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The growing ties between networking roles and automation

Network automation is here, bringing with it new demands for network professionals. But these changes should go beyond shifting networking roles, responsibilities and skills.

For years now, network professionals have heard they need to adapt to changing technologies or risk extinction. The messages are plentiful:

  • Learn these programming skills to stay relevant.
  • Take these training courses, but don't get too vendor-focused.
  • Change your mindset.
  • Change your organization's culture.
  • Change your skill sets to keep up with shifting networking roles and responsibilities.

All of these suggestions are increasingly valid and can prove valuable in the evolving networking industry. In fact, skill sets revolving around network programmability, cloud computing and cybersecurity are central to in-demand IT positions and roles, according to Mark Leary, directing analyst at Learning@Cisco, part of Cisco Services, who discussed a Cisco-sponsored report about IT jobs and skill sets, which was released by research firm IDC.

As those networking roles and responsibilities evolve, network professionals are also evolving. For example, organizations seek IT staff with skills in Python, Java, Linux, development, administration, support and engineering, among others, Leary said. In the evolution of networking jobs, employees need to be able to communicate with other teams, including security and developers, for business cross-projects and initiatives.

The dirty word: Automation

This industry and skill set evolution is necessary for the transition to the automated network, according to Zeus Kerravala, founder of ZK Research in Westminster, Mass. Modern network infrastructure doesn't work well with heavily manual command-line interface configurations, he said during a recent Cisco webinar on the evolution of network engineering. Instead, it uses automation and APIs to deliver services and information.

But automation has traditionally been considered a dirty word that sends employees in all industries into a panic, just like it did in the 1800s and 1900s. Automation was expected to steal jobs and replace human intelligence. But as network automation use cases have matured, Kerravala said, employees and organizations increasingly see how automating menial network tasks can benefit productivity.

To automate, however, network professionals need programming skills to determine the desired network output. They need to be able to tell the network what they want it to do.

All of this brings me to an obvious term that's integral to automation and network programming: program, which means to input data into a machine to cause it to do a certain thing. Another definition says to program is "to provide a series of instructions." If someone wants to give effective instructions, a person must understand the purpose of the instructions being relayed. A person needs the foundation -- or the why of it all -- to get to the actual how.

Regarding network automation, the why is to ultimately achieve network readiness for what the network needs to handle, whether that's new applications or more traffic, Cisco's Leary said.

"One of the reasons you develop skills in network programming is to leverage all the automation tools," he said. "As a result, you're making use of those technologies and data to make sure your network isn't just up and available, but [is] now network-ready."

Vendors have a part in this, too

The impetus also falls on the networking vendors to provide products that help professionals in their networking roles.

But network readiness -- and the related issue of network programmability -- goes beyond skills and the ability to input data, according to Lee Doyle, principal analyst at Doyle Research. The impetus also falls on the networking vendors to provide products that help professionals in their networking roles.

Yes, we've seen the early versions of products focused on achieving expressed intent and outcomes. But we've also seen the hazy sheen of marketing fade away to reveal frizzled shreds of hype.

Ultimately, we need to determine what we want to accomplish with our networks and why. This likely results in myriad opinions, but most of us would consider growth beneficial. Learning new things offers the opportunity for more knowledge. Knowledge can benefit the employee, the organization and maybe even society. This idea may gravitate toward the idyllic, but consider some effects of remaining stagnant: irrelevant skills or knowledge, lost productivity and inefficacy.

"A business needs to be agile, but it's only as agile as its least agile component," Kerravala said. While Kerravala considered that component to be the network, the network could encompass organizations, vendors and network professionals.

So, I bring these questions to you -- the network professional. Do you think you need to learn new skills in order to keep up with shifting networking roles? Do you want to reskill? Or, do you think vendors need to up their game?

This was last published in May 2018

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