I’ve been involved in networking for quite a long time now. How long? Do the terms ARPANET or SNA mean anything to you? I can even remember a time when there was no Cisco Systems. Hard to imagine for most of you, I would bet.
As you would think, I have seen a multitude of changes in networking technology—some good, some bad, and some just plain ugly—over my three-decade career as engineer, analyst, consultant, and educator. Curiously and, at times, frustratingly, I have seen far fewer changes in how networking professionals are judged as individual contributors or IT managers. It’s not that the job role for networkers has not changed, or intensified, or increased in value over the last 30 years. It certainly has across many fronts. It’s just that there has not been much of a shift in how networking professionals are judged by their management and their organization.
Digital Business + DevOps = New Ball Game for the Networking Pro
This situation seems to be changing as we witness all organizations moving to a digital business model and most, if not all, IT organizations moving to a team-centered DevOps operating structure. These two movements combined are driving altered views of the value of the technology professional.
Let’s look at what this means for the networking professional. The following list offers 10 ways in which you will be judged differently in the years to come:
Project/program involvement: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to the number of sites, devices, ports, interfaces, and users supported. More items. More value. With digital business, it’s the number of projects and programs you are assigned to—and the criticality of those assigned projects and programs. Examine the heightened value of skills relating to successful project delivery or program execution. Project management, team collaboration, cross-technology knowledge, “client” consulting … these are all skills that increase your value to projects and programs. They are the skills that keep project/program managers coming back to you for support. That constant demand for your participation is not lost on your management.
Network readiness: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to solid network uptimes, response times, and mean-time repair rates. Today, network availability is table stakes. Lose the network more than a couple of times and you lose your job. With digital business, data flows, application demands, and security threats come and go like the wind. Your network must bend with these winds. This means that your network needs to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice. Such agility requires a host of key skills and actions from you. And simply overbuilding—and overspending—is not the preferred option. Here, accurate traffic management, flexible configurations, protective services, etc., prepare your network in advance of demands—not in reaction.
Business outcomes: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to control over—or even cutting—the network budget. In the digital age, business outcomes have become the focal point for all technology-driven initiatives. This is not to say we can blow away the network budget while driving the right business outcomes. But it does say that management increasingly values the right business outcome over saving money.
For companies being more aggressive with digital initiatives, their primary emphasis is growth—growth in customers, sales, and revenue. They are not doing digital primarily to cut costs. They may save money along the way, but growing the business is far more important than saving money. Exceed your network budget by 5 percent but drive 5 percent sales growth by extending your network reach and/or improving the experience over the network, and you’re a hero to all—IT, lines of business, executives, partners, and, most importantly, customers. Cut your network budget by 5 percent and you’re a hero just to your immediate manager, and only for a quarter or maybe two.
Design scope and excellence: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to fast and accurate network deployments. How fast could you spin up a site? Or a segment? Or a router, switch, or firewall? With digital business, it’s the overarching design that drives the greatest success—not the underlying deployments. Look at the top of the pyramid for technology workers. Architects and designers dominate. Enterprise architect. Network architect. Software architect. Security architect. Conceptual, comprehensive design skills separate the elite digital workforce from the operator and administrator and programmer. Know the big picture. Know how things fit together. Know what the future brings. Good design trumps good deployments every time.
Software velocity: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to how long you were able use hardware devices in the network. Remember when moving a switch or router life cycle from three to five to eight years was a huge accomplishment? With digital business, software is king! Now, it’s not how long hardware lasts, but rather how fast and frequently software—network software, systems software, management software, and application software—can be discovered, developed, validated, deployed, and enhanced. Software administration, service activation, security patching, and even network programming are rising to the top of the networker’s list of key responsibilities. The king is dead. Long live the king!
Service creation: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to service continuity. Offer consistent service levels across key and rather static services and you were judged to be doing your job well. With digital business, change is constant. Service demands are continually shifting. New service offerings. New service functions. New service sites. New service policies.
