Software opens up new career opportunities for network professionals

Network engineers need to embrace the shift to software as a way to do their jobs better and faster. Cisco’s DevNet Create event is one way to help them get those skills.

Software opens up new career opportunities for network professionals
Zeus Kerravala

The topic of network engineer re-skilling has been front and center for the past few years. Some network professionals have embraced the concept and are leading the network industry in a whole new direction. Others, though, are more resistant and show about as much enthusiasm for this new world as my wife does when I ask her to watch a Star Trek marathon with me.

Network professionals need to become software-fluent

Part of the resistance to re-skilling is that change is scary and often hard. Many network engineers have been working a certain way for years, possibly decades, and now they are asking, "Do I need to throw those skills away and learn new ones?" To those people, I say an emphatic YES! It’s absolutely critical to learn new skills today, or you could find yourself quickly looking for a job.

If you’re looking for a proof point, consider what happened when the world moved from traditional voice to VoIP. How many telecom managers who did not upgrade their skills kept their jobs? The answer is virtually none, and that’s what happens here.

To stay current, network engineers need to embrace software. I’m not saying everyone needs to be a software developer — because they don’t. However, it’s important that people who work with network gear know how to do things such as make API calls, use orchestration tools, and write scripts. Software fluency is as important today as IOS fluency was 10 years ago.

Cisco DevNet Create was all about software, software and software

This week Cisco held its second annual “DevNet Create” event, which is one of the most un-Cisco-like Cisco events that the company holds. Instead of hearing about the latest updates to Catalyst, ISR and UCS, attendees heard about what code is now in GitHub, changes to APIs, and how to work with node.js.

Create is put on by Cisco’s DevNet Innovations group, which is the company’s developer community run by DevNet Vice President and CTO Susie Wee. In its four years of existence, DevNet has exploded and now has just under half a million members from over 33,000 companies. In that time, the community has completed over 70,000 learning labs. The mission of DevNet is to help developers and administrators do more with the network through software. This obviously includes building applications that use network information, but also administrators can use the APIs to get data critical to managing the network.

I found Create to be a well-structured event that has something for people with all levels of software fluency. For example, Cisco’s Meraki group offered a free network switch and three-year license to anyone who completed one of these three one-hour lab courses.

  • Challenge 1 — Designed for beginners with no coding experience. The user was walked through three self-paced online labs where learned the basics of interacting with the Meraki Dashboard API and then went through the process of building a hot spot.
  • Challenge 2 — Intermediate developers were taken through a couple of “mini hacks” where they could manage Meraki layer 3 firewall rules or to use the network as a sensor.
  • Challenge 3 — Advanced developers were tasked with using their skills to create an application or tool and then contribute it to the Meraki GitHub repo.

The Create audience was an interesting mix of application developers who knew little about the network but wanted to learn how to build advanced apps using network information and network engineers who were looking to learn software skills.

One of the more interesting events within the event was DevNet’s “Camp Create,” which was basically a mini hackathon. On the first day of the conference, several teams were assembled and tasked with building what ever they could think up. They had about 24 hours to complete the task and then demonstrated what they created at the end of the event. The teams were a mix of application developers and other individuals, such as systems and UC administrators.

The output from these groups included apps such as network monitoring tools and applications for healthcare and banking, showing the diversity of what can be built. I bring this up because it’s important to understand that network software isn’t just for building cool applications such as heat maps and location services. Network engineers can stay technical and use the APIs to help them do their jobs better. Doing things like getting IP addresses or other information can be done by scraping CLI, but that’s arduous and complicated. APIs greatly simplify and speed up the process. The shift to software should be thought of as the network engineers best friend and a tool to do their job better, faster, and more efficiently.

Skills network professionals should focus on

I’m sure many of you reading this are somewhat nervous — this is as big a change in networking as there ever has been. The most common question I get from network pros looking to reskill is what those new skills are. Here are few areas to focus on:

  • Strong network skills. The network matters more than ever, and these skills are still important.
  • Virtual and cloud infrastructure. Infrastructure comes in many flavors today, and it’s important to understand more than physical form factors.
  • Basic scripting skills. Learn some subset of Python, Ruby, Postman, Ansible, etc. A good way to get started is to download scripts from GitHub, and repurpose them for your own use.
  • APIs. Almost all network vendors today expose a tremendous amount of information via APIs. Learn what’s there and what you can do.

One other point to consider, although this isn’t really a skill, is to think “community first.” Software communities such as DevNet are very powerful, and most members are willing to help out fellow members. Be an active contributor; don’t be afraid to ask for help and understand that community activity makes everyone better.

I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is for network professionals to upgrade their skill set to include software. The same can be said for application developers, as it’s important that they learn a bit more about how the network operates and what kind of information is available.

If you missed DevNet Create and are one of the 20,000 or so people who will be attending Cisco Live in June, that event will have a dedicated DevNet Zone. It is a Create-like event but dedicated more to the network engineer. I urge you to check it out.

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