It’s no mystery that IT has changed drastically in the last decade, and as such, the roles of IT professionals have also changed. One such case? The network engineer.
On the surface, the role of the network engineer hasn’t changed all that much. Engineers, also known as network architects, work on the high-level design and planning of computer networks, selecting the appropriate components and setting them up to meet the needs of the organization. This usually requires integrating the LAN, WAN, internet, and intranet aspects of the network so that it’s consistently reliable and performs up to standards. Despite all of the developments in technology, that basic job description remains the same.
However, the specifics of the job are changing drastically. Advances in technology like software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) has broadened the range of skills required to be a successful network engineer. This has left many network engineers at a crossroads trying to determine what they need to do to continue moving forward in their careers.
The Effect of Software Defined Networking
Many in the IT industry saw the rise of SDN and worried what that meant for network engineers. SDN refers to the network technology designed to make a business network comparable to the virtualized server and infrastructure of a data center, particularly in terms of agility and flexibility. In an SDN environment, a network engineer no longer has to use specific switches to route traffic or deliver specific services to different areas of the network. Rather, the traffic is managed from a central console, and it no longer matters which devices or servers are connected to each other.
While the purpose of SDN is to increase the flexibility of the network, it does create more complexity for the network engineer to manage. It also requires a change in an engineer’s approach to his or her work. While they will still need to understand how the physical network is set up and operates, they also need to have a thorough understanding of virtualization and all that comes along with that technology.
There is also a marked shift toward network engineers developing stronger coding skills. While some have argued that engineers are going to have to become programmers in order to remain successful, many businesses are opting to use networking equipment that is already equipped with interfaces and come with technical support. That being said, there is some value in network engineers learning relevant programming languages, to help make it easier to administer, manage, and monitor SDN networks.
For those engineers who aren’t willing to enter the realm of coding, though, there are still opportunities in the field. Because SDN is going to change the way networks are designed and how they function, engineers will be necessary to fill architectural roles that explore how that happens. In addition, a thorough understanding of network design and management is still important, even in a virtualized environment.
So as a network engineer, how do you remain competitive in the ever-changing world of networking?
While the need to learn coding has received most of the attention in discussions about the role of network engineers, the emphasis on that skill has diminished considerably. However, the importance of certifications has increased considerably. The Cisco CCIE and CCDE certifications remain the most sought after among network engineers, and the most relevant to those who wish to move forward in their careers.
And in fact, the changes within the networking realm have not gone unnoticed by Cisco. Just a few months ago, Cisco announced that its core certifications in Routing and Switching were being adjusted to better reflect the digital transformation of corporate networks. The CCNA Routing and Switching certification was updated in May, with the accompanying Cisco switch course also being updated to reflect the new paradigms. This follows the CCIE, expert-level certification that was updated in late 2015.
For most people, remaining competitive in the world of network engineering is going to require developing new skills. Those looking to move into network engineering as a new career may have the slight advantage of already being familiar with the newer technologies, but experienced engineers who keep up with the changes brought about by SDN and demonstrate the ability to be flexible and innovative in this new environment will still be able to transition without any trouble.