If software eats everything, are network engineers on the menu?

Enterprise network leaders say preparing for change doesn't have to mean starting over as a programmer

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If you're a network engineer, don't rush out and learn a programming language. To compete in the new world of software-defined networking, it might be more important to start thinking like a programmer.

That was one of the ideas that emerged this week from an Open Networking User Group debate that generated healthy feedback from users in the audience.

The days of managing individual switches and routers and configuring them with proprietary CLIs (command-line interfaces) are numbered, four panelists at the ONUG spring conference in San Francisco said on Tuesday. Though SDN hasn't worked its way into every enterprise, new approaches to enterprise IT and the availability of public clouds just a few clicks away are driving companies toward more agile and automated networks, they said.

In-house networking teams will need to match the speed of public cloud providers in tasks like spinning up new virtual machines, Stanford professor David Cheriton said, echoing a concern users expressed in private interviews at the conference.

"At some point, the CIO is going to ask, 'Why is it that it costs so much more and it takes so much longer to do this (ourselves)?,'" Cheriton said.

SDN takes over configuration tasks that some network engineers have spent their careers doing manually, which has raised concerns about job security and what these technicians should do next.

There are big changes afoot, panelists and participants said. Freed from configuring ports and routes, some network engineers are taking on higher tasks like designing better systems.

"You spend less time carrying out mechanical work that computers are good at doing," said Vijay Gill, senior vice president of software engineering at Salesforce. "You focus on intent and outcomes that you care about for the business."

With those changes, some network professionals will start coding. But that won't mean writing software from scratch -- or starting all over as a programmer.

"The answer is clearly not, 'You need to go learn Python,'" said Truman Boyes, who is CTO office head of networks at Bloomberg. "What's good for your career and the companies that you work for is having a clear understanding of what you're trying to build and finding the ways to stitch these things together." That may involve learning some Python, as well as other languages and tools, but only if they suit the job at hand.

Network engineers have a lot to learn from the software world, and not just how to write code, said Robert McCarthy, a senior manager working on digital transformation at consulting firm Ernst & Young, who attended the debate.

"I don't think they need to understand programming as much as they need to understand good programming practices," McCarthy told the panelists. He cited interactive syntax checking, component testing and eliminating redundancy by writing code once and using it many times. 

It's time to pick up things like code standards and code review, Stanford's Cheriton said.

"All these things that are standard parts of careful software engineering are not necessarily part of what we see is the practice in network operations," he said.

Automating halfway, with software that carries out network functions but doesn't use those programming principles, has hurt some enterprises, Cheriton said.

"They've been left with a big pile of Perl scripts that everybody depends on but nobody understands, because the guy who wrote it now has left for Italy."

With modern languages and a growing number of APIs, programming is now easier than knowing the syntax for each vendor's CLI, Bloomberg's Boyes said.

Today's traditional network engineers will go in different directions as enterprises change, and some will be left behind, said Ernest Lefner, Bank of America's senior vice president, network engineering. IT upper management needs to figure out how to keep them around for the value they can add to the company.

"You need to be thinking about how your employees are going to make that change," Lefner said. "How are they going to get the skills they need?"

Others agreed that some people won't be able to make the transition. But Boyes is more optimistic.

"I actually really think that jobs aren't going away." "There's going to be a complete shift in just the things that we're doing."

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