The pressure is relentless on the services side of networking. Witness the tremendous impact that cloud services—IaaS, PaaS, SaaS—alone are having on our technology infrastructure. The networker who is able to foresee developing service requirements, quickly evaluate and integrate needed services, and fine-tune service offerings to match the onrushing requirements drives strong value to organizations, projects, and programs looking to move at digital speed. And if you think Internet speed was fast, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Line of business impact: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to serving IT needs. IT functioned in a support role for the organization. And the networking staff served to support IT. If IT was happy with the network, then all was well for the networking staff. With digital business, lines of business (LOBs) look to IT to take an active lead role in transforming how the business uses technology to maximum effect.
To date, indications are that IT is serving more to disappoint than deliver here. Witness the climb in LOB technology spending and staffing over the last few years. Today, 50 percent or more of technology spending is controlled outside of IT. LOB endorsements of CIOs as their digital leader tend to be lukewarm at best. Even digital project teams often include as many or more LOB members as IT members. As digital activity heightens and accelerates, now is the time for the IT organization to step forward aggressively. And given that the network is likely core to every major digital thrust, it is certainly time for networking professionals to be front and center in digital initiatives. Play a lead, not a supporting, role.
Team contribution: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to individual contribution. If your portion of the IT or network infrastructure was performing well, you were performing well. What happened elsewhere in IT or anywhere else in the organization upstream or downstream from your “private” domain was the concern of others. With digital business, it’s a team game. Projects and programs cut across all technologies. Problems in one area must be addressed by all areas. If an application does not function well, or data is not being made available in a timely fashion, or security has been compromised, it’s everyone’s problem.
The question you need to ask is, “How can the network help?” Network intelligence should be aimed as much or even more at networked resources (for example, portals, apps, data, compute, users) as at networking resources (for example, devices, connections).
Full-spectrum cybersecurity: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to, at best, network security. Or maybe value for you equated to only one network security function (for example, firewall, access control, encryption). Or maybe network security was someone else’s job altogether. With digital business transformation, you are now part of a far more comprehensive cybersecurity solution. In today’s environment, threats come from every angle and can come at any time.
Digital raises the stakes even further because of the heightened focus on customer information and big-data processing, that is, collecting, distributing, storing, linking, and analyzing. Examine any IoT deployment: The height and breadth of the cybersecurity challenge is readily apparent. This is not your father’s network security challenge anymore.
Business-technology matchmaker: Where have we been? In the past, value equated to technical depth. The deeper your knowledge, the greater your value. The technical guru was celebrated. With digital business, while technical depth is certainly still valued, technology breadth and business acumen are rising in value as the lines blur between technology and business. Here, technology breadth enables a worker to fully function as part of multidisciplinary project/program teams. It allows workers to tune into issues beyond their primary domain. Business acumen enables workers to fully understand how their primary domain can best drive desired business outcomes. Here, it’s not all about how the technology works. Rather, it’s equally about how the technology (hardware, software, services, features, functions, policies, etc.) can best be used.
The aim is to be “double deep.” That is a term being used more and more to describe high-impact workers who operate equally well in the worlds of technology and business. Double your depth. Triple your value!
The above is my list of shifting value judgments as a long-time networker and industry watcher. (See my accompanying figure for a simple view of the above.) Is my list a perfect fit for every organization and networking professional? No. As we all know, every organization—just like every network—is unique. Demands vary. Designs vary. Variances can often easily outnumber similarities. But anyone ignoring the above in favor of their unique circumstance does stand to miss larger movements of technology worker roles and responsibilities.
How is your organization judging your value? What priorities are being set for you? What priorities are you setting for yourself? I welcome your views. I am always looking to learn. I am one old dog who does like to learn new tricks!
As always: Move forward. Move faster. Move further.
Learning@Cisco analyst Mark Leary has more than 30 years of experience in the networking industry. Over that time, he has functioned as software developer, consulting engineer, enterprise architect, and industry analyst. Currently, he executes research, analysis, and consulting projects that guide the development, delivery, and evolution of Cisco's courseware and certifications. Mark’s primary areas of focus include technology trends, digital transformation, education practices, IT organizations, talent requirements, and worker learning and development movements.