Over at the ECI blog, Jonathan Homa has a nice article about the importance of network planning–

In the classic movie, The Graduate (1967), the protagonist is advised on career choices, “In one word – plastics.” If you were asked by a young person today, graduating with an engineering or similar degree about a career choice in telecommunications, would you think of responding, “network planning”? Well, probably not.

Jonathan describes why this is so–traffic is constantly increasing, and the choice of tools we have to support the traffic loads of today and tomorrow can be classified in two ways: slim and none (as I remember a weather forecaster saying when I “wore a younger man’s shoes”). The problem, however, is not just tools. The network is increasingly seen as a commodity, “pure bandwidth that should be replaceable like memory,” made up of entirely interchangeable parts and pieces, primarily driven by the cost to move a bit across a given distance.

This situation is driving several different reactions in the network engineering world, none of which are really healthy. There is a sense of resignation among people who work on networks. If commodities are driven by price, then the entire life of a network operator or engineer is driven by speed, and speed alone. All that matters is how you can build ever larger networks with ever fewer people–so long as you get the bandwidth you need, nothing else matters.

This is compounded by a simple reality–network world has driven itself into the corner of focusing on the appliance–the entire network is appliances running customized software, with little thought about the entire system. Regardless of whether this is because of the way we educate engineers through our college programs and our certifications, this is the reality on the ground level of network engineering. When your skill set is primarily built around configuring and managing appliances, and the world is increasingly making those appliances into commodities, you find yourself in a rather depressing place.

Further, there is a belief that there is no more real innovation to be had–the end of the road is nigh, and things are going to look pretty much like they look right now for the rest of … well, forever.

I want you, as a network engineer, operator, or whatever you call yourself, to look these beliefs in the eye and call them what they are: nonsense on stilts.

The real situation is this: the current “networking industry,” such as it is, has backed itself into a corner. The emphasis on planning Jonathan brings out is valid, but it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is a hint in this direction in Jonathan’s article in the list of suggestions (or requirements). Thinking across layers, thinking about failure, continuous optimization… these are all… system level thinking, To put this another way, a railway boxcar might be a commodity, but the railroad system is not. The individual over-the-road truck might be a commodity, and the individual road might not be all that remarkable, but the road system is definitely not a commodity.

The sooner we start thinking outside the appliance as network engineers or operators (or whatever you call yourself), the sooner we will start adding value to the business. This means thinking about algorithms, protocols, and systems–all that “theory stuff” we typically decry as being less than usefl–rather than how to configure x on device y. This means thinking about security across the network, rather than as how you configure a firewall. This means thinking about the tradeoffs with implementing security, including what systemic risk looks like, and when the risks are acceptable when trying to accomplish as specific goal, rather than thinking about how to route traffic through a firewall.

If demand is growing, why is the networking world such a depressing place right now? Why do I see lots of people saying things like “there will be no network engineers in enterprises in five years?” Rather than blaming the world, maybe we should start looking at how we are trying to solve the problems in front of us.

While at Cisco Live in Barcelona this week, I had a chat with someone—I don’t remember who—about certifications. The main point that came out of the conversation was this:

One of the big dangers with chasing a certification is you will end up chasing knowledge about using a particular vendor feature set, rather than chasing knowledge about a technology.

At some point I’m going to edit a post a video short on engineering versus meta-engineering (no, it won’t be next week), but the danger is real. For instance, in an article I’ve had in my bookmarks pile for a long while, the author says—

My boss advised me that getting my WPCE (WordPerfect Certified Resource) cert would accomplish two things: 1. It would establish my credibility as a trainer; and 2. If I didn’t know a feature before the test, I sure as heck would afterward.

I’m not going to name the author, because this is his description of thinking through a certification many years ago, rather than his current thinking on certifications—but the example is telling. I know a lot of folks studying for certifications. They mostly spend their time labbing up various protocols and… features. The temptation to focus on features is real because—

  • The test is going to test you on features
  • Learning the features is the fastest way to pass the test

This might sound like a replication, but many certification tests place the candidate on a very tight time leash, which means fast is important. When fast is important, you don’t have time to look up features, or study your options.

So what should we do about all of this?

First, not much can be done. I don’t really know how you write a certification that does not allow someone who has memorized the feature guide to do well. How do you test for protocol theory, and still have a broad enough set of test questions that they cannot be photographed and distributed? The problems here are not as simple as they first seem. The CCDE, I think, comes as close as any test I’ve been involved in to testing theory and concepts, rather than features.

Second, this is why I argue you should get a few certifications, and then go get a college degree. The degree might teach you things you don’t ever think you will need—but this fails to understand the point of a degree. Degree programs should not be designed like a vocational school. They should not be about learning the latest language, but rather about writing skills, thinking skills, and programming skills (in general). A good argument can still be made for a Masters Degree in Computer Science.

Finally, you will get out of certifications what you put into them. If you focus on the features, then you are going to learn the features just fine. If you do this, though, each time a new box comes out your certification will lose a little more value.

Certifications are good, when used right. They can also be “bad,” when used poorly. It’s worth thinking about.

Should you be a johnny do-it-all, or so deep that no-one understands what you are saying? It’s time to talk about the shape of knowledge—and how important it is to be intentional about the shape of your knowledge.