Public and Private Cloud Shakes Up Traditional IT Career Paths

Network engineers need to expand their skill sets beyond hardware to enable data center automation.

By Brian Carlson

By Brian Carlson October 14, 2020

The career path for many IT professionals often pointed toward specializing in a particular area of the data center. A network engineer would earn certifications to sharpen their mastery of Cisco technology then work inside a firm or consult on that particular vendor and area of the tech stack. With the advent of public and private cloud computing, that IT career path is being reconfigured.

“The world has changed for the network engineer,” said Eric Pearce, IT Systems Architect at Nutanix. “It’s a good example of a particular IT career track that has changed dramatically in recent years.”

Changes in the job role are a reaction to the way companies are building and integrating their networking tech stacks due to cost concerns and application specialization. This puts a lot more emphasis on interoperability. Pearce said the days of having a single networking vendor is long over.

“Nowadays, I would not expect to find a pure ‘Cisco shop,’” he said. “Most companies have a mix of vendors for various reasons. It can be because of vast cost differences between vendors, changing needs that require different vendors which are better at a particular technology or due to personal preferences of whomever happened to be running things at a specific point in time.”

Since networking hardware is fairly static and unchanging over long periods of time, understanding the hardware itself has become less critical. Pearce said it’s more critical today to grasp capabilities across multiple vendors and programming languages. It means understanding software-defined networking (SDNs) and application protocol interfaces (APIs).

“Unlike servers and laptops, network devices tend to remain in place for a long time. I have worked at several companies where the mix of network devices are like layers of sediment exposed at an archeological dig. The networking vendor changed every year, but all devices are still in use simultaneously.”

The pace of change in the IT world has quickened as more companies turn to public and private cloud technologies. New technologies and services come and go more quickly than ever. Pearce learned first-hand that the most important skill is understanding the underlying network concepts then applying those skills to particular situations. Increasingly, this requires working across a variety of vendor configurations, languages and tools.

Network Administration Needs to be Software-Defined

For future network engineers, Pearce advocates a strong shift to software expertise.

“An ongoing change is the move from the box-by-box model of network administration model to SDNs, where tens or hundreds of switches can be managed from a single SDN controller,” he said.

Eric Pearce explains how the role of network engineer is evolving in the cloud era.

Pearce believes network engineers should get comfortable using “Representational State Transfer” (REST) APIs as a way to assist with automation. REST is a logical choice for building APIs that allow users to connect, manage and interact with cloud services in a distributed environment, according to Pearce.

“I have come to the conclusion that every network engineer has to become comfortable with automation and REST APIs.”

Being comfortable with APIs can help shortcut repetitive tasks and get IT organizations to leverage efficiencies from automation.

“Just being good at networking is no longer sufficient,” he said. “I believe you have to adopt an automation mindset, which includes refusing to run or type things by hand hundreds or thousands of times. This kind of behavior should become unacceptable.”

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Pearce said nearly every device will have some form of API today, if not in the near future. 

“I was testing security devices and wanted to combine multiple streams of recorded Internet traffic and pump it out of hundreds of ports at the same time,” he recalled.

He initially used a graphical user interface (GUI) to configure the controller, but Eric quickly got frustrated when faced with performing hundreds of mouse actions to do anything at scale. This led him to investigate the SDN controller API.

“This was transformational for me,” he said. “I realized that APIs should become the primary method for interaction with the network, not the CLI or GUI.”

That experience shifted his mindset for what a network engineer needed to master.

Build Skills on the Job

Pearce advises networking professionals to build their skill sets on the job while expanding out of their comfort zone.

“I believe most people are doomed to fail to acquire new skills if they tell themselves ‘I’ll study this at night or on the weekends,’” he said. “I think the most effective way to learn something is to make it central to your day job. Try to make learning these skills a part of solving real-world problems at work.”  

Working on skunkworks projects is a great way to expand networking engineers' skill set.

“Start small, but experiment and publicize how you are adding value using the new skill or technology. Recruit others in the effort, as this gives you colleagues to bounce ideas off and collaborate with.” 

Programming and Linux Matter to Network Engineers

In addition to a focus on SDN, automation and APIs, Pearce recommends networking engineers have at least one programming language under their belt to ensure their attractiveness as job candidates.

“Working knowledge of at least one programming language is a differentiator for network engineers. This would include Python, Java, JavaScript, Ruby and so on.”

The Linux OS is another must-have for network engineers.

“I would also stipulate that network engineers be totally comfortable on Linux,” he advised. “Most of the network devices are running Linux ‘under the hood,’ and this knowledge gives you a distinct advantage over colleagues who are more Windows-centric. Linux has matured to the point where almost any kind of network functionality can be created by combining a number of Linux VMs.”

As IT departments evolve their use of public and private cloud technologies and build hybrid cloud operations, Pearce’s “open mind, hands-on” approach is needed now more than ever.

Editor’s note: Read Eric Pearce’s original LinkedIn article The Next Generation Network Engineer.

Brian Carlson is a contributing writer. He is Founder of RoC Consulting and was Editor-in-Chief of CIO.com and EE Times. Follow him on Twitter @bcarlsonDM

© 2020 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved.  For additional legal information, please go here.

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