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The Growing Importance of Soft Skills in Network Engineering

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Modern network engineering is a branching field with many emerging areas of specialization, and automation and other evolving technologies are further transforming what it means to be a network engineer. Engineers – along with admins and architects – still need a comprehensive understanding of standard network protocols and services like TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP, but basic technical skills related to configuration, troubleshooting and network design are no longer all that's required to succeed in this field.

Today's engineers need more advanced technical network engineering skills than their predecessors. They must be comfortable interacting with delay-tolerant networks, virtual computer networks, wireless networks, intelligent intent-based networks and software-defined data center networks. Additionally, many network engineers are learning to program and exploring the potential applications of artificial intelligence in networking.

They also need highly developed soft skills to stay competitive in a rapidly changing employment landscape. Human skills (i.e., the skills computers can't replicate) are more critical than ever before given that AI can configure, provision, manage and test network resources without much – or any – human intervention. Automation won't render network engineers obsolete but is challenging the traditional scope of this role.

These and other sweeping changes in the computer networking field are prompting many engineers to update their skills. The most ambitious among them take a holistic approach to reskilling in programs such as SMU Lyle School of Engineering's online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE). They enroll in graduate degree programs to develop the most in-demand network engineering skills and the soft skills that are increasingly vital to success in technology careers.  

Why Soft Skills are Crucial in Network Engineering

According to LinkedIn's Talent Trends Study, 91 percent of employers across industries have issues finding and retaining workers with adequate soft skills. Another study examining skills gaps in technology, in particular, found that "soft skills of communication, problem-solving and interpersonal skills, as well as motivation and positive attitude, may be more in demand than specific hard skills." 

Network engineering is acutely vulnerable to soft skills shortages because the education traditionally required to become a network engineer seldom prioritized soft skill development. That may not have mattered back when network engineers spent their days working alone in server rooms with relatively straightforward, low-impact technology. However, today's networks are larger and more complicated than ever before, and most network engineers work as part of an integrated, highly collaborative IT team. They must communicate and collaborate effectively with everyone who uses their networks, from help desk specialists to c-suite executives. 

Automation is also driving increased demand for soft skills in technology. The World Economic Forum anticipates that "many formerly purely technical occupations are expected to show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills" as computers take over many tasks humans once performed. In networking, automation tools powered by intelligent software can configure, provision, manage, tweak and test resources in real-time without human intervention. Many network engineers see automation as a threat, but engineers who embrace network automation and develop their soft skills will help their organizations approach the network proactively in people-focused technology management roles.

The 7 Most Important Soft Skills For Network Engineers

1. Adaptability

Network engineers and network architects must adapt to evolving enterprise needs, new information technologies and increased network complexity. While most computer networking professionals still spend some time working with traditional hardware and software configurations and implementations (e.g., switching and routing, configuring firewalls, etc.) and the protocol architecture of the internet and information systems, new technologies affect how engineers interact with legacy computer systems. 

Employers also increasingly expect network engineers to have skills related to automation, virtualization, SDN, SD-WAN, cloud networking, network security and programming. Consequently, network engineers must stay abreast of changing technology and take advantage of opportunities for lifelong learning whether they are loyal to their organizations or looking for new opportunities.

2. Analytical Skills

Analytical thinking is a crucially important network engineering skill. Network engineers face complex challenges and must be able to evaluate technology and technological processes quickly to find solutions. Analytical skills are also an essential element of strategy development in all fields associated with computer science. Network engineering projects can span years, which means developing strategic initiatives and anticipating future problems. To do that, network engineers must be able to visualize connections between disparate elements driving network requirements (e.g., user expectations, business processes and network systems capabilities). 

3. Communication Skills  

Networking is increasingly a team sport, so network engineers must be as comfortable explaining the ROI of network enhancements to stakeholders as they are talking technology with help desk techs. They must also be skilled listeners because their responsibilities include translating business objectives or client requests into actionable change as part of network management. And they must be comfortable building relationships with project partners and peers, taking guidance from management and managing relationships with vendors and even customers.

4. Creativity

People don't associate network engineer jobs with creative thinking, but creativity drives technological innovation across tech disciplines. As software automates simple, repetitive tasks in computer networking, employers will expect network engineers to be idea generators, systems enhancers and forward thinkers. Network engineers may earn their keep on the strength of creative ideas for network enhancements that increase speed and stability or cut costs.  

5. Leadership Skills

Leadership is a crucial soft skill in STEM fields because tech professionals often have to take the lead in projects related to technology implementation. Leadership is one of the most essential network engineering skills because stakeholders may prioritize budgets over network performance or vendor relationships over vendor reputation. Additionally, they may not have the technical knowledge to grasp the long-term impact of each available option. Leadership in network engineering is about guiding people and teams toward technologies and processes that satisfy multiple organizational needs. 

6. Organizational Skills

Network administrators and engineers have always been masters of juggling multiple competing priorities. Unexpected outages can all too easily derail projects such as planned upgrades. Organizational growth can fast-track scaling projects. Being able to move between planned and unforeseen tasks smoothly is critical in this role, and that takes not only a thorough understanding of network solutions but also a high degree of organization. 

7. Teamwork Skills

Many network engineers now work closely with software developers, automation engineers, systems analysts and other IT professionals – plus project managers, technology managers and administrators – to achieve technology goals. Being able to work with people from different backgrounds is increasingly essential in network engineering, and not just because studies show teams deliver more innovation more consistently than individuals. Teamwork isn't just about building and maintaining a rapport. It involves developing collective objectives, sharing accountability and resolving differences of opinion constructively. 

How to Nurture Soft Skills While Developing New Network Engineering Skills

Working on soft skills can be more challenging than learning new technical computer networking skills for several reasons. First, looking objectively at how well you communicate or work on teams may be uncomfortable. Honest self-evaluation is often tricky. Second, setting quantifiable skill-building goals is harder because soft skills are intangible, and there are fewer KPIs related to soft skills. And third, finding a mentor or coach who will work with you on soft skills development can be difficult when you work in a field such as network engineering where the focus is on technological skills.

Sometimes the most straightforward way to simultaneously develop soft and hard skills is to connect and collaborate with other network engineers in a graduate degree program. Lyle School of Engineering develops "engineers and engineering leaders that are competitive in new and emerging technologies and markets by teaching them to think critically, plan strategically, communicate effectively and be adaptable to social changes." 

Pursuing a master's degree in network engineering doesn't have to disrupt your life or your career. SMU Lyle created a collaborative online experience for ambitious network engineers whose understanding of critical network engineering skills includes soft skills. The part-time MSNE program pairs the flexibility of remote learning with the personalized feel of the on-campus experience through a leading-edge networking engineering master's curriculum, hands-on sync sessions with professors, experiential labs featuring real tools and industry projects that require intense cooperation. 

Just because soft skills development is harder to measure in network engineering doesn't mean you have to work on those skills independently. MSNE candidates at SMU participate in collaborative research in Lyle School of Engineering's research centers and institutes, including the AT&T Center for Virtualization. The Hart Center for Engineering Leadership within the Lyle School of Engineering offers additional opportunities for professional development, including soft skill building. As an MSNE candidate, you can also enlist the help of peers in the program and, once you graduate, seek out mentors in SMU Lyle's active alumni network. 

Are you ready to excel in a network engineering employment landscape where hiring the right people is as important as implementing the right systems? Apply to earn your MSNE online today.