Network Engineers Should Leverage SD-WANs To Keep Their Skill Set Current

Earlier this week I wrote this post on the reasons why it is important for network managers to embrace automation. My argument revolved around the fact that network changes can be made much faster and far more efficiently through the use of automation vs. trying to manage the network a device at a time. This is particularly important for the WAN as the network endpoints are located all over the globe and errors can result in lengthy outages. SD-WANs change the networking paradigm and make automation a reality.

This is obviously good for enhancing business agility, as changes can be made quickly and the network can become an enabling resource for the digital enterprise. What does this mean for the network engineer? Is automation the death knell for today’s network manager? The answer is both yes and no. Networking is hard, and knowledgeable people will always be in high demand. However, the skill set that network managers will need tomorrow is different than what they have today. Think I’m wrong? Think back to other IT shifts that we have seen. Mainframe administrators, voice administrators, COBOL developers, token ring experts – all gone. The jobs are still around but the skills required to be successful are radically different. I understand change is hard, but it’s critical to maintaining relevancy.

Sticking with a legacy network means sticking with a legacy skill set. The automation capabilities of an SD-WAN enables engineers to stop doing mundane, repetitive operational tasks through antiquated CLI interfaces and to shift their focus toward building new skills to meet the demands of the future head on. So looking out into 2017, I strongly urge network managers to embrace an SD-WAN, automate processes, and focus toward gaining new strategic skills:

  • Orchestration. The ability to orchestrate network changes with business or application policies is critical to automation. There are many orchestration tools available to businesses today. Some, like Puppet and Chef have become de facto standards, while some vendors, such as Silver Peak offer their own orchestration platform, along with free training and certification. It’s impossible to be proficient in all of them but it’s important to master a few of them.
  • Programming. In no way do I expect a network manager to be able to create mobile applications and assume the role of a software developer. However, most software-defined products today have southbound and northbound APIs that interface directly with business applications. Network engineers should seek to learn new languages such as Ruby and Python to remain strategic in today’s rapidly evolving, software-first industry.
  • Big data and analytics. This certainly isn’t for everyone, as a mastery of data sciences requires a strong math foundation. However, most CIOs I’ve talked to state that there is a significant shortage of talented people who are able to gather information, analyze it, and understand how to make it actionable. Many believe big data and analytics to be foundational for successful digital transformation and any engineers who are looking to move into a hot space should jump in with both feet.
  • Business communications. Success in the digital era requires a tight partnership between the business units and the IT department. Unfortunately, there is no secret Rosetta Stone that can be used to translate IT vernacular into a language the business can understand and vice versa. There’s a definite need for individuals who have the ability to translate business requirements into something that IT can understand and implement. Also, financial engineering is becoming more important as IT purchasing shifts from a CAPEX toward a subscription model. Being able to accurately compare perpetual licenses to subscriptions is an important component of making the best financial decision.
  • Security skills. Like networking, the shift to digital has changed security requirements. Security is moving away from the protecting the perimeter and is shifting toward having the ability to protect the internal network with tools like segmentation, this too is in high demand. One advantage network managers have is that digital security is dependent on network data and analytics. Security presents an exceptional evolutionary path for high level network engineers.

I fully understand that change is hard and it can be daunting. Many network professionals have spent years or even decades mastering their current skill set, earning strategic certifications along the way, so having to learn new skills can be very unsettling. However, technology marches on and resisting change will only result in becoming irrelevant. Honing the simplicity and automation capabilities of an SD-WAN will free valuable time to evolve your skill set in line with changing business requirements.