Today's network engineers have to be flexible and adaptable, understand the new infrastructure-as-code paradigm, and stay on top of the latest developments in cloud, security, and AI.
Organisations aren’t necessarily looking for someone who is limited to a single vendor’s technology; they’re looking for employees who have skills across a wide variety of technologies and are constantly looking to broaden their areas of expertise.
Jeff Sangillo is vice-president of technology engineering and operations for QTS Data Centers. He manages both internal network connectivity between the company's 30-plus data center locations, as well as customer-facing networking services and products.
"We've got thousands of route-switched devices and firewalls deployed, hundreds of thousands of ports under management, thousands of circuits that we manage for our own internal connectivity and on behalf of customers," he says.
His team of 100 network engineers and cloud engineers have to understand cloud networking and network layer concepts. He expects networking employees to be strong in the fundamentals, such as the common routing protocols, IPV4 and IPV6, as well as high-level skills, such as software-defined networking.
"We try to stay vendor-agnostic, and we've been training our workforce around the ability to understand and leverage software to manage the scale and complexity of the network." With the fast pace of change in the networking field, Sangillo says he's looking for people who are able to keep evolving.
"Our strategy is to find folks who are curious and who invest in their own continuous learning," he says. "They're the ones with their own home labs, who have been dabbling and experimenting. The industry changes very quickly and that gives us agility."
Here are some of the networking skills that are hot today, some that are not, and some that are expected to get hot in the near future.
HOT: Infrastructure as code
"We're moving to infrastructure as code for efficiency," says Sangillo. "We're embedding in the job description of every network engineer that we want you to be comfortable with software and orchestration solutions, speak the language of APIs, use Python, and use low-code solutions."
He’s looking for people comfortable with third-party management solutions like Jenkins or Ansible. Jenkins is an open-source automation server, and Ansible is an open-source network automation project sponsored by Red Hat.
NOT: Vendor-specific skills
"We'd rather have folks that have a broad set of skills than siloed experts in any one network operating system," he says. He no longer wants to see engineers who know how to run command-line-interfaces for single devices, he says,
In the past, QTS would hire Cisco or Juniper experts. "Now, we're trying to abstract beyond that," he says.
NOT YET: Generative AI
Every major vendor is trying to figure out how to apply generative AI to their business. Generative AI promises to revolutionise how users interact with software and systems and to make possible new capabilities not feasible with traditional AI, machine learning, or advanced analytics.
"I can see it coming in the future, but we’re still figuring out the practical uses of it," says Sangillo. Gen AI is today where software-defined networking was five to ten years ago.
"There might be a future where gen AI can assist network engineers," he says. It will start with assistive features first, and will have to prove itself before QTS will turn over any change management keys to the AI.
"I do think there’s a benefit to it," he says. "It's just the beginning of the cycle, but it won’t be long before it's in operation."
HOT: Traditional AI and ML
Sangillo adds that traditional AI and machine learning are already proving their worth.
"We definitely see operational use cases," he says. "By digitising visibility, you can use statistical or ML methods to help manage the work. We've done things like optimise failures from upstream carriers and providers and route around those failures to keep the network healed and operational."
HOT: Data analytics
QTS delivers metrics to its customers for a lot of its network solutions, in real-time or near-real-time so that they can use the data to predict capacity and power usage.
This is also important for customers' sustainability initiatives, he says. Real-time metrics can help customers optimise the use of computing power to maximise efficiency and reduce their carbon footprints.
That means that QTS needs network engineers who understand the concepts of data science and engineering, he says. "They don't need to be data scientists in their own right, but they have to understand the network data that can make it happen."
Network engineers now also need to work more closely with the data science teams, he says, to deliver data telemetry to customers. "In the past, they may have worked apart."
HOT: Zero trust network access (ZTNA)
Zero trust is a high value skill for Jane Moran, CTO at Benevity, an enterprise software provider. "It is difficult to acquire both the skill and capacity to manage zero-trust implementations," Moran says. "IT professionals who can understand how a business works and apply the elements of zero trust that empower how people work are extremely valuable."
