I just finished listening to the Datanauts podcast 118. I really like the content you guys produce even when I feel like the guests are telling me that my skills are/should be obsolete. (I really think his (Peyton’s) ideas contained a lot of wishful thinking.)
With that being said, I don’t know what to do to prepare for the future of networking. I am early in my career, I’ve got a 1 – 2 years of networking experience. I completed my CCNA recently, but now I don’t know if I should pursue the CCNP. I don’t want to bust my ass just to have the skills and cert not pay off.
Do you guys have any recent content that could help guide people like me in the early stages of our career?
Okay, Jeffrey. Long-winded answer ahead, but you asked, so here we go.
On the question of recent content, there is no single show that goes after the issue of career in this way. That said, many of the shows we have been running address the problem of building a career in IT if you read between the lines. Listen between the breaks?
If you’re looking for specific guidance on CCNP, etc., I don’t really think about career in the light of certifications at this point. I think about career in light of market trends, predicting where things are headed over the next several years, and then positioning myself to be in the right place over time.
Let’s take a step back.
When considering a career path, there are a few different things to consider.
1. What you do today isn’t the only thing you’ll ever do.
I’m in my fourth employment epoch. Early on, I worked fast food and manual labor jobs. Then I moved into a mix of teaching and banking. Then I did IT consulting, teaching, engineering, and architecture, and ran a few small side businesses. And now I write, podcast, consult, and teach in the context of operating the media business Packet Pushers has become.
In other words, realize that you need to be a little flexible over time. Be willing to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Some things will come your way that you weren’t expecting, and that’s okay.
Don’t think that if you just get the answer correct for today that the answer will be the same forever. It won’t. You might still be in tech, but you might not. You might be in operations, but you might be in management. You might be working for someone else, but you might be working for yourself.
2. You need to understand what your skills will be worth in the future.
Technology skills become stale, usually in just a few years. Experience does not. Certifications become stale. Project leadership lasts. Command lines change. Emotional intelligence is forever useful.
The value you bring to a company is technical, yes, but also human. When I interview people, I care about their ability to work within a team first, their ability to learn second, and their actual experience third. I’ll take the person that seems like a decent, thoughtful human being that can learn over the one that is an exact skillset match but comes across as arrogant or egotistical.
Assuming that all you need are certs isn’t quite right, not that you are assuming that necessarily, but some people do think that way. Certs might help you stand out from the crowd, especially in that 1-2 years of experience that you mention. But being a team player, reliable worker, and all around decent human being is what you need to grow your career and get opportunities others won’t.
3. If you wish to maximize earning potential, you need to anticipate skills that will be in demand.
Look ahead and understand market trends. Back when I started, Novell was hot. I got Novell certified and made money installing and maintaining Novell 3 & 4 networks. Then Microsoft took over with NT and later 2000. I became an MCSE and made money working on those networks, with a specialty in directory services and integrated mail systems. Then Cisco was really getting hot, and I went down that rabbit hole for many years.
Now? The enterprise is migrating to the public cloud, heavily leveraging AWS both as an IaaS and PaaS platform. The enterprise is also migrating to SaaS, using O365, Google apps, Salesforce.com, and many others. Many enterprises are doing this cloud migration in a hurry, under directives from management to get to the cloud at any cost.
If you’re an IT practitioner, that means AWS skills will be hot for a long time. Azure is a pretty safe bet. You could make a business out of consulting for companies, helping them plan their cloud migration strategies, even early in your career.
As you grow with those experiences, you’ll learn not just how to stand up an app in the cloud, but how an application designed with cloud in mind looks, and then help companies take the next step to maximize their return on investment (ROI) in the cloud.
Cloud migrations are a decade plus long ride, in my estimation. When that ride is about over, you’ll have already anticipated the next big thing in IT and will have made yourself ready for whatever that will be.
