What Network Automation Could Mean for Network Engineers

March 9, 2022

The evolution of networking has always been closely linked to the evolution of digital technology. As the rate of change in tech innovation has sped up, so has the rate of change in network engineering. “Between multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and software-defined networking (SDN), there were about 15 years where the networking world was pretty static,” said Avi Freedman, co-founder and CEO of Kentik, in a 2018 press release. “Right now, we’re in a world moving as fast as the ISP world did back in the ’90s. Every few weeks, there’s something new.”

Automation is just the latest disruption. COVID-19 sped up the implementation of automation in networks, as the demands of a growing remote workforce and rapid cloud migration forced organizations to build communications networks that were more responsive and more extensive. Automation is already bypassing the need to manage increasingly large and complex networks manually, allowing organizations to implement networks that are responsive and scalable. And many networking professionals are wondering whether intelligent networks might render network engineers obsolete.

The simple answer is no. The rise of automation in networking doesn’t signal the death of the network engineer – it simply promises a new beginning. However, it doesn’t follow that the network engineering job outlook in 2022 won’t be affected by automation or other advancements in computer science. The question is “How?” and the answer is multi-dimensional. Employers already look for network engineers who understand mobile and cloud-hosted networks. They will increasingly hire mobility solutions architects, automation engineers and wireless network engineers. And network engineers must adapt to stay competitive – just as they’ve always done – in programs such as SMU Lyle School of Engineering‘s Online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE).

What Is Network Automation?

Network automation refers to the use of software to configure, troubleshoot, maintain, provision, test and operate network resources without human intervention. Whereas hands-on attention was once a necessary element of maintaining local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), datacenter networks and wireless networks – any network controlled by a CLI or API – software tools and scripts can now support numerous network functions. IT professionals with up-to-date network design experience can automate everything from basic device discovery and troubleshooting to network security and full-scale configuration management in large communications networks.

Why Organizations are Investing in Network Automation

Automated networks perform faster with fewer issues and don’t require as much attention from managers or engineers. Organizations are investing so heavily in network automation for three primary reasons:

Automated Networks are Efficient

Automation makes networks more agile while also making it exponentially easier for operators to scale capacity to meet high demand. Any tasks that network administrators, systems administrators and network engineers do regularly – like generating network interface reports – are good candidates for automation. Automating repetitive and time-consuming tasks lets network engineers concentrate on more important operational needs or network architecture upgrades.

Automated Networks are Stable

Because manual network management often requires line-command coding, it’s all too easy to introduce errors that cause slowdowns or outages. According to a survey by Information Technology Intelligence Consulting, human error is responsible for a staggering 58 percent of network downtime. Relatively simple mistakes can also open networks to major cyber security incursions and data breaches. Unlike people, automated systems do one thing, the right way, every time. According to Gartner, organizations that automate more than 70 percent of their networks will “​​reduce the number of outages by at least 50 percent and deliver services to their business constituents 50 percent faster.”

Automated Networks are Cost-Effective

As networks grow, they become more costly to manage by hand. According to Cisco, increasing IT costs are one of the most critical issues network managers face. Engineers still perform 95 percent of network changes manually, “resulting in operational costs two to three times higher than the cost of the network.” Maintaining legacy systems is expensive. Network automation lets organizations invest in network updates and upgrades.

The inevitability of automation is also driving investment in more intelligent, software-driven network technology. Automation will become necessary as billions of new IoT devices connect to enterprise infrastructure over the next five years – not only smart appliances like refrigerators and smart cars, which will require network connections, frequent updates and cloud integration, but also new mobile devices. Network engineers should think about automation implementation, not in terms of if, but when. Network architects who create strategic automation road maps can help their organizations get ahead of the technological shifts taking place in the field.

Intelligent Network Engineers Prioritize Reskilling

Enterprise Management Associates’ Enterprise Network Automation for 2020 and Beyond report found that 92 percent of network managers surveyed want to expand their automation initiatives. Yet only three percent of organizations surveyed said their network engineers had sufficient skills to implement automation strategies. Demand for automation skills is high in networking, and employers are willing to invest resources into robust training for motivated network engineers. Forty percent of survey respondents reported spending significant time training networking staff and IT teams on new automation tools and automated processes.

However, employer expectations will likely shift as network automation becomes commonplace. Organizations will look for full-time network automation engineers who can lead them into the new era instead of training up the network engineers they already have. Competencies that currently distinguish network engineers, including skills related to software-defined networking (SDN), virtualization and network programming, will become must-have qualifications.

