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Yahoo, Verizon execs: Prepare your networking team for SDN and DevOps

Enterprises need to prepare networking team members for SDN and DevOps, as the industry continues to change, Verizon and Yahoo said at the ONUG fall conference.

NEW YORK -- Organizations need to prepare their networking team members for the SDN revolution by easing them into a DevOps state of mind, executives from Verizon and Yahoo said in a joint presentation at the Open Networking User Group's fall 2016 conference.

Lane Patterson, vice president of Yahoo's global network infrastructure, said while the term SDN means something different to everyone, he considers it a mindset, rather than a technology.

"It's a blanket term for this whole point we are at in the evolution of our infrastructure, toward automating and creating an overlay of virtualization," he said.

Both Patterson and Bryan Larish, a senior IT executive at Verizon, said organizations need networking team members whose skill sets reflect this infrastructural evolution, with Larish urging the audience to develop concrete plans for transitioning their employees toward SDN and a DevOps-oriented IT culture -- a philosophy that has the goal of improving communication between development and operations teams, particularly as more network operations become more programmable.

Larish shared one of his own early missteps in working with Verizon's networking team -- adopting what he called an all-or-nothing attitude, in which he told employees the days of command-line interface were numbered and they needed to develop software skills ASAP. He said he quickly learned people didn't respond well to that approach.  

Instead of "scaring" people into adopting new technology or processes all at once, Larish now recommends making incremental changes to gradually lead teams into a software-defined world -- what he called "preparing the runway." He compared networking professionals to air-traffic controllers who have spent decades landing Boeing 747 jets, saying they wouldn't be eager to suddenly start landing spaceships.

With people on board and willing to grow, however, the transition toward SDN and DevOps environments will go more smoothly, he said.

"You can say, 'You land a 747, but we're transitioning to an Airbus, and then we're transitioning to this and this,'" Larish said. "It's a more gradual approach that's more user-friendly and makes people feel involved and engaged."

Yahoo: Developing DevOps talent

Yahoo's Patterson said he struggles to find enough new talent to solve the problems inherent in software-defined infrastructure -- a difficulty that, based on Patterson's informal poll of the ONUG audience, is common.  

Patterson's answer to this problem at Yahoo was DevDev -- a company program to develop and replicate talent internally. He said he seeks networking team candidates with computer science backgrounds, arguing that -- while domain expertise can be taught -- abstraction modeling skills are critical in working with SDN. Patterson said a full 50% of his network operations and network engineering teams are software developers.

I don't care how good you are at Python or Go. I care how passionate you are about solving a problem and being willing to pick up whatever skills you need.
Lane Pattersonvice president of global network infrastructure, Yahoo

Patterson also noted Yahoo looks at what current employees or future employees do outside of work -- their passions and hobbies. If they like to solve problems and learn new skills in their free time, he said, they'll probably like solving problems at work, too.

"I don't care how good you are at Python or Go," he said. "I care how passionate you are about solving a problem and being willing to pick up whatever skills you need."

Patterson also emphasized the importance of collaboration, saying lone wolves don't last at Yahoo; they either become team players or leave the company.

In the DevDev program, mentors help promote a collaborative mindset. These mentors, Patterson said, are subject-matter experts with teaching skills who put collaboration first. They aren't threatened by sharing and take joy in seeing others learn. DevDev mentors have office hours, during which networking team members can ask questions or discuss projects. And, most importantly, mentors don't take over the project.

"[As a mentor], you really want to allow someone to explore different ways to solve problems," Patterson said. "You want to give them the problem to solve, but not tell them how to do it. Leave it up to them and coach them through it."

Mentors can conduct code reviews, daily standups and retrospectives, in which employees collectively discuss individual or group projects -- asking questions, exercising quality control and learning from each other's work. Patterson also advised using online communities, like GitHub and Stack Overflow, to "tap into the strength of continuous knowledge evolution" they provide. According to Patterson, this orientation around teamwork, sharing with team members and involvement in online communities results in better performance.

Next Steps

DevOps and SDN complement each other

SDN prepares the way for DevOps and automation

Changes in technology affect networking skills

Dig Deeper on SDN certification, skills and careers

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What lessons have you learned while transitioning to a DevOps or SDN mindset?
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Yes! This is very true. In fact, I love this quote from a recent blog I read that sums it up even better:

"“SDN is a technology architecture that decouples the network control from the forwarding functions of the physical infrastructure. In SDN architecture, a controller determines how packets get forwarded by networking elements, separating the control and data planes within switches and routers. SDN technology does for network services what virtual machines (VM) do for servers—it enables physical network resources to be pooled together and consumed on-demand.”

That's a great thing! Karen Bannan for IDG and AT&T
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