Notice I didn’t bring up CCNA/CCNP/CCIE. That’s because I think that making a career out of being a Cisco networking specialist is not viable in the long term. In the short term? You bet. There’s a few years in being a Cisco-specific expert. They have market and mindshare, and that won’t change overnight.
However, going back to the long view, IT will always need networking specialists. That’s not going away. IP, encryption, DNS, load-balancing, addressing, multicast, routing, segmentation, and so on are always going to be important parts of an IT architecture.
My point is that Cisco won’t be quite the big, bad gorilla they seem to be today. Cisco is SO omnipresent in the enterprise space that it like their reign will be eternal, but when it comes to networking in the cloud, the landscape is rather different.
4. Understand that a technology career demands lifelong learning.
You mentioned that you don’t want to put the energy into the CCNP track if it’s not going to pay off. That’s fair. But you will be putting energy into something.
One of the annoying things about being in IT is that you never get off of the educational treadmill. I said “annoying.” I guess that depends on your perspective. If there is pressure on you to earn and maintain certifications–part and parcel of the reseller life–then yes, annoying.
However, if you drop the certification component, constant education doesn’t have to be annoying at all. I like to learn new things. I’m a tinkerer. I like to try new stuff. I’m not scared to break things (in my lab). Virtualization has made tinkering all the easier.
5. IT is changing constantly, but the enterprise is the slowest to react.
Typical enterprises do not move fast and break things. Enterprises look at how to maintain a stable cash flow, retain customers, grow, and maintain operations predictably. Change is a risk, and risk must be mitigated. Cash is a resource carefully utilized in the context of an ROI.
Enterprises move slowly, particularly companies with established business models–and especially companies that view IT as a cost center.
Interestingly, this can work to your advantage. If you plan to support enterprise IT shops, that means you might have a place to plan your next move. Not always, but often.
For example, I’ve worked at shops in a “run and maintain” mode where not much was being spent on IT and not much was happening. For me, that’s super boring. But I’ve also been at shops where the business was making a radical investment in technology that kept me busy for years while I helped them build out a shiny new infrastructure.
But in general, enterprises aren’t ripping and replacing every year. IT investments are costly, and are depreciated against an accounting schedule. That depreciation is often as long as seven years, meaning technology hangs around for a long time until it’s probably past its shelf life and is starting to smell funny.
Back to you, a “run and maintain” environment means you can work on new skills for your next gig while throwing water on the fires that flare up now and then in the existing infrastructure you can’t really do much with.
All of that in mind, what are some major trends worth considering?
1. Cisco is slowly losing market share for routers and switches.
That’s just the numbers. Cisco hasn’t fallen off the map. They aren’t dead. The company overall is doing fine. Wall Street is starting to believe that Cisco is a software company now. But most of us in enterprise networking thought of Cisco first and maybe only for networking hardware. That story just isn’t true like it once was.
I don’t see the slow downward trend for Cisco router and switch sales changing, really. In my opinion, peak Cisco hardware was a few years back. Cisco has since been reinventing itself to maintain revenue and find growth markets. There are far cheaper hardware options these days. Pair that with enterprise moves to cloud, and the total addressable mid-market just isn’t what it was for Cisco hardware. In my opinion, it’s never coming back.
That’s my perspective explaining my logic that an investment in CCNP might not pay enough of the dividends you seek. That said, it all depends on your goals. Cisco certification tracks have been and remain excellent for learning the endless complexities of networking.
While I no longer maintain my CCIE rating, I credit working through the Cisco certification ladder as crucial to my acquisition of some fairly deep technical knowledge. If your goal is to understand networking at a deep level, Cisco certs remain a great way to lay the foundation.
On the other hand, if your goal is to have a career working specifically with Cisco hardware running IOS or NX-OS, I believe that’s got a somewhat limited shelf life, and is not a growth direction for the long term. By “long term,” I mean 5-10 years out.
2. Hardware has become less important than software.
Hardware is a commodity. All IT functions–every single one of them–can be run on generic whitebox hardware. Period. In compute, x86 is king. In networking, merchant silicon wins the day. If you need a special magic ASIC for your network, either you’re a corner case with peculiar needs or are suffering from a bad application design that needs a reboot.
