Talking to colleagues in the industry, there’s anecdotal evidence that they are having trouble finding suitable candidates for mid-level Network Engineering roles. They have vacancies which have gone unfilled for some time for want of the right people, or ask where they can go to find good generalists that have a grasp of the whole ecosystem rather than some small corner of it.
Basically, a “skills gap” seems to have opened up in the industry, whereby there are some good all-rounders at a fairly senior level, but trying to find an individual with a few years experience, and a good grounding in IP Networking, system administration (and maybe a bit of coding/scripting), network services (such as DNS) and basic security is very difficult.
Instead, candidates have become siloed, from the basic “network guy/systems guy” split to vendor, technology and service specific skills.
This is even more concerning given the overall trend in the industry toward increasing automation of networking infrastructure deployment and management and a tendency to integrate and coalesce with the service infrastructure such as the data centre and the things in it (such as servers, storage, etc.) – “the data centre as the computer”.
This doesn’t work when there are black and white divisions between the “network guy” and the “server guy” and their specific knowledge.
So, how did we get where we are? Firstly, off down a side-track into some self-indulgence…
I consider myself to be one of the more “all round” guys, although I’ve definitely got more of a lean toward physical networking infrastructure as a result of the roles I’ve had and the direction these took me in.
I come from a generation of engineers who joined the industry during the mid-90’s, when the Internet started to move from the preserve of researchers, academics, and the hardcore geeks, to becoming a more frequently used tool of communication.
Starting out as an Internet user at University (remember NCSA Mosaic and Netscape 0.9?) I got myself a modem and a dialup connection, initially for use when I was back home during the holidays and away from the University’s computing facilities, all thanks to Demon Internet and their “tenner a month” philosophy that meant even poor students like me could afford it. Back then, to get online via dialup, you had to have some grasp of what was going on under the skin when you went online, so you could work out what had gone wrong when things didn’t work. Demonites will have “fond” memories of KA9Q, or the motley collection of things which allowed you to connect using Windows. Back then, TCP/IP stacks were not standard!
So, out I came from University, and fell into a job in the ISP industry.
Back then, you tended to start at the bottom, working in “support”, which in some respects was your apprenticeship in “the Internet’, learning along the way, and touching almost all areas – dialup, hosting, leased lines, ISDN, mail, nntp, Unix sysadmin, etc.
Also, the customers you were talking to were either fellow techies running the IT infrastructure in a business customer, or fellow geeks that were home users. They tended to have the same inquisitiveness that attracted you to the industry, and were on some level a peer.
Those with ambition, skill or natural flair soon found themselves climbing the greasy pole, moving up into more senior roles, handling escalations, or transferring into the systems team that maintained the network and servers. My own natural skill was in networking, and that’s where I ended up. But that didn’t mean I forgot how to work on a Unix command line. Those skills came in useful when building the instrumentation which helped me run the network. I could set up stats collection and monitoring without having to ask someone else to do it for me, which meant I wasn’t beholden to their priorities.
Many of my industry peers date from this period of rapid growth of the Internet.
Where did it start going wrong?
There’s a few sources, like a fire which needs a number of conditions to exist before it will burn, I think a number of things have come together to create the situation that exists today.
My first theory is the growth in outsourcing and offshoring of entry-level roles during the boom years largely cut off this “apprenticeship” route into the industry. There just wasn’t sufficient numbers of jobs for support techs in the countries which now have the demand for the people that most of these support techs might have become.
Coupled with that is the transition of the support level jobs from inquisitive fault-finding and diagnosis to a flowchart-led “reboot/reinstall”, “is it plugged in?” de-skilled operation that seemed to primarily exist for the frustrated to yell at when things didn’t work.
People with half a clue, that had the ability to grow into a good all-round engineer, might not have wanted these jobs, even if they still existed locally and were interested in joining the industry, because they had turned into being verbal punchbags for the rude and technically challenged. (This had already started to some extent in the mid-90s.)
Obviously, the people in these roles by the 2000s weren’t on a fast track to network engineering careers, they were call-centre staff.
My second theory is that vendor specific certification caused a silo mentality to develop. As the all-round apprenticeship of helpdesk work evaporated, did people look to certification to help them get jobs and progress their careers? I suspect this is the case, as there was a growth in the number of various certifications being offered by networking equipment vendors.
This isn’t a criticism of vendor certification per se, it has it’s place when it’s put in the context of a network engineer’s general knowledge. But, when the vendor certification is the majority of that engineer’s knowledge, what this leaves is a person who is good on paper, but can’t cope with being taken off the map, and tends to have difficulty with heterogeneous networking environments.
The other problem sometimes encountered is that people have done enough training to understand the theory, but they haven’t been exposed to enough real-world examples to get their head around the practice. Some have been taught the network equivalent how to fly the equivalent of a Boeing 747 or Airbus A380 on it’s extensive automation without understanding the basics (and fun) of flying stick-and-rudder in a little Cessna.
They haven’t got the experience that being in a “learning on the job” environment brings, and can’t always rationalise why things didn’t work out the way they expected.
The third theory is that there was a divergence of the network from the systems attached to it. During the 2000s, it started to become too much work for the same guys to know everything, and so where there used to be a group of all-rounders, there ended up being “server guys” and “network guys”. The network guys often didn’t know how to write scripts or understand basic system administration.
Finally, it seems we made networking about as glamorous as plumbing. Young folk wanted to go where the cool stuff is, and so fell into Web 2.0 companies and app development, rather than following a career in unblocking virtual drainpipes.
How do we fix it?
There’s no mistaking that this needs to be fixed. The network needs good all-round engineers to be able to deliver what’s going to be asked of it in the coming years.
People wonder why technologies such as IPv6, RPKI and DNSSEC are slow to deploy. I strongly believe that this skills gap is just one reason.
We’ve all heard the term “DevOps”, and whether or not we like it – it can provoke holy-wars, this is an embodiment of the well-rounded skill set that a lot of network operators are now looking for.
Convergence of the network and server environment is growing too. I know Software Defined Networking is often used as a buzzword, but there’s a growing need for people that can understand the interactions, and be able to apply their knowledge to the software-based tools which will be at the heart of such network deployments.
There’s no silver bullet though.
Back in the 2000s, my former employer, LINX, became so concerned about the lack of good network engineering talent, and woeful vendor specific training, that it launched the LINX Accredited Internet Technician programme, working with a training partner to build and deliver a series of platform-agnostic courses which built good all-round Network Engineering skills and how to apply these in the field. These courses are still delivered today through the training partner (SNT), while the syllabus is reviewed and updated to ensure it’s continuing relevance.
IPv6 pioneers HE.net offer a number of online courses in programming languages which are useful to the Network Engineer, in addition to their IPv6 certification programme.
There is also an effort called OpsSchool, which is building a comprehensive syllabus of things Operations Engineers need to know – trying to replicated the solid grounding in technology and techniques that would previously be picked up on the job while working in a helpdesk role, but for the current environment.
We’ve also got attempts to build the inquisitiveness in younger people with projects such as the Raspberry Pi, while venues such as hackspaces and “hacker camps” such as OHM, CCC and EMF exist as venues to exchange knowledge with like-minded folk and maybe learn something new.
We will need to cut our existing network and systems people a bit of slack, and let them embark on their own learning curves to fill the gaps in their knowledge, recognise that their job has changed around them, and make sure they are properly supported.
The fact is that we’re likely to be in this position for a few years yet…