The Future of Network Engineering

Two different articles caught my attention this last week. They may not seem to be interrelated, but given my “pattern making mind,” I always seem to find connections. The first is an article from Network Computing discussing the future of network engineering skill sets.

It’s a new day in enterprise technology, with Chuck Robbins at the helm of Cisco. But John Chambers left a lasting dark impression with the audience at Cisco Live in June. He essentially dropped a hand grenade, predicting the end of IT as we know it, and walked offstage.

Patrick Hubbard goes on to talk about the hand grenade John Chambers left in the room 3 that there would be major mergers, failures, and acquisitions in the next twenty years, leaving the IT industry a very different place. The takeaway? That individual engineers need to “up their game,” learning new technologies faster, hitting the books and the labs on a more regular basis. Given the view in the industry of Cisco as a “safe harbor” for IT skills, this is something of a hand grenade in the room, coming from Chambers at Cisco Live.

The second article predicts a hand grenade, as well, though of a different sort. This one is via SDN Central, and it relates to remarks made by Jennifer Granick.

Infrastructure centralization, governance issues, and the rise of mass surveillance threaten, in her view, the Internet’s fundamental “end-to-end” design principle — the idea that dumb pipes connect anyone to anyone without interference, with decisions happening at the edge of the network.

If both of these two forward looking thinkers are right, network engineers shouldn’t be brushing up their skills. If the merging of companies and the move to all cloud, all the time, are right, then the network engineer as a generalist and the enterprise vendor are both going to go the way of the dodo bird. This isn’t about changing skill sets, it’s about learning to live in a world where most of the providers have consumed the vendor space pretty much completely, and there’s little left in the way of IT jobs other than working either as a contract negotiator at a larger company using cloud services, or as an engineer at one of the cloud providers, or perhaps, like the automotive mechanic, someone who focuses on using the tools provided by the manufacturer to repair problems in devices and circuits laid down by the “real engineers” who work for the provider.

When you put these two trends together, in fact, it sounds really pessimistic, doesn’t it?

A couple of thoughts.

First, technology will always change. Until it doesn’t, that is. Of course airline flight has changed over the years, but I would bet most really good airplane mechanics of thirty years ago would still recognize the physical components of an airplane built yesterday. Whether we would give them a chance to prove their worth as mechanics in today’s world is an active question (this is a serious culture problem in an engineering world that eats people), but whether they could learn and understand the pieces they don’t already know, given the chance, is probably a given. It’s likely that we’re on the cusp of something similar to the leveling out of technology in the IT world that just about every technology has been through in the past. The real question will be, “what’s next,” not, “will there be a place to work on IT that looks something like what we use today in the future.”

Second, We are going through a centralization cycle right now. We tend to go through these, particularly in the virtual world. We centralize everything, then we decentralize, then we centralize, and then (hopefully) we get sick of it and start thinking through the real problems, and real solutions. I don’t think we’re stuck on the “centralize! centralize! centralize!” treadmill forever. At least I hope not, because for the same reasons articulated by Ms Granick. If we continue to centralize, the impact isn’t going to be the end of network engineering, it’s going to be the end of anything resembling real freedom in our world.

But when you spend too much time in the virtual world, you tend to forget there’s a real one out there. Meat space isn’t yet another playground, it’s the real thing. We tend to get caught up in the “soap opera” of day to day life in the tech world, where a year old technology is on the downside of the hype cycle (a two year old child is still barely beginning life, remember). This tends to lend a sense of urgency and despair that might not be warranted.

Are things going to change? Yes. Do we all need to read a bit more, study new stuff, and get better at our jobs? Yes.

At the same time, do we all need to start thinking in bigger terms, about the engineering space as a set of skills and people that have human limits, rather than as a technology treadmill? Definitely — yes! We each need to balance between the new and exciting, gaining a longer term understanding, and moving towards growth in people skills.

In short, there’s a solid reason to learn, a solid reason to grow, but there’s no reason to panic.