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Whither Network Engineering? (Part 3)

In the previous two parts of this series, I have looked at the reasons I think the networking ecosystem is bound to change and why I think disaggregation is going to play a major role in that change. If I am right about the changes happening, what will become of network engineers? The bifurcation of knowledge, combined with the kinds of networks and companies noted in the previous posts in this series, point the way. There will, I think, be three distinct careers where the current “network engineer” currently exists on the operational side:

  1. Moving up the stack, towards business, the more management role. This will be captured primarily by the companies that operate in market verticals deep and narrow enough to survive without a strong focus on data, and hence can survive a transition to black box, fully integrated solutions. This position will largely be focused on deploying, integrating, and automating vertically integrated, vendor-driven systems and managing vendor relationships.
  2. Moving up the stack, towards software and business, the disaggregated network engineering role (I don’t have a better name for this presently). This will be in support of companies that value data to the point of focusing on its management as a separate “thing.” The network will no longer be a “separate line item,” however, but rather part of a larger system revolving around the data that makes the company “go.”
  3. Moving down the stack, towards the hardware, the network hardware, rack-and-stack, cabling, power, etc., engineer. Again, I do not have a good name for this role right now.

There will still be a fairly strong “soft division” between design and troubleshooting in the second role. Troubleshooting will primarily be handled by the vendor in the first role.

Perhaps the diagram below will help illustrate what I think is happening, and will continue to happen, in the network engineering field.

The old network engineering role, shown in the lower left corner of the two halves of the illustration, focused on the appliances and circuits used to build networks, with some portion of the job interacting with protocols and management tools. The goal is to provide the movement of data as a service, with minimal regard to the business value of that data. This role will, in my opinion, transition to the entire left side of the illustration as a company moves to black box solutions. The real value offered in this new role will be in managing the contracts and vendors used to supply what is essentially a commodity.

On the right side is what I think the disaggregated path looks like. Here the network engineering role has largely moved away from hardware; this will increasingly become a largely specialized vendor driven realm of work. On the other end, the network engineer will focused more on software, from protocols to applications, and how they drive and add value to the business. Again, the role will need to move up the stack towards the business to continue adding value; away from hardware, and towards software.

I could well be wrong. I would not be happy or sad if I am right or wrong.

None of these are invalid choices to make, or bad roles to fill. I do not know what role fits “you” best, your life, nor your interests. I am simply observing what I think is happening in the market, and trying to understand where things are going, because I think this kind of thinking helps provide clarity in a confusing world.

In both the first and second roles, you must move up the stack to add value. This is what happened in the worlds of electronic engineering and personal computers as they both disaggregated away from an appliance model. Living through these past experiences is part of what leads me to believe this same kind of movement will happen in the world of networking technology. Further, I think I already see these changes happening in parts of the market, and I cannot see any reason these kinds of changes should not move throughout the entire market fairly rapidly.

What is the percentage of these two roles in the market? Some people think the second role will simply not exist, in fact, other than at vendors. Others think the second role will be a vanishingly small part of the market. I tend to think the percentages will be more balanced because of shifts in the business environment that is happening in parallel with (or rather driving) these changes. Ultimately, however, the number of people in each role will driven by the business environment, rather than the networking world.

Will there be “network engineers” in the future?

If we look at the progress of time from left to right, there is a big bulge ahead, followed by a slope off, and then a long tail. This is my understanding of the current network engineering skill set. We are at A as I write this, just before the big bulge of radical change at B, and I think much farther along than many others believe. At C, there will still be network engineers in the mold of the network engineers of today. They will be valiantly deploying appliance based networks for those companies who have a vertical niche deep enough to survive. There will be vendors still supporting these companies and engineers, too. There will just be a very few of them. Like COBOL and FORTRAN coders today, they will live on the long tail of demand. I suspect a number of the folks who live in this long tail will even consider themselves the “real legacy” of network engineering, while seeing the rest of the network operations and engineering market is more of “software engineers” and “administrators.”

That’s all fine by me; I just know I’d rather be in the bubble of demand than the long tail. 🙂

What should I do as a network engineer? This is the tricky question.

First, I cannot tell you which path to take of the ones I have presented. I cannot, in fact, tell you precisely what these roles are going to look like, nor whether there will be other roles available. For instance, I have not discussed what I think vendors look like after this change at all; there will be some similar roles, and some different ones, in that world.

Second, all the roles I’ve described (other than the hardware focused role) involve moving up the stack into a more software and business focus. This means that to move into these roles, you need to gain some business acumen and some software skills. If this is all correct, then now is the time to gain those skills, rather than later. I intend to post more on these topics in the future, so watch this space.

Third, don’t be fatalistic about any of this. I hear a lot of people say things like “I don’t have any influence over the market or my company.” Wrong. Rather than throwing our hands up in frustration and waiting for our fates (or heads) to be handed to us on a silver platter, I want to suggest a way forward. I know that none of us can entirely control the future—my worldview does not allot the kind of radical freedom this would entail to individual humans. At the same time, I am not a fatalist, and I tend to get frustrated with people who argue they have no control, so we should just “sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.” We have freedom to do different things in the future within the context and guard rails set by our past decisions (and other things outside the scope of a technical blog).

