Then and Now: Skills and Requirements of a Network Engineer in 2008 Versus in 2013

I saw a typewriter three days ago, and I couldn’t help but get bemused. I thought the last batch of them was extinct since Windows 2000! Now here we are 13 years after and I saw this extinct species of an information dissemination tool.

Everything has evolved. We kept the keys and their functions, and for now that seems timeless, but we dismembered the outputs and made it into something else totally separate, called the “printer.” If back in the 1980′s you were a three-times certified typist, and you didn’t get into the bandwagon of the fresh and newly developing tech of Windows 3.0, to the NT 4.0, and upward to Windows 95, and you figured it was going to pass, well it would mean that today you are without a job because nobody needs a typist anymore; everyone is a typist!

Today’s tech is talking cloud, and big data, and BYOD and yes of course, Google Glass, and all of these things are going to be bigger another 10 or 15 years down the line. Who knows, maybe we will be talking about something else I really cannot put a finger on right now. This is the same way that being a network engineer has been evolving. The amount of change between 2008 and today is re-shaping, re-modeling, and re-defining the IT landscape.

There are two sides to the job of a network engineer depending on the vendor. The first part is the communication channels – I am talking about Cisco devices. It is inevitably the de facto choice among others such as Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent, and Juniper, at least until Microsoft decides to go the hardware path, which seems improbable for now.

The second part is the services that make a network tick. This is Microsoft’s domain. Microsoft is a software company and is into software-based routing and switching. They don’t lay the network paths but they do know how to work on a laid out network path and consolidate that when their systems are connected with further routing and switching. This management of network services makes the big picture of being a network engineer.

It is also interesting to note that Cisco once told us that they are not a hardware company, even though they produce hardware. The logic is simple. Take McDonald’s or KFC for example, they’re a burger company and a chicken company, we all know that. But silently in the background going unnoticed is the fact that they are a services company. That was what Cisco CEO John Chambers wanted us to know back in December 2012, that they want us to view them as a software and services company despite the hardware. We have no problem with that.

So we have our communication channels ready to go, the road has been laid out, the level 3 switches, and routers have all been set up and functional. This is the first part of being a network engineer. We don’t take that for granted because that is huge.

However, this is not what I really mean when I talk about network engineering now. This has simply become the starting point. Knowing how to crimp a cable and assign IP addresses is now child’s play, the challenge of IPv4 and IPv6 is readily solved either by hardware or software driven DHCP, and routing when correctly done is as reliable and everlasting, compared to what we now contend with. Let’s dig a bit into this.

WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE 2008?

Up until 2008, when we say someone is a network engineer, it was a broad term for someone with the ability to do many things. Looking back now, I wonder why we did that, but it did make a lot of sense then, and still do now. During the training of a potential network engineer, no one has a clue what company you would end up in. You could wind up in a small company where you will be required to be alpha and omega, or you could be in a large company where you will be just one of the pawns on the IT chessboard.

A network engineer pre-2008 was an also an expert at CompTIA A+, CompTIA N+, CompTIA Security+, and CompTIA Server+. With good CCNA skills, all you needed was a good command parameter on the Cisco IOS terminal because everything else is already known and one and the same everywhere, such as DNS, DHCP, IP addressing schemes, subnetting (which was kind of a big deal), and absolutely no business skills, just geeky and techie things.

This means that foundationally, you should be able to assemble a personal computer (PC). In fact it was strange if you couldn’t. And this ability came into play during troubleshooting scenarios. You knew what a motherboard (MoBo) was and all its components: Northbridge and Southbridge, throughput, and processors (we have actually come a long way in processors really!), and Random Access Memories (RAM). You knew all that there is to know with computer hardware. These were foundational requirements.

Then it became imperative to know about operating systems, of which the popular business productivity driven version was Windows®. And sad to say that even in non-vendor driven materials on operating systems, Windows® was still in the screenshots used by books!

