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Why a good economy can be bad for your network

(Image credit: Image Credit: Ra2Studio / Shutterstock)

Sounds crazy, right?

Good economies are good for business and by extension, should be a positive development for all areas of your organisation.  It only makes sense that higher sales and revenue numbers will translate to more resources and larger investments in network infrastructure, tools and technologies. So, what is it about revenue numbers in the black that have IT leaders seeing red?

When it comes to IT, the network is the linchpin. Enterprises rely upon a fully functioning network to deliver value to the business.  As the economy continues to grow, IT investments increase and the need for highly-skilled network engineers increases as well. This is where it begins to get a little tricky.

As any CIO can tell you, finding and retaining a talented team of IT professionals and network engineers can be difficult under any economic conditions. There simply aren’t enough of them given the depth and breadth of expertise needed on a variety of niche IT topics and tools.  The threat of losing one or more to a better offer down the road is a very real possibility at any point. This scenario is only accelerated under a strong economy and tight labour market where companies have more money to invest in their network but not enough expertise to execute their vision.

In a strong economy, the demand for qualified personnel ramps up and the ability to hold onto your own team members – who very well could be out shopping around their skills to the next highest bidder – may prove challenging to downright impossible.

What’s at stake?

Every network has its own DNA and while they may be similar in terms of the technology that makes up their core, no two networks are exactly alike. Whether it’s the data centre, campus, branch, or extending out to the use of network virtualisation and SDN systems, it’s the nuances of network configuration and performance that make the engineers who know and understand them so valuable. 

While it may seem far-fetched on the surface to suggest that only a few or even one network engineer could hold the keys to a vast network’s operational capabilities, that is precisely what is transpiring in many organisations today. Tribal knowledge – information that’s held closely by a small group of people, or even just one person – is the result of network engineers operating in siloed environments where little information sharing takes place. And it’s a big problem. In fact, in our yearly “State of the Network Engineer” survey, 57 per cent of network engineers stated that only “tribal experts” in their organisations knew how to troubleshoot an issue when it comes to network security. So, if they were to leave the organisation, all that critical information would follow them out the door.

Tribal knowledge is extremely detrimental to a high-performing technical team for several reasons:

First, it creates a single point of failure. This is a situation no company wants to find themselves in. A network engineer may be a network hero in your organisation, capable of fixing anything, but what happens when they leave? Can you replicate their knowledge and insights for the next person that assumes their role? This increases overall risk for the IT team and organisation as a whole.

Next, in these scenarios, it’s highly unlikely that a common knowledge repository exists. All critical network documentation such as network diagrams and inventory reports are likely kept on someone’s personal drive, buried in email threads, or loosely stored as unstructured data in wikis and SharePoints. This makes it nearly impossible to troubleshoot a problem or outage in real time and adds significant pressure to network engineers and stress on the entire IT team.

Finally, no one engineer can know everything. Most network issues are multi-faceted with many layers of information including multiple vendors, complex topologies, and multiple designs – that often only certain engineers have deep knowledge and insight into. The ability to share and pool knowledge is critical for problem solving to ensure quick resolutions and to protect yourself from knowledge drain or worse, overwhelming current teams and causing burnout.

Keeping the information in-house

While you can’t keep your network engineer from pursuing new opportunities — a situation that is only exacerbated in a strong economy — you can keep the information they have from walking out the door with them.

The key is documentation. While this phase may conjure up visions of Visio diagrams and stacks of dusty three-ring binders full of processes, procedures and stale topology maps for some, I can assure you that is no longer the case. Technology has alleviated the pain of updating static diagrams, wikis and playbooks and turned to automation to add speed, accuracy and context to this core networking function.

Documentation should not be measured in the number of binders or maps you have in the IT room, but by the value of the information you document. How useful is it in enabling network teams to store and transfer knowledge?

Critical knowledge goes beyond merely recording IP addresses, hostnames and logical connections, it must also effectively harness the tribal wisdom accumulated over the years by the subject matter experts, for use in the future. Whether that’s the multicasting expert, the QoS expert, or the software-defined network expert – one of the key hot networking trends today – network teams can derive an incredible amount of value from having up-to-date network documentation based on the know-how from these individuals. From saving time during troubleshooting to visualising different areas of the network for service expansion to isolating an attack. 

Losing talented team members is an inevitability of the industry. In a good economy where the war for talent is raging, coupled with organisational growth and advancement you can expect the demands on your network to only increase as businesses now flush with cash are looking to make strategic investments. They will also be looking for talent, in many cases, yours.

Just be sure when your network engineer heads off to their next engagement that your information isn’t going with them.

Grant Ho, senior vice president, NetBrain Technologies
Image Credit: Ra2Studio / Shutterstock