Today, there exists in many organizations a familiar and comfortable balance of power. Because business-critical applications are dependent on the network, the network is a critical part of the infrastructure. When a network engineer is working with a database admin or a server admin, it is very easy for the network engineer to think, “You need me more than I need you”. And thus, a power differential seems to exist between the network engineer and other engineers. This perceived power differential can bring out the worst in people. I have seen networkers treat other IT professionals with disrespect or even disdain and then chuckle about it to their fellow networkers.
The Next Generation
The next generation of networking engineers will have to be much more skilled in their interactions with other IT professionals. Network operations toolsets are evolving to include techniques that server admins have been using for a long time. At the same time, our customers expectations’ are beginning to dramatically ramp up – tasks that traditionally were expected to take weeks are now expected to occur in minutes. All of these changes are pushing us toward a more interdependent technical environment. Some day in the near future, that server admin that you treated poorly will be able to fix a problem with your automation controller in minutes that would have taken you hours to figure out. You might say to yourself “The server admin deserved to be treated poorly, during that one outage he was blaming the network when the real cause of the problem was that he didn’t understand ARP.” Or even, “I did nothing wrong, and the network was operating as expected, but that storage admin complained about me to her boss who complained to her boss, and now I have become a political liability to my own boss. She’s wrong, so why should I treat her well?”
Skills We Need
We often talk about how networking in the future will require us to understand programming (or at least to think algorithmically). We say we’ll need to know how to build a linux box in the same afternoon that we troubleshoot a datacenter fabric or deal with a WAN issue. But there are some soft skills that I think will be equally critical to possess in this new age of tightly-integrated systems.
A problem that I see with a lot of network engineers is their struggle to appreciate another person’s problems. When someone shows up at our desk with an issue that we consider trivial, or that is simply a result of that person’s lack of understanding, we tend to employ defense mechanisms. It’s understandable – nobody else is going to protect our time. If we don’t protect ourselves, pretty soon we will end up fixing other people’s problems all day long, and we fear we’ll end up with no time to do the work that we really enjoy and are being paid to do. However, in the new world of automation, controllers, and tightly-integrated IT infrastructures, empathy will serve us well. Empathy is what allows a talented engineer to sort through the emotions and irrelevant technical details and find the often small nugget of critical data that will lead to a real solution. If we are seeing a problem from someone else’s perspective, we will be able to use our expertise to see things that they might have missed. Two people can be on opposite sides of the table, looking at each other; or they can be on the same side of the table, looking at the problem. In the future, being on the same side of the table will often be the only way to solve the problems we are faced with.
When the balance of power is lopsided toward the network engineers, there is little incentive to convince our peers that our ideas are correct. There’s certainly no motivation to solicit or accept ideas from someone who’s not on the network team for how to build our networks. As the balance of power shifts and as we move toward a more integrated and collaboration-driven way of building things, we networkers will find ourselves in the position of having to sell our ideas instead of simply dictating them. Are you uncomfortable with the prospect of being required to convince a server team to accept your ideas before you will be allowed to build the network? If so, now might be a good time to work on your persuasion skills. When a small group of professionals possessing different technical specialties come in to a room and try to persuade each other to build things in a certain way, really good things can happen. Persuasion requires you to examine facts and to discriminate between your own good and bad ideas, and to do those things before you make a final decision about how to build something. The separation of those two phases (critical examination and decision making) is hugely important, and it’s also much easier to do when the decision-making part happens as a collaborative effort with other IT professionals. In the old world, we didn’t have to do very much of this. But the next-generation network engineer will consider persuasion just as crucial a skill as interpreting a routing table.
We need more professionalism in networking. We’ve probably all known (or been) that guy who gets the best results when you slide pizza under his office door and leave him alone to do his work. But that kind of networker’s relevance will fade as we move forward. A network engineer who is known for their professionalism and ability to work with all kinds of people will be a critical part of the IT infrastructures of the future.