Motivated network engineers are already reskilling to meet future demand for network automation skills. Some do what they can to pick up leading-edge network engineering skills and additional education in areas of technology such as information systems, computer systems, information security and software development on their own. Others enroll in online, part-time networking graduate programs that teach cutting-edge network engineering skills so they are prepared to implement the newest networking tools and adapt to future technological shifts. Students in SMU Lyle’s Online Master of Science in Network Engineering program build custom course schedules around automation and other advancements in the field via their choices of independent study courses, industry projects, lab work and electives.

The Importance of Soft Skills Is Rising

The list of soft skills network engineers need is growing almost as fast as the list of required technical skills. These include the kinds of skills machines will likely never replicate, such as communication skills, creativity, coaching skills, teamwork skills and intercultural fluency. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that automation in technical fields will create more opportunities for workers to flourish in these areas. Machines will take care of the grunt work while people find ways to make work more meaningful.

There is a critical soft skills gap in most areas of IT, including network engineering. According to a LinkedIn Talent Trends Study, 91 percent of employers across industries struggle to find and retain workers with adequate soft skills. A 2017 study examining skills gaps in technology 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 of programming languages or other CS/IT specific training.”

Network engineers in industries as diverse as healthcare, retail, finance and entertainment will need to update their “soft” or human skills (e.g., communication, collaboration, adaptability, leadership and critical-thinking skills) to stay competitive in the age of automation. Unfortunately, very few technical degree programs prioritize soft skills in their curricula the same way employers prioritize them in job descriptions. SMU’s online network engineering master’s degree program is one of the few that teaches students how to work together to solve real-world challenges while simultaneously developing in-demand networking competencies.

Automation and Obsolescence: What Network Engineers Need to Know

Skills become obsolete. Network engineers don’t. As long as there are networks – and there will be, in some form, for as long as humans need to communicate digitally – the world will need network engineers. However, those engineers will need to adapt to changing enterprise needs, new systems and increased network complexity. There’s no denying it can be challenging to prioritize professional development, but it’s worth it. “Networks are changing as rapidly as training material can be produced,” said network engineer Kevin Blackburn in an interview. “The fastest way to get left behind is to stop focusing on training and personal development.”

Network engineers have always had to learn to navigate, interact with and control technologies that may not have existed when they earned their degrees or entered the field. Early network engineers oversaw small local networks that streamlined file sharing and supported telnet sessions. In the 1990s, the implementation of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) increased the demands on networks – and the demands on network engineers, who had to quickly learn the new skills required to keep expanding networks functional. The widespread demand for video capabilities, the evolution of wireless technologies and other innovations in tech have since rendered many legacy skills obsolete. There’s a history of innovation and transformation in network engineering that’s at odds with the idea that technological disruptions will ever reduce demand for network engineers.

Will Automation Change the Network Engineering Job Outlook?

Automation may change the network engineering job outlook, but network engineers won’t lose their place in the information technology landscape if they keep their credentials and skills up to date. As networks grow and demand for connectivity increases, organizations will need more network engineering expertise. What will change is what that expertise looks like.

Cisco’s 2020 Global Networking Trends Report identified several new titles for networking professionals, including network integration architect, network orchestrator and network guardian. What network engineers need to know is that the gulf between those roles may not be particularly wide because job titles don’t speak to skillsets. Network engineers with skills related to automation, network programming, virtualization, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be able to step into emerging roles in the field and deliver more value in established positions.

There will be plenty of jobs – more than there are now, in fact – for qualified networking and telecommunications professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employers will add 18,800 new jobs for network engineers over the next decade. Whether a bachelor’s degree and a few years of experience will qualify network engineers to step into those jobs remains to be seen. The SMU Lyle online MSNE curriculum trains adaptable engineers to meet evolving employer expectations in a rapidly evolving industry so they can take advantage of that growth. The curriculum covers foundational and advanced network engineering skills that meet today’s needs and technical competencies that align with disruptions in the industry.

However, earning a master’s in network engineering is just the first step on a much longer lifelong journey. After graduation, network engineers need to commit to staying on top of new developments in the field and reskilling whenever new technological disruptions change what it means to be a network engineer.

When you’re ready to update your network engineering skills to meet the demand for automation head on, check out SMU Lyle Online’s admissions and application requirements and more information about the online student experience. Multiple application deadlines make it easy to grow in your current networking career or launch a new one in just 20 months.