I’ve a few things to thank Ivan for this last week. First off, this post led me to some great career-related articles and really got me thinking on the subject. Also, should I ever feel the need, I can now don my smarty pants, slip on my clever clogs and impress those around me by somehow slipping the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ into the conversation. This is where your mind holds two (or more) conflicting beliefs at the same time and can be a real cause of stress. I’d certainly say that describes my state of mind where the future of the networking job market is concerned.
I’ve made subtle hints on this topic here, here and here (and perhaps I’m covering old ground) and I’ve wanted to write something more in-depth for a while but I’ve been loathe to do so before mulling it over some more. However, a brief Twitter exchange with Ivan (that man again) and M. Sean McGee around Sean’s SDN Isn’t Kryptonite To The Network Engineer blog post (a response to this Register article) has given me the push I needed. The simple thrust of the article and exchange is that there’s nothing to fear from network virtualisation, automation, orchestration and SDN, and it’s going to liberate us from the pain of manual provisioning, from firewall rules to VLANs.
I’ve no beef regarding the provisioning; I’ve even described my own simple ‘fantasy’ about it in A Small Yellow Wooden Door. As to whether there’s anything to fear from SDN, well, cognitively speaking I’m suffering some dissonance. The reasoning behind Sean’s post, quite a few others I’ve read recently and even one of my own (simultaneously holding conflicting beliefs remember) is that old school physical networks are still needed, networking’s form and the tools we use may change, but ultimately networking skills are still valuable and will continue to be in the new world that awaits.
There’s truth in that, but perhaps have a think about who’s saying it; they’re the cream of the crop right? I’m not knocking anyone here, but perhaps a reality check is in order where those lower down the pile are concerned. Visualise a triangle with network related skills listed along its left, starting with the simplest at the bottom (cabling perhaps) and rising to the most complex and valuable at the top (application delivery, surely). Imagine that the width of that triangle denotes the number of people in the industry who possess those skills. Obviously, the higher you go, the fewer people there are that possess those more advanced and/or specialised skills. These at the top are the people who have confidence that it’s all going to be just dandy.
But hang on, no STP, perhaps no IP (internally) and an abundance of automation, orchestration and centralised control and it’s all cool? Whole protocol suites are going to be ‘disappeared’ and the most time consuming (planning and implementation) tasks performed by the majority of network staff are about to go swimming with the fishes. Surely that is a valid reason to remove the rose-coloured spectacles for a while. When companies discuss reductions in OPEX, just remember you are OPEX most, if not all the time. Self-service and automation are great, but if that service is what you provide (and provides your income), you better do something about it. Don’t become roadkill on the path to the future.*
The middle of our imaginary triangle is going to be programmed and automated out of existence at some point. I’ve no idea what skill sets and how many roles that represents, and it’s going to be a gradual process – but that change is coming. Of course, computers themselves (and robotics and …) caused some to predict the end of employment; the more positive imagined a future nirvana of no work, all play. That never came to pass (I’m not sure if I’m happy or not about that), and I don’t imagine anything so drastic here. Virtualisation in the server space didn’t lead to a radical or even a slow loss of roles that I’m aware of; if anything more are required to handle the endless sprawl. Perhaps the same will happen in networking?
So, I may have achieved a measure of harmony whilst considering and writing this piece. Jobs (and entire skill-sets with them) will be lost, but the removal of the pain associated with networking will increase its use. Along with general market growth, this may absorb those affected and history shows we’re all mostly resilient and adaptable to change. Of course, there are always casualties; some can’t or won’t want to change their thinking and their skills in order to reposition themselves. Some might be trapped by circumstances, using a skill-set that’s disappearing and won’t be able to do anything about it. Others simply won’t see what’s ahead until it’s too late. If you’ve read this, you’ve no excuse; don’t say I didn’t give it to you straight and give you plenty of time to plan and prepare.
I’d imagine the barrier to entry in the field might rise (as the middle ground of skills/tasks ebbs). Combined with the loss of any real salary premium for IT roles in general, as discussed by the wonderfully arrogant Dominic Connor here (see the last paragraph), perhaps this is good for those of us that are already ‘in the field’ as our number reduces? Perhaps not? Perhaps today’s skills will command a premium in places where old technology never seems to die (like in financial services). I’ll deal with those conflicting thoughts another time. It’s time for bed for me, sleep well.
A response to this article from Ivan: http://blog.ioshints.info/2013/06/response-sdns-casualties.html
A few other points of view on this subject, all published the same day as this article and mostly a response to this article on The Register: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/05/24/network_configuration_automation/;
*Interesting that Jon Garrison noted this shift in Show 149 – Questions on the Sweet Spot for the Network Engineer Career
-Thanks to Paul White for inspiring part of the title.