Networking Career: Taking the Road Less Traveled
If I was giving IT career advice to a youngster these days -- and I sometimes do, as my eldest considers his next steps -- I would say, “When given a choice between learning to code or getting another certification, go with the former, not the latter.”
That’s not to say that certifications are useless; they’re not. The confidence a certification provides a networking professional is unmatched. There’s nothing else that says you know networking and gives you the confidence required to make changes to networks responsible for carrying millions of dollars’ worth of data and transactions. But certifications aren't a viable career path anymore.
The traditional NetOps career path is the well-trod trail of certified network engineer. It’s a safe path that will get you to the end of your career without bumps along the way. You’ve got critical business and operational networking knowledge at your fingertips; you are what is known as an essential employee. There aren’t enough of you to go around, after all, so if you choose to continue down the well-traveled path, it’s not a bad way to go.
The other branch is, in the words of the great poet Robert Frost, "less traveled by." It's the one just starting to emerge as networking pros put down their CLIs and took up APIs in their stead. It’s the path that leads to automation, process optimization, and the ability to scale operations to volumes previously unachievable by manually-driven network operations.
It will, in the future, be the path everyone takes. And it won’t be a path or even a trail, but a four-lane highway. Hey, I'm from the Midwest, so a four-lane highway is a big deal.
Whatever metaphor you want to use, the reality is that NetOps is in the midst of a digital transformation of its own. Operations can no longer scale with people to meet the insatiable demand and (sometimes unrealistic) expectations of the business. Tools and technologies, automation, and agile networking are a must -- that means network engineers with the capacity to code.
We’re not talking about full-blown, client and server, web and mobile applications here. We’re talking about using APIs and templates and treating infrastructure as code to enable the next generation of network operations. That means going beyond command-line invocations using wget or curl and learning to use a language to codify the processes you use to move applications and updates into production.
You’re going to need to get familiar with repositories like Git and comfortable with sharing scripts with others in NetOps. You’ll have to know how to interact with REST APIs with the same alacrity you now navigate an IOS CLI. Collaboration and code reviews will become a natural part of your routine. And you’ll need to speak HTTP as fluently as you speak IP and TCP.
These are the skills you’ll need to learn as you take the road less traveled. These skills have been traditionally eschewed by network engineers because they weren’t necessary for a successful career in network operations, but they are about to become critical.
Network engineers today have a choice which path they will take their career. Automation is not yet so pervasive as to force businesses to close down the well-traveled path of the traditional network engineer. Even though we see that most organizations are sometimes using automation to deploy both major and minor changes in production, only a brave subset, about 7%, are fully automated today. But those days are numbered.
So if you haven’t already set a foot on that path, it’s time to begin developing the skills you need to succeed as a next-generation NetOps. Here’s a short list to get you started:
- Learn a language. Python is the most popular, but any scripting language is a good choice. The logic constructs of any language are applicable to pretty much all languages. Syntax is simple to synthesize once you’ve got the basics down.
- Explore HTTP. As a text-based protocol, it’s less rigid than the protocols you’re used to working with. Familiarize yourself with the basics, especially HTTP headers.
- Start playing with APIs. Postman is the best too, hands down, I've found for tinkering with APIs and HTTP-based traffic. Bonus: it can help you understand HTTP in a way that’s just not possible using command-line constructs.
- Check out Git. Get an account, clone a project, create a project, check in a project. Git isn’t just for code; you can also use it manage configurations, scripts, and that novella you’ve been secretly writing between network incidents.
- Read about DevOps. Network operations isn’t app dev, but as you start to adopt the tools and technologies DevOps has brought to the table, you’ll want to understand and apply many of its principles. Foremost amongst them: CAMS.
I am certain that if you take this road less traveled, you will no doubt look back one day as Robert Frost did and say, “That has made all the difference.”
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