Network technology is evolving at breakneck speed, and a rapidly growing number of organizations are searching for network architects to help them add and upgrade services.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many network architects who were on top of their game just a few years ago have neglected to keep pace with innovation and are now struggling to catch up. As a result, an emerging skills gap is frustrating a growing number of IT organizations while also providing an opening for skilled newcomers who can jump into the fray and begin helping their employers leverage new network technologies from day one.
"The current demand for network architects, specifically in the service provider and telecom industry, is extremely high," observed Tim Parker, vice president of network strategy for Flexential, a hybrid IT and network solutions provider. "Salaries are constantly increasing due to the high demand and low number of candidates."
The rate of innovation in networks is higher today than it has ever been in the past, stated Otto Fontana, Verizon's director of network services. "SD-WAN is transforming the access layer of networks (while) NFV, hybrid clouds, and SDN are transforming the data center networks." Network security models are also constantly evolving. "There is a very positive employment outlook for network architects who can adapt quickly to new technologies and trends," Fontana said.
"(IT organizations) are all looking for hybrid cloud solutions, and this changes the conversation and profile of the most valuable network architect in the room quite remarkably," explained Rob Owen, chief architect at Computer Design & Integration, which builds, deploys, and manages hybrid IT solutions. Until recently, any Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) network architect enjoyed a reputation as the authority on how to design and implement complex networking solutions. "Today, a lot of companies are looking for the architects who have a good grasp on the legacy way, but also understand how to create real SDN hybrid cloud architectures," he noted.
Strong real-world experience with network technologies and infrastructures is an attribute all network architects must now bring to the job market. "This includes an in-depth knowledge of protocols, such as IP, BGP, MPLS, OSPF, and IS-IS," Fontana said.
The ongoing shift toward software-defined also requires network architects to ramp up their software development abilities. "This includes skills in using APIs and automation/orchestration such as Ansible, Python, JSON, and Jira Jenkins," Fontana noted. "An in-depth understanding of the Agile framework is also critical today, as many organizations are following DevOps models and Agile."
The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification, or an equivalent, is probably the baseline for working with a legacy network architecture, Owen observed. The most valuable certifications these days are mostly related to software-defined solutions from VMware (NSX), Palo Alto Networks, Cisco (ACI/Tetration), and other industry leaders in the SDN space, he added.
Staying on top of certification evolution is also important. "Most certification exams are updated every two years with new industry technology advances," Parker stated. "In addition, having a strong relationship with the hardware/software vendors and receiving constant product/feature updates is critical."
Staying up to date on the latest trends in network design and operation is essential for job stability, given today's rapid pace of change. "A network architect must have a thirst for knowledge and spend a fair amount of time reading blogs, listening to podcasts, attending trade shows and reading technical books to stay up on the latest trends," observed Justin Ryburn, director of solutions engineering at network analytics company Kentik.
"The biggest miss most IT professionals make is not spending enough time scouring industry magazines, finding blogs from industry leaders and attending group meet-ups," Owen observed. "Attending conference after conference has its value for networking purposes, but the real meat and potatoes is out there on the Web," he explained. Even Reddit can be a great place to find and participate in conversations with other network architects and engineer, Owen suggested. "You can really learn a lot from your peers."
These are "exciting times" for the network architects, Fontana declared. "It’s no longer only about ‘feeds and speeds,'" he added. "Networks are transitioning toward software-defined, with network technologies spanning over multiple disciplines—software coding, virtualization, orchestration, automation."