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Survey Results: Is Network Engineering Dead?

This is what 334 network engineers think about it.

It’s hard to imagine this question being discussed just a few short years ago, but with all the changes that have taken place, it’s a question we can’t help but ask.

Those of us with experience have seen our share of shifts in networking as protocols, vendors, and business needs grow. For the most part, it’s been an evolution on the same continuum without much disruption.

But change has come, and traditional networking is not what it used to be. SDN, specifically SD-WAN, is changing how we connect and deploy networks, and the flight to Iaas and Cloud is in full swing. Employers are collapsing skill sets across historically separate positions, demanding candidates with a deep understanding of programming and security for the same networking positions.

In light of these changes, we wanted to check in with our community. We recently asked our readers, “Is network engineering dead?” and the results were surprisingly consistent.

Despite the general uncertainty and fear surrounding the future of networking, the responses were overwhelmingly positive.

The Death of Network Engineering

Indeed, the CCIE isn’t the shining certification it once was, and Cisco has recently overhauled all of their tracks, eliminating and consolidating several long-standing certifications while creating the new DevNet certification in an attempt to stay relevant.

Silas O. sums up the general unease best with his comments. “I think it will no longer be fiscally responsible for companies to have dedicated network engineers on the payroll. That will soon be akin to having electrical engineers around to change light bulbs.”

It’s hard not to be concerned when putting in such stark terms. But as our survey data shows, the exact same trends we all recognize (the need for automation, security and the rise of SDN) can either be viewed in a negative light or as a bright future.

This dichotomy is something I’ve witnessed first-hand as my own employer has moved increasingly towards automation.

Today, there are three major initiatives taking place to streamline how we manage our own network, as well as the services we provide to our customers. My team has it’s homegrown Python scripts haphazardly built out of necessity to survive ever-increasing work demands.

We have our “official” ecosystem, an initiative between various internal groups, and, no surprise, it’s very good at doing nothing at all. Its failure proves that automation alone can’t solve collaboration problems, no matter how many executives believe it can.

And finally, we have Versa Networks, our official SD-WAN vendor and service product. Versa has gained a reasonable foothold, boasting of clients like Comcast, Centurylink, and Capital One, just to name a few that start with C.

Of course, the reaction across the organization has been mixed, as one colleague who helps develop our homegrown tools said, “It’s great we’re working on this, but how can people not see it’s going to mean less headcount?…”

This, at its core, is the fear network engineers face. Can we really be replaced so easily?

Long Live Network Engineering

There’s no debate that networking is in a state of transition, the only point of contention is if this should be feared.

“Network engineering may evolve, but it will just mean we need to evolve with it. Network engineers will always be needed,” Neil B. writes.

Bob H. adds, “Moving from MPLS to multi-access paths. Understanding priority and/or policy-based routing. Offloading data to discrete paths, redundant systems, and access technologies. It’s actually more complex than ever before, and I have been doing this a long time…” 

Over 250 responses agree that there’s still growth to be had in our field, and as networks change, so do the challenges we have to solve. There’s a long list of exploding technologies and an even longer list of skills needed to integrate and support them.

“The landscape has evolved, but it will still be a rewarding career for those that can transition and build on their foundations. The industry has a history of shifting focus. Remember guys who feared, and had to learn IP back in the day?!  The ‘old’ technologies are there under the hood and have been repackaged under the banner of ‘automation.’ If you know routing protocols (iBGP/eBGP), Wireless, Switching, and WAN, then you have something to use in the future and build on,” says Stephen A.

Whether you’re on the bleeding edge of adoption or you’re working in stereotypically archaic environments like government, networks remain the very foundation of every organization. This holds true even if we expand our roles and titles to include Dev Ops. 

The underlays are the same as they’ve always been, and the overlays have become far more complex. Automation has eliminated much of what we used to do, but our responsibilities have increased to fill the gap.

“Networks will be around for a long time. No matter how they are managed, networks will break, and people will need to fix them.” – Jason

We shouldn’t forget that even if the “good old days” are behind us, some things will remain the same. We’ll still be advancing our careers, learning new technologies, and solving problems.

The opportunity to help companies transition to this brave new world is everywhere, but like with IPv6, there’s nearly as many trying to hold out as long as they can. Both sides need our attention to keep the packets flowing.

None of us can claim to know the future, but we know someone will have to build it. Who better than Network Engineers?

Dead or Alive? What are your thoughts on Network Engineering?

About Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin is a senior engineer for a global telecommunications provider and an outside consultant. When he's not taming wild networks, Matthew provides one-on-one career training, specializing in interviewing and salary negotiation. He stays sharp with improv comedy and green tea.

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