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A New Breed of IT Pro: The Hybrid Engineer

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Digital transformation has created fast and sweeping changes in the network. Keeping up with these changes, and getting ahead of the curve for future ones, requires a new breed of IT professional–the hybrid engineer. A successful network engineer today is one who is good at figuring out how new technologies integrate with traditional ones. This professional bridges the gap between the worlds of networking and software development. It’s a role that calls for both a DevOps mindset and a better understanding of how technology is linked to business goals.

Why a new breed of IT pro?

The network has transformed dramatically. In the past, network engineers grappled with complex and time-consuming tasks, such as incorporating multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) or incorporating IP telephony. But now we are seeing the emergence of software-defined everything. For instance, many people are moving towards a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) to add simplicity to branch office deployments and increase flexibility. SD-WAN reduces bandwidth costs, improves cloud and internet performance, and enables changes of all sorts to be made quickly and from a centralized point.

The software-defined data center has also emerged, allowing for much greater application mobility and security. It provides the ability to grab data more easily from the network, do more things with data and make more intelligent decisions.

Software-defined access−which provides single-source access to the entire network, from individual applications to the cloud−is quickly becoming a reality. And there’s a growing desire among IT professionals to virtualize the network. IT and networking professionals are looking at how to take advantage of on-premises computing power and cloud-based computing power.  And they’re looking at how to transition specific services or infrastructure into an “as-a-Service” model where it makes sense.

This means that the network engineer now deals with more change at a faster pace than ever before. Like IT professionals that specialize in the data center and cloud computing, it's essential that network engineers adopt a DevOps mindset.

How does DevOps fit into the picture?

Old network engineering processes are, well, old. In the past, when you needed to add a service or application to the network, there was a full process for testing, conducting maintenance and getting approval. It could take a month or longer, depending on the complexity of the feature. It might have even required the purchase of new equipment. But this method was slow and cumbersome. Today, when business leaders or customers want a new feature or capability, it has to happen quickly. We live in an era of instant gratification. So, it’s essential that network engineers can make changes to the network in real time.

This is where the principle of DevOps and the as-a-Service approach come in. With an as-a-service application, you code the feature you want to add to the application, and it’s committed into a continuous integration or testing pipeline. Then, there’s an automated assessment test to see if that feature accomplishes its purpose without causing any issues.

If the feature passes the tests, then it’s committed to production and activated for the benefit of the users. This kind of approach is now gaining traction in the networking space. So, if you have a new feature to add to the network, you check out the current configuration from the network to ensure compatibility. You apply the feature. You apply test logic. You check with the security policy to ensure that no violations occur.

When you’ve run it through an automated testing pipeline to ensure there aren’t any issues, it’s pushed out to the network devices and activated in production. This process is fueled by what’s known as a DevOps approach. Using this approach, you treat the network as an abstracted piece of code that you’re writing configuration to. You automate the entire process of adding new features to the network−from testing to deployment.

The advantage of this DevOps approach is better reliability as changes happen and features are added. Because you’ve automated the tests, you avoid human error. You’re able to accomplish goals more quickly by embracing automation. You treat the network like you would treat a malleable piece of code.

Why are business skills more important than ever?

Traditionally, network engineers weren’t always connected to business goals. They weren’t expected to have to explain advanced technology from a business standpoint. But more and more, technologists need to have a firmer grasp on how the technology they work with directly affects business goals. They need to be able to both talk and write about complex technical subject matter in a way that C-level executives can understand.

Having good communication skills is a key factor that distinguishes a hybrid engineer from a network engineer. So does the ability to work collaboratively rather than refusing to leave your silo. Analytical thinking is an important asset as well. If it doesn’t come naturally, it can be learned and practiced. People who work in the networking field sometimes disregard these skills. That’s changing as the network changes; their need is becoming increasingly evident.

The value of the hybrid engineer

The network is changing and creating the need for a new breed of IT professional−the hybrid engineer. An engineer who understands the DevOps model for development. An engineer with both technical skills and the ability to communicate in business terms. An engineer who bridges the gap between network management and software development. An engineer who never stops learning. It means using automated processes to push new features and capabilities into the network. It means communicating the value of that work to the C-suite. It means staying open and curious about new developments in the network. That’s the value of the new network engineer: the hybrid engineer.