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7 Things Every Network Engineer Should Know How to Do

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Will virtualization, simplification and automation render network engineers obsolete? The short answer is no. The more accurate answer is "it's complicated." New technology is transforming computer networking, and network engineers may find themselves at a crossroads. As has happened many times before – e.g., with the implementation of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or the advent of streaming video – network technology is changing. Simultaneously, networks are growing more complex, and the demands on those networks are increasing.

"The last several years have seen a dramatic increase in bandwidth demand due to the adoption of IoT devices and the surge in online entertainment, including gaming and high-definition video streaming," reports Steve Alexander, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Ciena. "Recent events have only added to that network pressure with an increase in remote learning, work, entertainment and life in general."

Figuring out what network engineers need to know how to do in this rapidly shifting landscape is challenging because it requires making predictions about an uncertain future. This article doesn't attempt to do that, so you won't find a long list of trending technical skills below, though it does discuss some emerging hard skills for network engineers. Instead, it explores the distinguishing and emerging skills that can help you advance quickly and prepare for whatever the future holds, as well as how a program such as SMU Lyle Online's Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) can help you stay competitive.

What Every Network Engineer Should Know How To Do

1. Adapt to Automated and Virtual Networks

Virtual applications, servers and networks run in a layer abstracted from hardware, making it possible to automate network resource allocation and take advantage of computing power that would otherwise go unused. Automation makes networks agile, so network engineers can scale capacity, reduce the frequency of slowdowns and outages and strengthen network security with less effort. Automated systems can also predict network behaviors and make real-time changes to ensure networks are stable without denying users access – any time, day or night – freeing network engineers to focus on upgrades and change management.

Headlines equate the rise of automation in networking with the death of network engineering, but according to the Enterprise Network Automation for 2020 and Beyond report, 92 percent of network managers want to expand their automation initiatives. To keep up with these and other changes in the field, network engineers should look for educational resources that teach foundational and advanced network engineering skills that align with disruptions in the industry.

The core network engineering curriculum in SMU Lyle School of Engineering's online Master of Science in Network Engineering covers virtualization and automation, and the department updates the MSNE courses regularly as network solutions, network systems and networking standards change.

2. Communicate with Less Tech-Savvy Colleagues

The image many people have of the isolated network engineer holed up in the server room is not rooted in reality. Networking professionals discuss systems requirements with stakeholders, troubleshoot network performance for clients, deliver formal network performance reports in front of executives and more. Network engineers must be able to explain highly technical issues to people with varying levels of tech-savviness. They must also be comfortable building relationships with project partners and peers, taking guidance from management and managing relationships with customers. 

The importance of soft skills such as communication will grow as automation pushes the network engineer job into a more people-focused and technology-management-focused direction. Increasingly, the network engineer job description includes overseeing change management. 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 should update their soft skills now to stay competitive. In addition to communication skills, computer networking professionals need teamwork, leadership and critical-thinking skills. Honing soft skills can be more challenging than gaining new technical skills because so few degree programs for network engineers address human skills in coursework or project work. SMU Lyle School of Engineering's network engineering master's program is one of the few that teach students how to work together to solve real-world challenges while developing crucial networking competencies.

3. Make Time to Update Their Network Engineering Skills and Pursue Certifications

Traditionally, network engineering has not been a 9-5 job. Maintenance often happens during off-hours to minimize network downtime and workflow disruptions. Network outages occur around the clock. When the network goes down, the network engineer comes in – day or night, on weekends and on holidays. Network engineering can also be a high-stress job. Just one network outage can result in millions of dollars in lost revenue. As much as the average network engineer might want to spend their days off doing nothing but relaxing, ambitious professionals in this space must build time into their sometimes-hectic schedules to pursue certifications.

The list of tools and technologies senior network engineers and network architects must know is long. One way to show potential employers that you have the requisite knowledge is to pursue professional certifications such as:

Preparing for network certification exams takes discipline and drive because life is full of distractions. Sometimes the best place to prepare for multiple certification exams is in a graduate program that trains students on the systems they'll work with in the real world. The Lyle School of Engineering MSNE program has partnerships with organizations like Juniper Networks and Amazon Web Services, and our partner organizations help online SMU students pursue professional certifications.