All these were geared towards making you a network engineer which had many synonyms to it. You could wind up as a network support technician, a support engineer, or a helpdesk support officer (and that necessitated a good knowledge of printers, software and other soft skills like communication, clarity, patience, and so many others). You could be a network administrator, first or second line support engineer, security engineer, network architect, and so many other titles. It’s all network engineering. Everyone was of course thinking in terms of being a big player like setting up some gigantic network infrastructure with some hi-tech galactic network gateway as huge as the Death Star.

So here is the list of what you were supposed to magically know irrespective of whether your environment was a Local Area Network (LAN), (Metropolitan Area Network (MAN), Wide Area Network (WAN), or Global Area Network (GAN). But evidently, the type of network determined the responsibilities you ended up having. You were required to be an expert at:

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  • * Planning and designing a network infrastructure of any size. These came with such core technologies as the ability to use Visio or any Microsoft Office tool to design your network plans, both logical and physical.
  • * Ability to install any software whatsoever irrespective of vendor because you know software installation framework, and there is an administrator guide or user guide. Along with that is the acquired experience of having seen so many installations of software products. Knowing what the prerequisites are before installing a program, having a test environment where the software is first tested and tried before actual roll out, it could be physical or virtual. Being conversant with registry entries and how to do backups, safe deletions, cleanup and restore. Handling temporary file locations, analyzing log files and errors.
  • * Installing new server hardware irrespective of you ever seeing it before or not. Knowing the practical application of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) for reliability, availability, performance and capacity. Being conversant with cooling technologies, as well as practical health, safety and environment issues of both you and your hardware.
  • * Installing new software infrastructure, and this is not just standalone software; I am talking client-server, server-to-server, and software architecture. Sometimes this involved cross functions like being able to deploy Active Directory, Exchange Server, SharePoint, Communicator, SQL Server, ISA, and so on. These are all software and you build a farm with them, and not to forget licensing costs and determining whether to go by per user or per server, or find a mix between the two.
  • * Managing email accounts, anti-spam, and implementing virus protection. Knowing update deployment technologies and anti-spam rules, configuring whitelists and blacklists.
  • * Understanding and implementing routing and remote access methods and technologies, rules, users working from off-premise, server synchronizations and the attending bandwidth consumption.
  • * Working knowledge of certificate authorities, forest and domain trusts, transitive and intransitive trusts, etc.
  • * Setting up and maintaining user accounts, and their permissions, passwords, migration, and the rest of them individually or as a batch job.
  • * Managing active directory objects, creating group policies, enforcement, inheritance, organizational units, and delegation of authority, implementing IPSec, Scripting, among others.
  • * Observing and monitoring network usage.
  • * Resolving minor system failures and major disaster recovery, planning and implementing business continuity and fail over.
  • * Monitoring users’ web activities, logging and generating statistics.
  • * Suggesting and providing IT solutions to business problems and management problems.
  • * Ensuring compliance with policies by implementing policies, backups, storage, analyzing storage capacity, and data integrity.
  • * Ensuring network security and user governance and compliance both internally and from external threats if the network connects to the internet.
  • * Working closely with other departments and organizations in delivering IT projects.
  • * Ensuring the most cost-effective use of servers, decommissioning, revamping and virtualizing.
  • * Providing training and technical support to users at varying levels of competence.
  • * Generating reports on all these activities and forecasting.
  • * Active documentation and reporting, working on a deadline, and following through with tasks.
  • * Intermediate working knowledge of non-Windows operating systems, to include deployment and configuring of any flavor of UNIX (server side and client side) such as Redhat Linux, Sun Solaris, Ubuntu, Fedora, etc.
  • * Working knowledge of Internet Information Services (IIS).

So these were what we saw back in 2008 and earlier. There weren’t so many people with these combined skills. In fact, we had a major dividing line between the Windows adherents and the UNIX freaks, and a further divide between the vendor’s product lines, but everyone sufficiently knew IP addressing schemes and cabling, and was conversant to a good degree.