Hardware just isn’t interesting. Hardware is merely a platform for the interesting bits. The interesting bits are made up of software. That’s where the most important innovation in IT is happening. And the most interesting software for IT infrastructure is driven by open source projects.
Watch the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Watch the Linux Foundation. Figure out where these groups are going with their various projects. How are the projects incubated by these foundations being used? By whom? What vendors are building commercial software based on these projects? What certifications and educational tracks are showing up around these projects?
You can find a career path here, I promise you.
3. Time-to-market is important for businesses in many segments. This is driving orchestration and automation.
The old skillset was in bashing around the CLI or GUI and configuring equipment to do stuff. That’s still a valid skillset. Using the CLI and GUI generally will remain valid for a long time to come, because even if you don’t do configuration that way in the future, you’ll still need an adult on hand to figure how why things aren’t working. Getting at the system with the CLI is sometimes the best way to figure that stuff out. No amount of magic unicorn rainbow vomit abstraction is going to change that, ever.
However, a skillset of the future is automation of repeatable tasks, unit testing, and managing the IT stack as a holistic system. The CLI has faded as a primary interface in many shops, instead becoming a tool in the toolbox, but not the thing leveraged daily to get IT work done.
4. Understanding IT as a system is as important as being a deep specialist.
We’ve done several episodes on the Datanauts podcast that touch on silo busting, and it’s come up in many other contexts across the Packet Pushers network. In fact, this idea is a primary guidepost for how we choose our topics on Datanauts. We’re trying to bring all IT disciplines together in one giant conversation, because all the technology silos depend deeply on each other.
If you understand how an application is delivered across a complex infrastructure, you’re more valuable to a business than the engineer who can only say, “It’s not the network.” Saying “it’s not the network” doesn’t solve any problems. In fact, it might not even move the problem solving ahead.
“It’s not the network” is a defensive posture that implies, “I don’t know much about apps or storage or security, but all my lights are green, so leave me alone.” You’re almost useless in a modern IT delivery system if that’s all you’ve got to offer.
More helpful is understanding how an application is distributed across a hybrid cloud, having a clue how an application discovers its services and what those services are, being able to infer what might be going at any point in an infrastructure based on reports and data points about how the application is performing. “It’s not the network” doesn’t help with any of those things, even if you’re right.
5. Infrastructure management is changing from physical servers to cloud services.
My nascent foray into cloud infrastructure is that it’s a whole different way of thinking. I used to think in terms of buying the biggest, baddest hardware I could for a given budget cycle–a huge one-time capital investment into iron that was going to have to last for many years.
Cloud is about minimizing ongoing costs–operational expenditure. This means that over-engineering a platform “just in case” is no longer acceptable.
Much about a proper cloud infrastructure build is about creating an elastic application delivery system that optimizes costs. That means you can’t sit there in your networking silo plumbing tunnels and feeling smug.
Being a modern networking specialist is about being involved broadly with operations teams that build cloud infrastructures that can expand or shrink on demand as real-time workloads require. Sitting in your cube going, “I made the thing talk to the thing!”–at the crux of most physical networking–isn’t where it’s at for the long term.
The View From The Hot Aisle
I believe that your long-term career is as a technologist, and not as a network engineer. As a technologist, you might specialize in IP communications. Fair enough. Doing IP well is endlessly interesting and challenging, but it no longer exists in a vacuum (if it ever did), and Uncle Chuck (Cisco) isn’t likely to pay your mortgage over the next thirty years. Therefore, think more in terms of technology fundamentals, and less in terms of vendor alignment.
Follow market trends. See where they are leading. Skate ahead to receive the technology puck as companies send it down the ice. Do these things, and you’ll be employed in tech as long as you care to be.
Look for more from the Packet Pushers on designing a roadmap for your career. We might have a more comprehensive guide coming in the future.