My suggestion is this: take a hard look at what I have written here, decide for yourself where you think I am right and where I am wrong, and make career decisions based on what you think is going to happen. I have seen multiple people end up at age 50 or 60 with a desire to work, and yet with no job. I cannot tell you what percentage of any particular person’s situation is because of ageism, declining skills, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time (I tend to think all three play a different role in every person’s situation). On the other hand, if you focus on what you can change—your skills, attitude, and position—and stop worrying so much about the things you cannot change, you will be a happier person.

Fourth, this fatalism stretches to the company you work for, and anyplace you might work in the future. There is a strong belief that network engineers cannot influence business leadership. Let me turn this around: If you stop talking about chipsets and optical transceivers, and start talking about the value of data and how the company needs to think about that value, then you might get a seat at the table when these discussions are taking place. You are not helpless here; if you learn how to talk to the business, there is at least some chance (depending on the company, of course) that you can shape the future of the company you work for. If nothing else, you can use your thinking in this area to help you decide where you want to work next.

Now, let’s talk about some risk factors. While these trends seem strong to me, it is still worth asking: what could take things in a different direction? One thing that would certainly change the outlook would be a major economic crash or failure like the Great Depression. This might seem unthinkable to most people, but more than a few of the thinkers I follow in the economic and political realms are suggesting this kind of thing is possible. If this happens, companies will be holding things together with tin cans, bailing wire, and duct tape; in this case, all bets are off. Another could be the collapse of the entire disaggregation ecosystem. Perhaps another could be someone discovering how to break the State/Optimization/Surface triad, or somehow beat CAP theorem.

There is also the possibility that people, at large, will reject the data driven economy that is developing, intentionally moving back to a more personally focused world with local shopping, and offline friends rather than online. I would personally support such a thing, but but while I think such a move could happen, I do not see it impacting every area of life. The “buy local” mantra is largely focused on bookstores, food, and some other areas. Notice this, however: if “buy local” is really what it means, then it means buying from locally owned stores, rather than shifting from an online retailer to a large chain mixed online/offline retailer. Buy local is not a panacea for appliance based network engineering, and may even help drive the changes I see ahead.

So there you have it: in this first week of 2019, this is what I think is going to happen in the world of networking technology. I could be way wrong, and I am sticking my neck out a good bit in publishing this little series.

As always, this is more of a two-way conversation than you imagine. I read the comments here and on LinkedIn, and even (sometimes) on Twitter, so tell me what you think the network future of network engineering will be. I am not so old, and certain of myself, that I cannot learn new things! 🙂

5 Comments

  1. Steve on 4 January 2019 at 2:36 pm

    I noticed a few years ago that things were going to move from technical grunts to being subject matter experts. I still do technical work, but where I am most valuable is vendor management, technical guidance and guiding business projects on the IT side. Most businesses don’t care about the specific technology used, so niche technical understanding without seeing the bigger picture will eventually become obsolete. As IT becomes more and more important to the business, it will be more and more important for them to get solid IT direction.



    • Russ on 5 January 2019 at 5:19 am

      This is exactly what I am seeing in many companies. In others I am seeing the network engineering role being replaced by a much more software driven role; some companies are no longer hiring “network engineers” in the traditional sense, but only software developers who are then put into roles developing and managing the network software, while the hardware is being pulled into specialized teams.



  2. Javier Solis on 4 January 2019 at 11:36 pm

    I definitely agree that there’s a shift happening within the networking realm. Conversations tend to be moving more towards software first. What can your networking software do to help manage, maintain, optimize, secure, and quickly deploy new services that customers demand? Speeds and feeds are becoming a secondary conversation as switches and routers become more of a commodity. You could argue that certain software features are driven by specific hardware requirements. However I feel that if networking vendors are too restrictive with hardware/software interoperability they will lose to competition. This could be classified as the shift towards software engineering.

    We still need individuals that have skills to determine what fits business demand. This is more of an administrator management role. The administrator can manage this in possibly two different models. The first would be managing an internal team of network engineers or the other would be purely managing VARs/contractors.

    One thing’s for sure, be willing to learn and grow. Stay adaptive to the shifting demands. Continue to learn the why and not just the how as Russ would say.



    • Russ on 5 January 2019 at 5:23 am

      Yes — staying focused on the why is the way to move up the stack and engage with the business more, no matter which way the market moves.



  3. Juha Holkkola on 5 January 2019 at 7:52 am

    I myself believe that the role of network architect will survive. There still remains the need to design things and plan processes, even if the actual operational activities are being automated away.

    That said, I’m not sure what percentage of network engineers will be able to make this leap. IMHO, there are many great engineers that love the CLI and are detail oriented to fault. While that is fine when managing networks and network devices manually, it can become counter-productive in architecture, process design and vendor relations because it easily leads into loosing the big picture.

    I talked about this in a bit further detail in a recent interview:

    https://hamilton-barnes.co.uk/fusionlayer/

    Not that this isn’t a problem on the vendor side too. For example the car industry stopped selling on feature comparisons some 10-15 years ago, as it no longer provided a meaningful differentiation. Yet this same practice continues to live strong within the network vendor community, as many SEs and product management teams share the worldview of their network engineer clients. In reality, though, what the networking world needs at this juncture is an automobile – not faster and more equipped horses.

    With this, I expect there to be changes on the vendor side of the fence also.



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