THE NETWORK ENGINEER REALITY IN 2013

The first noticeable change, and this is bad, is that most network engineers now know little to nothing when it comes to server hardware. OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers – such as IBM, Oracle, HP, Dell, etc.) have totally taken over this section of what once used to be the pride of a network engineer. The primary cause of this is the emergence of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and the expensive nature of these pieces of hardware and their processing power; nobody wants to buy a piece of hardware that costs thousands of dollars only to be torn apart for learning purposes.

Before I tackle the good side, bear in mind that the network engineer of 2013 was around in 2008 and earlier, so if you find any network engineer today who knows all that I have talked about, I will call him the last batch of the old school. He or she isn’t evidently new school; they will typically be an upgraded old school. So that knowledge of the past is still very much in them and intact. What I am saying now about the network engineer of 2013, I am referring to those who started receiving training from and post-Windows Server 2008.

The distinguishing feature is simple: more knowledge area specialization and an increased segmentation of competency. Network engineering no longer covers infrastructure and applications. Network engineering in this year and onwards is now core networking and the attending routing, IP addressing, Voice over IP (VoIP), and little to no knowledge about Windows-based alternatives. There are the Windows-based professionals knowing little to nothing about IOS based products. There is a strong divide between network engineering in telecommunications systems and services, and network engineering in information systems and services. On the telecoms side it’s more and more about specialized equipment, and training not bordering on mainstream information systems.

On the information system side in 2013 there exist the Hyper-V pros, VMware pros, and SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager) pros. Skill set is drawn against competency lines rather than certification lines. To the network engineer, what others call cloud is still to him an on-premise thing.

Today’s engineers have added Powershell, and are not just technical-centric but also business-centric. In addition to this are the following:

Pre-2008 NETWORK ENGINEER

2013 NETWORK ENGINEER

Active physical hardware knowledge. Little and passive knowledge about physical hardware. Increased knowledge about virtual hardware.
Hardware defined networking. Software defined networking.
Divergence of technology, minimum integration. Convergence of technology, maximum integration skills.
Certified in core networking, and sticking to networking. Certified in core networking, and will diversify to other business applications.
Emerging knowledge of virtualization. Full grown virtualization knowledge.
Certification is an assurance for employment. Certification now a test of competency.
Minimum project management competency. Extensive project management competency.
On-premise infrastructure solutions and support. Cloud and hosted infrastructure solutions and support (Infrastructure-as-a-Service [IaaS]).
Network engineers are largely vendor-based. Network engineers will become less vendor-based.
Setting up a network was big deal, administrating was secondary. Administrating a network is big deal, setting it up gets secondary.
Team building was minimal because of fewer IT staff. Team building will be at maximum because more network engineers are being rolled out.
Knowledge of multiple operating systems. Less knowledge of multiple operating systems.
Less likely to lose his job due to fewer professionals. More likely to lose his job due to more professionals, and more likely to get re-engaged faster.

Thus we see that network engineers are shifting with the trend of greater needs, greater specialization, bigger problems and better solutions, and evolving. I don’t want us viewing the changes in this field as being generally bad, since to do that will be loyalty to the way things used to be, and that isn’t progressive. The technological needs of businesses are evolving and IT is at the forefront of adapting, and so too must skills and competencies. In all this, one thing is certain, network engineers are performing better in 2013 than in the pre-2008 era. Network engineers are meeting the challenges with the progressive dexterity required for this modern era.

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James Olorunosebi

James Olorunosebi (PMP, MCITP, MCTS, MCNPS, MCPS, MCC, MCP), an NIIT Alumni, MCC 2011 awardee, with over 10 years experience in IT and an uncanny learning curve ability, currently undergoing OCP Java SE6 Programming certification. He teaches and instructs in MOS, Graphics, and Photography, CompTIA A+, CompTIA N+, CompTIA Server+, CompTIA Security+, MCITP and now MCSE, and has led hundreds into certifications. He holds a combined honours degree in History and International Relations. He works as a SharePoint consultant in the oil & gas energy sector. A motivational speaker and avid lover of Japanese animes, his favourite being Bleach.