In particular, she's looking for people who can design networking with security in mind. "Network activity remains one of the strongest sources of intelligence for malicious or anomalous activity," Moran says. "Ensuring that data and metrics from networks make it into the cyber security practice is key."
HOT: SASE, SD-WAN and VPNs
In addition to zero trust, secure access service edge (SASE), SD-WAN, and VPNs are also key skills. "Benevity, like many organisations, is now operating in a hybrid context," says Moran. "It's no longer about securing office networks, and we've shifted to a 'work where you are, safe and secure, context.'
“Applying SASE, VPN, and choosing applications that segregate data processing from the endpoint device are extremely valuable skills," she adds.
HOT: Cloud Security
Security, particularly cloud security, is a top priority for BairesDev, a software outsourcing firm with developers in 40 different countries.
"For network administration tasks, skills in managing and maintaining network infrastructure and ensuring its security and performance are critical," says Nate Dow, the company's director of technology. "Being able to manage firewall administration is also critical; new hires should be able to configure and manage firewalls to protect the network from unauthorised access and potential threats."
In particular, one of the top growth areas is cloud security, he says. "Employees need to be able to ensure the security of data and applications in cloud environments."
According to David Foote, chief analyst at business management consulting firm Foote Partners, enterprises often pay a premium for specific skills, on top of base salaries.
AIOps has an average pay premium of 20 per cent of base salary, according to the company’s latest survey. Skills that pay a 19 per cent premium over base pay include DataOps, MLOps, and neural networks.
NOT: Systems and networking
Employees who limit themselves to basic systems and network management skills are probably not going to see the types of pay premiums that hotter skills are commanding. For example, core networking skills are commanding a premium of only 6.6 per cent of base pay, which much lower than the highest-demand skills, and lower than the average for all tech skills.
In fact, that’s down almost 4 percentage points since this time last year. "That was one of our steepest declines," he says. "But there are also some hot areas."
For example, enterprises are paying a 7 per cent cash premium for Cisco Prime skills. This skill has gained 40 per cent in value over the past 12 months. "It speaks to the fact that there's a lot of network automation and infrastructure automation going on right now," says Foote.
HOT: Cisco Unified Communication Manager
Another hot skill is Cisco Unified Communication Manager, which pays 8 per cent cash premium, and has gained 33 per cent in value over the past six months.
"It's really aimed at remote workers, VOIP and video conferencing," he says. The growth is related to the fact that companies are moving to a distributed workforce and to the number of applications running across different networks, clouds, and edge locations.
Cisco Identity Services Engine pays 8 per cent cash premium over base salary, and has gained 14 per cent in value over the past three months. "We're talking about a network-based approach for adaptable trusted access everywhere, centrally managed," he says. "It all speaks about zero trust."
Other areas showing solid growth are mobile device management, which pays 5 per cent cash premium over the base salary, is up 25 per cent in the last 6 to 12 months.
NOT YET: SASE
SASE, which combines networking and security, has generated lots of buzz, but hasn't yet hit the charts when it comes to bonus money, Foote says. "It's not showing up yet because it's not far enough along. There are drivers but we're not seeing it translate into extra cash in 2023."
It will show up going forward, he adds. "If we talk a year from now, SASE is going to be further along," he says. "Networking-security convergence is going to be further along and multi-cloud networking is going to be further along. 5G -- maybe 6G -- is going to be further along. But nobody's reporting 6G skills for us today."
HOT: Cloud Architect
The cloud architecture skill pays 10 per cent premium over base pay, Foote says, and is up 11 per cent over the last six months. For example, at Benevity, Moran says she's looking for resumes with AWS cloud certifications, as well as formal certifications in SysOps, DevOps, and security.
"But in interviews, we're selecting for adaptability, problem-solving, a growth mindset, and great teamwork," she says. "IT professionals need to be more adaptable than ever before."