4. Program in a General-Purpose Language such as Python

Physical Local Area Networks (LANs), Wide Area Networks (WANs), routers, firewalls and data centers are giving way to software-defined networks (SDNs) and virtual computer systems hosted in the cloud. Python, Ruby and Perl are popular programming languages for engineers working with enterprise networks. Automation-friendly programming languages such as Terraform and Ansible are becoming more popular with the rise of network automation and Infrastructure-as-Code. Network engineers with basic coding skills already automate repetitive or time-consuming manual tasks with scripts. Network engineers with highly developed programming skills can work with leading-edge network technology and transition into network automation engineer positions.

Coding skills are associated with higher pay in network engineering. According to Burning Glass, network engineers who know the fundamentals of Python (e.g., objects, variables, strings, loops and functions) can earn over $105,000 per year with a master's degree. Network engineers with Ansible skills can give their organizations more value for less time and money and earn close to $106,000. If they advance into a network automation engineer position, they might earn $116,000 or more. Programming will become a critical network engineering skill as more organizations move their operations onto SNDs and virtual networks to streamline network management.

5. Understand the Business Use Cases of Technologies

Network engineers must be aware of their organizations' critical business processes to determine and communicate the practical and financial value of network enhancement. Developing business use cases is a way network engineers can demonstrate how network infrastructure investments can meet organizational goals and calculate return on investment (ROI). Use cases are technical actions that correlate with specific business outcomes and can be budget drivers, help set project scope and guide automation initiatives. Understanding the business use cases of network technologies lets network engineers and network managers balance technical requirements against budgetary restrictions and resolve issues caused by divergent goals.

6. Work Like a Software Developer

Traditionally, network engineers rarely collaborated with peers from other areas of information technology, information security or operations. Stakeholders were reactive in their approach to network upgrades. Unexpected issues and outages drove change, which meant network engineers operated under intense stress. Upgrades involved switching out expensive hardware and negotiating costly downtime and tended to be infrequent.

Today, the integration of DevOps principles into networking processes coupled with SDN and Infrastructure-as-a-Service makes computer networks more agile. NetDevOps refers to the use of code-controlled infrastructure, Network-as-API concepts and methodologies borrowed from software development to streamline and automate network upgrades and processes. In this new paradigm, network engineers design, deploy and test network changes regularly and rapidly – much like how software engineers quickly design, deploy and test new features. NetDevOps reduces downtime and errors, and engineers with DevOps skills can provide networking solutions aligned with business requirements faster.

7. Change as Technology Changes

As long as there are computer networks, there will be demand for network engineers with up-to-date skills. Given how rapidly technology is changing, the networks of tomorrow might not look anything like the networks of today. Network engineers are under increasing pressure to reskill or risk obsolescence. Network engineers still need a comprehensive understanding of standard network protocols and services like TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP. They must also be familiar with traditional hardware and software configurations and implementations, and the protocol architecture of the internet and information systems. However, network engineers also need skills related to automation, virtualization, SDN, SD-WAN, cloud networking, network security and programming. 

This type of disruption is nothing new in network engineering, and ambitious network engineers understand the future of the field is notoriously difficult to predict. Curiosity and openness to new ideas and processes are two distinguishing features of successful network engineers. They're also dedicated lifelong learners, ready to embrace emerging technologies. 

The SMU Lyle online MSNE program acknowledges that this adaptability is vital in this constantly evolving industry. It prepares graduates to adapt to both changing technologies and employer expectations. The evolving curriculum teaches real-world network engineering skills that meet today's needs while also giving students emerging network engineering skills that align with shifts taking place in the industry. MSNE graduates exit the program equipped to continue growing and learning throughout their careers

Preparing for the Future of Network Engineering

After reading this far, you may be thinking you have a lot of work to do to refresh your network engineering skills and credentials so they align with changing employer expectations. Employers increasingly look for network engineers with broad practical experience and the skills and knowledge to leverage the latest technologies in their organizations. If you look at reskilling as a challenge rather than a chore, preparing for the future of network engineering will be more rewarding (and maybe even more fun).

"The flexible, agile and dynamic network of the future won’t involve most of the tasks that fill your day today, which no doubt fill you with boredom anyway," asserts Steven Iveson, writing for PacketPushers. "Let yourself and your skills free, and embrace this; it’s mostly a shift of perception rather than hard work."

No one class, certificate program or degree program can teach network engineers everything they will need to know to succeed in network engineer jobs in the future, but some programs do more than others to prepare professionals in this field to adapt. SMU Lyle is one of the few that shows growth-minded network engineers how to identify emerging trends to keep up with the pace of innovation. 

When you're ready to take your network engineering career to the next level, explore SMU's online MSNE admissions and application requirements, look at the financial aid options or apply online.