Five years is a long time in IT. It’s like dog years, with
the conversion rate an IT constant, multiplied by the complexity of the
environment. Planning a future network engineering career half a decade out is
no easy task, especially when you’re interrupt-driven, quelling one crisis
after the next. We buy our network management tools based on what they deliver right now, not on roadmaps. But for our
personal career development it’s reversed, and we must consider years, not just

A new job we choose today might position us to ride the next
wave to greater compensation, an IT management role or a better work-life
balance. But it’s just as likely taking a different role, investing time in the
wrong certifications or worse, just doing nothing, that might put our careers
on the rocks just five years from now. New technologies, especially
virtualization, will dramatically affect the roles and livelihoods of network
engineers. How then, should netadmins prepare for the big changes ahead?

Explosion of gizmos
and virtual pipes

Two colliding challenges are driving a fundamental sea
change. First, business has compounded the established rate of services concentration
onto networks with new technologies and worse, whole new device categories,
that all expect network access. BYOD in many environments doubles the number of
endpoints, but without the control of company provided gear. Cloud and SaaS are
here to stay, and program owners expect improved performance from them than with
the LAN hosted solutions they replaced. Telepresence has become critical not
just to executives, but also to the everyday management of global teams. Add in
increased security attacks from every direction and you have a project list for
the foreseeable future.

Second, and more importantly, the virtualization genie is
out of the systems management bottle. VMware NSX, standards based SDN and
Cisco’s eventual non-Hardware Defined Networking solution will move a
significant chunk of today’s command line interface (CLI) under a mouse. It’s
no longer a question of if, but rather how and when. There was a time that a
graybeard CLI wizard, (greenbeards?), could use PuTTY
like a kryptonite shield to thwart sysadmin encroachment, but that’s about to
change. Vendors have responded to management’s desire to lower network administration
costs. And make no mistake; moving virtualized networks under the control of
vCenter gives existing system admins a head start. They have years of
experience and management will encourage them to expand their knowledge and
assume as much ownership as possible.

On a virtualized Internetof Things (Cisco’s Internet of Everything),
more devices and diverse services than ever will be connected to a programmable
network that begins in the datacenter, and then spreads out its most remote
edge. With systems virtualization, it wasn’t just racks and servers that were
consolidated—system admin teams became smaller as well. The same will undoubtedly
happen with networking. We will have larger and more complex networks and fewer
network engineers managing by automation. When the music stops there will be
fewer chairs.

Learn new ninja skills

Fortunately, the future for network gurus is not a giant
bummer -quite the contrary. IT management already looks to network engineers for
sage advice and technical direction:

  1. We watch our businesses’ heart beat in the flow
    of packets on our networks.
  2. We routinely meet with senior managers who know
    us on a first name basis.

  3. We find the routes to enable new opportunities,
    streamline existing processes and lower costs every day.

By getting ahead of new trends now, you’ll have
opportunities five years from now that you might not even imagine today.

  • Get your
    head in the cloud. Whether hosted by a major provider or delivering your existing
    services as a private cloud, you need to gain significant expertise with the
    networking challenges of delivering seamless connectivity. Soon, if not already
    in your datacenter, admins won’t even think about the plumbing between the
    servers whirring in your racks and those silently processing requests out
    who-knows-where. Vendors like Microsoft have already stated that hybrid
    solutions are here to stay, and management will look well on the engineer who
    makes it work well.

  • Get
    serious about security. Security issues from firewalls to servers already
    represent a huge threat to business, and the situation will become even worse
    in a complex, visualized environment with fewer admins. The reason your
    firewall policies keep you up at night now is not that you don’t have the skills
    to sort them out, it’s that you don’t have time. Network security policy management
    products that automate out errors and widen policy adherence can reduce
    vulnerability today. Gaining expertise in SDN Security could make you

  • Hit the books.
    New certifications like the forthcoming VMwareCertified Associate – Network Virtualization are going to be important. You’ll
    need to learn more than just how to do network configuration with a mouse. sysadmins
    will need your years of networking expertise on their platforms and it’s a
    great way to gain a seat with root
    at the vCenter table. In many cases you’ll be the only one to close even the hairiest
    helpdesk tickets.

  • Get
    involved in the budget process. As engineers we generally prefer to stay
    out of processes that have political dimensions, but in the future vendor
    assessment, product selection and tools expenditures will be more important
    than ever. With more complexity comes more management tools, and your
    understanding of both technology and your business gives you a unique
    perspective budget managers will need to achieve their mission. Get to know the
    magic spreadsheets.

Relax, you’re an engineer

Most of all remember that there will be great opportunities
for career growth with this transformation. Motivated technologists with ability
to quickly comprehend and manage complex environments become leaders when
complexity increases. And that is the
stock and trade of network engineers. It’s what we do every day. Create some
room each week for research, set up a lab for hands-on learning and embrace the
changes. You may even make today’s gig more fun.

By Patrick Hubbard, SolarWinds Head Geek