased knowledge of other IT disciplines. Since the vast majority of the speakers were vendors, I was somewhat concerned that their responses might not closely match what was actually happening in IT organizations.  However, subsequent to the ONX conference I began to see more discussion in the trade press about the need for IT professionals to expand their career horizons. For example, in a recent article in InformationWeek GE Capital’s CTO Eric Reed explained the need that he saw for IT professionals to expand their area of expertise. According to Eric, “Our experience [GE Capital’s] on this journey to date has been that the small, self-directed teams required in a DevOps world require an amalgamation of skills spanning everything from IT security to database design and application architecture, plus everything in between. While each individual on the team has a particular strength (say, application design and coding), each one also needs to have working knowledge in other areas (maybe UX or network design).”

The combination of input from the trade press and from the speakers at the ONX conference piqued my interest, so I decided to talk to a couple of IT practitioners about the new skills and knowledge that network professionals need to develop and acquire. One of the practitioners I talked to is a network architect, and the other is a director of infrastructure engineering.  The infrastructure director said that his IT organization is in the process of creating a three year plan to make the organization more software-centric and automated. The example he gave was that while his organization knows that they aren’t Google or Amazon, they want to be able to spin up new services the way those two companies do. One of the steps they are taking to achieve that goal is that they are “Going down the path of hiring developers, some right out of school and others with years of experience.” He added that not all IT and networking professionals have to become programmers, but that, as a minimum, they will need to understand the language of programmers in order to better interact with them.

The network architect stated that on a going-forward basis he isn’t that concerned about the ability of his organization to develop the necessary technical skills.  His reasoning was that the people they hire have generally made a commitment to work in IT and that they will continue to take whatever training they need to evolve their technical skills.  He is concerned, however, about his organization’s ability to develop soft skills in general, and business skills in particular. He said that, given the size of his company (A Fortune 150 company), they need IT professionals who can do things that are very technical and yet be able to explain it to people with a breadth of business interests as well as a variety of technical backgrounds. They also need IT professionals who can build trust and negotiate with other organizations within the company as well as deal with the internal political pressures and the ongoing shifts in direction.

We have been talking about SDN for the last 2 or 3 years and I strongly believe that broad SDN adoption is still a couple of years away. So, do I think that the adoption of SDN will dramatically impact our jobs sometime this year or next? Obviously not. However, I do think that a number of factors including the growing adoption of server virtualization, varying forms of cloud computing, mobility, and SDN are already beginning to impact our jobs, and that impact will only increase. One thing that means is that, over time, there will be less emphasis and less value placed on manually configuring individual devices. It also means that over time there will be more emphasis and more value placed on high-performance, cross-functional teams and closer linkages with the business units. If you are a few years away from retirement, this shift in emphasis and value probably won’t impact you. The rest of us, however, need to create a plan for what skills and knowledge we need to develop — with business acumen and a knowledge of other IT disciplines likely rising to the top of the list.