Just because network operations are moving to a DevOps model doesn’t mean everybody has to learn how to program.
That was the consensus I was hearing at Interop last week, as I kept trying to stir up conversation about software-defined networking (SDN) taking away jobs. Job loss is always a concern when someone starts talking about automating tasks, but some of the people involved in running networks are convinced it won’t play out that way.
“We already know there aren’t enough people to handle the complexity,” said Rebecca Jacoby, Cisco‘s CIO, during a media lunch session. Yes, she works for a vendor, but she also runs Cisco’s internal networking team, and she thinks SDN is going to increase her staff’s importance. “You still need the brainpower to create policy. You elevate the job, and you move resources to do things that are more strategic.”
That’s important, because if that isn’t the case — if SDN turns out to be a job-killer — it’s going to find resistance. “It doesn’t matter how great the technology is. It’s who’s writing the check and why,” said Christian Renaud, an analyst with 451 Research.
Most people seem to believe, though, that networking jobs will move up the ladder, with tedious tasks replaced by more sophisticated work. And it won’t necessarily require learning how to program.
More Heroes Than Homeless
That was the subject of a Thursday panel titled, “Will SDN Make Me Homeless?” which convened prominent network-engineer bloggers.
Their view was that engineers will need to broaden their skill sets, rather than focus on getting certified in one vendor’s technology. (Cisco CCIE came up repeatedly but just as an example; as blogger Greg Ferro of Ethereal Mind pointed out, any certification tends to be useful to just one vendor’s gear.)
Some breadth beyond networking will help, too — and yes, that might mean a little bit of programming. Already, human resources departments are looking for skill sets that include some breadth — “T-shaped” rather than “I-shaped,” Ferro said. “They expect that person to have a thin veneer of skills in Linux and EngineX,” he said.
“It’s the return of the generalist,” said Michele Chubirka, a senior security architect who contributes to the Packet Pushers blog and is known to the Internet as Mrs. Y. “It makes the best sense for the business when you can speak the language of each other’s teams.”
Note that the shape Ferro mentioned was a “T,” not a long horizontal bar. Specialties will still exist; it’s just that they won’t be as rigid.
Walking Across the Aisle
From that basis, the panel described an organization where different skill sets mingle. Network operators probably won’t actually program the network; that will be more up to server and applications people. But those people will need to tap some knowledge about the network, just as the operations people will need to peek into applications development — and the way to do that is to (hang onto your seat) actually talk to one another, said Ethan Banks of the Packet Pushers podcast.
“You’re going to have to walk across the [aisle]” to those other cubicles, he said.
The impediments to this are often organizational. “Senior leadership doesn’t always set a good model for their teams to work together,” Chubirka said.
From Jacoby’s perspective, it’s a matter of moving employees on to the next phase of technology, more than a question of whose job gets automated away. Cisco routinely moves its IT people to other projects anyway, Jacoby says, so no one’s unfamiliar with the idea of applying skills to a different job.
“You raise the level of what those people are doing,” she said. In particular, automation should reduce the time spent fixing outages that were caused by human error. “That is not work that people enjoy doing, and I think what you do is, you move them to higher-value work.”
None of this necessarily means networking skills become devalued.
“Network engineers are going to have to change, a little bit, what they’re going to do. But they’re still going to be doing the same thing,” said Ivan Pepelnjak, who writes the IP Space blog. He didn’t mean that they’ll be doing exactly the same tasks. But when the newly programmable, automated network does something that confounds the applications people, those networking skills will come into play. “That will be one element of our jobs — understanding the tools and how to fix them when they break,” Pepelnjak said.
(Photo: The panelists, from left: Ferro, Banks, Chubirka, Pepelnjak, and moderator Eric Hanselman of 451 Research.)