Networking pros have plenty of job opportunities ahead, provided they're open to learning new skills.
As the IT industry goes through another period of change, there have been a lot of questions the future of the network engineer. I think it's actually good, but network engineers will need to adapt to the evolving IT environment. Here’s why.
First off, companies always need networking. Even if data centers disappear and get sucked into the cloud, you still have those darn users, and those users have devices and they need to connect to the network.
Thus, campus networking will always be necessary since end users access the network from the edge. In some dream made courtesy of Nokia or Ericsson, all of your next-generation local devices would have some 5G wireless connection to the mobile network. But more likely, you will connect those devices to some WiFi access point much of the time, which has to connect to some campus switch, which in turn gets connected to some router.
Does that mean that campus networking engineers will be doing the same job in the future as they do today? Mostly likely not. Recently, I used the Lyft ridesharing service and struck up a conversation with the driver, who was studying to pass a Cisco networking certification. He asked what specialties he ought to look into after he gets his initial certification. He's smart to look ahead. After all, if he learns to be a CLI expert, happy just setting ACLs day after day, that job may go away.
I told him that network automation would be a good focus, explained a bit about what it means, and how it’s often tied to DevOps. He shot me a puzzled look and said: “Does that mean I need to become a programmer? Oy! Do I need to go back to school again?”
I replied no, and explained that it’s a matter of understanding how to manipulate systems at scale, controlling complex systems, and reducing manual tasks. You may need to do stuff that resembles programming, but it’s not like writing C code for the Linux kernel.
Imagine a world where, for example, the descendants of today’s Cisco ACI systems automatically enforce policy declared at a high level. In this world, companies certainly won’t need people typing in ACL settings.
What they will need are people to analyze high-level policy needs and enter that into the policy system as business intent. At a more mainstream level, writing Ansible playbooks to automate regular switches controlled via APIs is also a form of automation businesses will value. Even understanding how to deal with SDN controllers may be a good thing, such as an OpenDaylight controller like the Brocade SDN Controller or Juniper OpenContrail, since those systems may gradually supplant classic CLI. Networking pros will need to augment network architecture knowledge with skills in configuring SDN-based systems.
So there are an endless amount of jobs ahead for network engineers. No matter how busy you are, it’s worthwhile investing in education and learning the next thing. You don’t necessarily need to retrain yourself to be a full-fledged programmer to write automation scripts or become a deep network architecture expert in order to use SDN UIs. You instead need to bridge the gap between the technology and the business needs, and how to make that happen in the network.
And there may be a hidden benefit: If you really enjoy writing scripts it may lead you to do more work in IT related to automation, perhaps becoming a DevOps engineer. Or you could get some training to become a site reliability engineer. Discovery of your hidden talent may open up a whole new career path for you.