Digital Transformation is Forcing Network Engineers to Evolve

At his last CiscoLive in 2015, John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco Systems, addressed the attendees and stated that in 10 years, 25% of them would not be in their current positions. He explained that it would not be because they had moved on to better jobs, but because their employers would have failed to adopt digital transformation, losing their competitive edge in their respective industry.

I recall 10 years ago, when I was working as a network engineer, I spent over two weeks completing a project as simple as increasing the throughput of a WAN link for a customer. The process began with creating a request that required upper management approval before the implementation could start. Once approved, the implementation would entail a manual process of building a configuration using Notepad, as a means to copy, which would be applied during a change window. This process was time-consuming and prone to errors. Looking back on this, the comment made by Mr. Chambers began to resonate. I cannot imagine using the same process today to manage networks given the dependence on agility and scalability requirements of today’s network for the current business models.

How digital transformation has changed all industries, even the “simple” process of calling a cab

To provide an analogy, think about how “calling a taxi” has changed in the last decade. If you wanted to get to the airport from your hotel room after a long work week, you would typically call the hotel front desk a day before your flight and request a taxi for the following day. The front desk agent would proceed to call the taxi dispatcher to arrange for a pickup at a set time. The next morning, the taxi company’s computer would generate a dispatch request and a driver would be assigned the fare and hopefully arrive at your hotel to pick you up at the correct time. Upon arrival at the airport, you faced the hassle of paying and hoping that the taxi driver could generate a receipt. If all the elements of this workflow played out perfectly, you would be content. On the other hand, if any of the elements failed, you could potentially miss your flight, the meter or credit card machine could be broken, and you could fail to get a receipt for reimbursement. Finally, from a security perspective, you had the risk of handing your credit card to a stranger or carrying cash. Also, the taxi driver had no incentive to provide good customer service, knowing that they probably would never see you again and that a majority of people do not take the time to file a complaint with the taxi company.

Digital transformation and new business models have changed many industries, even the simple process of taking a taxi. Companies like Uber, Lyft and Curb moved the dispatch process from the front desk and dispatcher to an app on your phone. No phone calls to make. No human interaction necessary. You schedule your ride by setting your location and destination with additional features that allow you to better manage the process. 

As the rider, you have the ability to identify your driver from a picture in the app and vehicle details and perform a background check for added security and even decline the ride prior to their arrival. In addition, you can track their arrival progress on a map. You can also rate the driver and pay automatically right on your phone.

Skilled professionals must be in place before new technologies are adopted

So, what was Mr. Chambers trying to tell us? Well, although network engineers cannot change the organization’s business model to adopt digital transformation, they ultimately will need the skills to deploy and manage the technologies that will drive an organization’s transformation. 

The network engineer working for the taxi company can manage the network as we did 10 years ago but the network engineer working for Uber or Lyft must be able to effectively make changes to the network infrastructure with maximum efficiency and accuracy. The business is so highly dependent on technology. As a result, the ability to automate and adopt technologies that digitization mandates is critical. Instead of spending weeks to set up a simple task such as increasing a bandwidth link, with automation the process can be deployed and complete within hours if not minutes. 

As new technologies are being adopted to facilitate new business models, organizations must have the tools, processes and skilled engineers in place to support the business with the utmost reliability and scalability. With the introduction of IoT devices, which will triple by 2020 according to Gartner, the network is drastically changing. If organizations don’t quickly adapt it will not become the Internet of Things but rather the Internet of Threats, and the concept of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) will lead to Bring Your Own Disaster instead. The network engineers supporting these systems cannot waste time performing endless manual processes but rather must be focused on how to assure that devices are secure and not cause a threat to the network.

A new type of networker is needed

This will require transforming the role of networkers, thus the need for a new type. Fortunately, companies including Cisco have been experimenting with technologies to equip network engineers with tools to more effectively manage these systems, starting with early academic concepts of Software-Defined Network (SDN) and OpenFlow, leading to SDN controllers, Network Function Virtualization (NFV), Model Based Networking and NetConf/YANG, and most recently, solutions leveraging the cloud and analytics in new ways.  

With these transformations, the next generation of networkers should master these tools that are required to configure, manage and maintain, and troubleshoot these new networks. It’s no longer sufficient to just have a CCIE or have a narrow skill set. The network engineer of today will require a diverse skill set that also includes the ability to program and create automation scripts. The good news is many companies, including Cisco, are leading in the path to help facilitate the transition for the next generation of networkers by creating an entire forum dedicated to that in reference to DEVNET.

The network engineer of today will need to build a solid background and gain the experience and exposure to these new technologies by starting from the ground up. Like in any career you have to pay your dues and build experience, coupled with a continued training that matches the individual’s skill level. Any attempt to move too quickly through the learning process can lead to frustration and confusion resulting in stagnation. It is important to continually learn to keep pace with the advancement in technology and build a diverse skill set to be successful. 

Related training

Cisco Software-Defined Networking (SDN) Training

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