The hybrid engineer: A new job for a new network

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Today’s network is dramatically different than the network of the past. And it continues to evolve as digital transformation takes hold. Keeping up with these changes, and getting ahead of the curve for future ones, requires a new type of IT professional—the hybrid engineer. A successful network engineer today is one who understands how new technologies integrate with traditional ones. This professional bridges the gap between the worlds of networking and software development. The hybrid engineer of today has both a DevOps mindset and a deep understanding of how technology connects to business outcomes.

A dynamically changing landscape calls for a new type of IT pro 

Rapid evolution has transformed the networking landscape, generating a new set of capabilities and challenges. While network engineers once struggled with complex, time-intensive tasks, such as incorporating multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) or implementing IP telephony, software now defines everything. For instance, many people are moving towards a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) to simplify branch office deployments and increase flexibility. SD-WAN lets users make diverse changes quickly and from a centralised point—reducing bandwidth costs while improving cloud and internet performance. That’s not all. Emergence of the software-defined data centre paves the way for greater application mobility and security. IT workers can now take data easily from the network, perform more tasks, and make smarter decisions.

Yet another exciting advance is software-defined access, making the campus network easily available—from individual applications to the cloud. IT and networking professionals are growing increasingly eager to virtualise the network; and they’re looking to take advantage of both on-premises and cloud-based computing power. They’d like to transition specific services or infrastructure into an “as-a-Service” model wherever it makes sense.

This dynamic environment now hands network engineers the challenge of greater changes, coming at a faster rate than ever before. Just as with IT professionals who specifically address the data centre and cloud computing, it’s essential that network engineers now transition to a DevOps mindset.

The growing relevance of DevOps 

As network engineering processes age, they are less able to address the modern need for speed. In the past, adding a service or application to the network called for a full testing process, conducting maintenance and gaining approval. This could take a month or longer, depending on the complexity of the feature. New equipment purchases might well be part of this process. The methods were slow and cumbersome. But today, when business leaders or customers want a new feature or capability, their need is urgent. In an era of high expectations and instant gratification, network engineers are under pressure to make changes to the network in real time.

Here, the principle of DevOps and the as-a-Service approach becomes particularly relevant. 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. An automated assessment test determines whether that feature fulfils the need without raising concerns or adding complexities.

Once a feature has passed the tests, it’s committed to production and activated for user benefit. This model is now gaining traction in the networking space. So, when you wish to add a new feature to the network, you check out the current configuration from the network to ensure compatibility. You apply the feature, carry out logic testing, and check with security policy to establish compliance and avoid violations.

Once the new feature has passed through an automated testing pipeline to confirm that there are no issues, you can push it out to network devices and activate it in production. This process is fuelled by what’s known as a DevOps approach. This model treats the network as an abstracted piece of code that you’re writing configuration to. From testing to deployment, you have now created an automated, holistic process for adding new features to the network.

The key advantage of the DevOps approach is easily evident - superior reliability amidst changes and added features to the network. Because you’ve automated the tests, you are avoiding human error. Embracing automation also lets you reach goals more quickly. In fact, the network itself behaves more like a flexible, adaptable piece of code.

Business skills factor into successful outcomes 

In times past, network engineers weren’t expected to connect with business goals. They weren’t called upon to explain or clarify the business case for new technologies. But that was then. Today, and increasingly, technology professionals must be able to communicate insightfully about the business impact and consequences of their respective technologies. It’s critical that they’re able to both discuss and write about complex technical subject matter in a way that fits the perspective and understanding of C-level executives.

The importance of good communication skills can’t be overemphasised. They’re a key factor that distinguishes a hybrid engineer from a network engineer—as is the ability to work collaboratively rather than in isolation. Analytical thinking is a vital asset as well. The good news is that even if such skills don’t come naturally, they can be learned, practiced, and polished. Those who work in the networking field have at times undervalued these skills. But as the network evolves, so do the expectations and challenges to communicate in these new ways—and the need will only intensify.

The hybrid engineer emerges centre stage 

Today’s lively new networking environment calls for a new breed of IT professional, the hybrid engineer. What is a hybrid engineer? One who understands the DevOps development model, for one. For another, an engineer who combines technical skills with the ability to speak the language of business. An engineer who can unite the space between network management and software development. An engineer with curiosity and a thirst for knowledge—who never loses interest in innovation or stops learning.

A hybrid engineer is someone who works to gain the ability to use automated processes and push new features and capabilities into the network. A hybrid engineer knows how to communicate the value of that work to the C-suite. And a hybrid engineer is always alert to network progress and the subsequent developments that progress spurs. The value of the hybrid engineer will grow in response to, and in proportion to the advance of the network itself. 

Joe Clarke, distinguished services engineer, Cisco Systems
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