How network pros acquire skills for SDN, programmable networks

Changing networks require changing skills. Learn how some IT pros are developing network programming skills to navigate the shift to software-defined networking (SDN) and respond to the increasing complexity of IT infrastructure management.

Jason Pichardo’s career path has mirrored the changes in networking over the past decade, moving from a traditional hardware-dominated past to a software-centric future that reflects the network’s growing importance to business operations.

“The industry started having conversations about digital transformation, and already we have moved to a hybrid-cloud state with programmability and orchestration. We’ve gone from talking about switches and routers to talking about how to speed to market faster and how to accomplish business tasks at a faster rate,” says Pichardo, senior network architect at insurance provider Anthem. (The opinions he expresses are his own, not those of Anthem, Inc.)

Pichardo has shifted from network engineer to a blend of network engineer and architectural engineer to pure architect. The moves have come so fast that, unlike his formal network training, he has had to get creative with attaining the skills necessary to succeed at digital transformation.

Here are some ways that Pichardo and other network professionals acquire the knowledge they need to stay competitive in their current jobs and careers.

Start at the search box

“Where to start can be an overwhelming question,” Pichardo says. He recommends beginning with simple Google searches about common concepts such as scripting and APIs. From there, he says, it becomes clearer which vendors and trainers are evangelizing the digital transformation that works best for you. 

Edward Ruffolo, director of technology at Miron Construction in Neenah, Wisc., credits Internet searches for kick-starting the company’s implementation of business intelligence and data-analytics software, a key component of its move to become largely cloud-based. Using Google, which Ruffolo half-jokingly refers to as “the greatest learning tool ever invented,” the network team and their peers were able to quickly identify key analytics and BI thought leaders to follow and stay current on trends.

Ruffolo and his area managers make it a practice to give team members technology topics that are part of the company’s roadmap so they can research and learn about them ahead of deeper deployment talks. “They have the opportunity to get familiar with the basic terminology and what’s included and not included in typical project scopes,” he says.

View your way to knowledge

At Miron, the IT team employs micro-learning – short, instructive videos available online – to work their way through a problem. “Oftentimes we know what we want to do with a new technology, we just don’t know how to do it,” Ruffolo says. “Instead of going off-site to an all-day seminar, we can watch a five-minute or 10-minute video and figure the problem out.”

He finds the short videos by product enthusiasts (compared to those by vendors) to be most useful because they are more independent in their approach to problem-solving.

Anthem’s Pichardo is a fan of longer form Webinars to help get his arms around the impact of certain technologies on the business. “Programmability transcends all different area, including campuses, data centers and the cloud,” he says. Webinars can show with big-picture or step-by-step approaches how to transform the network in this new era.

Let partners teach what you need to know

Technology partners – vendors and third-party – can be excellent channels to pick up new skills. Ruffolo instructs his partners to ensure that his team ends the engagement skilled enough to take over a project and goes so far as to include that as a requirement in contracts. Even if the project takes longer or costs more with that stipulation, he finds it more efficient and cost-effective than having to re-engage the partner or send the staff to separate training.

“We’re looking to them to not only show us what to do, but what are the pitfalls and blind alleys to avoid,” he says. “I want that skills transfer from our partners, where they are guiding the team from the elbow.”

Ruffolo’s networking team also taps into vendor communities, such as the one for Microsoft’s Power BI analytics tool, to find answers to vexing problems. He says well-moderated communities, where the vendor is clearly involved, are highly instructive and help make better use of a product. Ad-hoc forums, however, are veritable rabbit holes that leave you more confused, he warns.

Pichardo is a member of Cisco’s DevNet community platform and turns to his network of peers there to find answers to detailed questions such as how to integrate cloud functionality throughout his environment. “The DevNet community shared how to test and prepare our Virtela SD-WAN framework for production across our Cisco network,” he says. They also led him to documentation on the APIs that Virtela leverages as part of their package.

Find the business need

“One of the ways I have fast-tracked my learning of programmability, API and the like is to apply it to our business needs,” Pichardo says. He spent time examining the path he could take traditionally and how that could be improved through automation. “It took me a lot longer initially, but once I started to understand and repeat the process, it saved me time in the long run.” Rethinking his day-to-day activities also re-upped his creativity and made things more exciting.

“You have to be able to take all the bits and bytes and technical jargon and connect it to the business,” Ruffolo says. He points to SD-WAN as an example. “No one in leadership wants to hear about how it connects the WAN more efficiently. What they want to know is that SD-WAN enables us to grow offices without having to add more bandwidth between them, saving $5,000 a month, and that people will be more productive,” he says.

Miron has a cross-function innovation team that meets regularly to share ideas from the business and technology angles. For instance, if a project manager mentions an application he saw on a subcontractor’s iPad, the tech team will research if it can fit into the organization.

Consider degree programs

Pamela Snipp, a senior analyst at application-support outsourcer Leidos, started her formal training in networking in the early 2000s. Since then, she has amassed an associate degree in computer network administration, a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in information technology, and she is about to complete a second master’s degree in cybersecurity management. She has done all this while working in the IT field. 

“While experience is great, you have to know more than just your normal network operations nowadays,” she says. In addition to networking and cybersecurity, she is skilled in quality assurance. “With all the interfaces that exist and how intertwined environments are, you need to understand the whole picture.” 

Snipp has seen the change in her own industry, health care, where security was overlooked. “When HIPAA was instituted, it took several data breaches and multiple fines, for stakeholders and network teams to begin to implement cyber security measures.”

She believes degree programs have the depth necessary to help you “to diversify and stay in IT.”

Snipp says many employers will work with employees to provide reimbursement and flexible hours as compensation for the expense and time required for a degree program. “Companies want their workforce to be as knowledgeable as possible because it’s only going to benefit them as a company,” she says.

Invest in certifications and training

For those who can’t commit to a degree program, Snipp encourages them to at least pursue certifications that are more permanent, such as Cisco’s Certified Information Security Systems Professional (CISSP), which she plans to begin in the fall. Over the years, she’s been certified through vendor and university programs, as well independent trainers. Most recently, she became certified in ITIL through New Horizons Computer Learning Center.

Again, she encourages networking professionals to approach their employers about subsidizing training. “Education and training should be built into companies, and they should have a catalog of classes you can take,” she says.

Pichardo, who is a Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineer, also is a proponent of certifications, especially those that connect you to your peers so you can tap into their expertise.

Bootcamps are Ruffolo’s go-to for his network team’s off-site learning. “It’s immersive and fast-paced and specific to what they need to get done,” he says. However, he does not send his team members in cold on a topic because he finds it winds up a waste of time. Instead, the person has to spend months with the topic, doing online research and working with technology partners. “Then they’ll have a framework to plug in the information they receive at the bootcamp,” he says.

Collaborate with your peers

A lot of learning can come just by opening up avenues of collaboration with your peers, according to Pichardo, who points out that network engineers “tend to be isolated,” which doesn’t work well when it comes to the collaborative nature of digital transformation.

Pichardo uses collaboration software, specifically WebEx Teams, to discuss new business applications. “I was working on a script that could deploy VLANs and associate them to different interfaces. A peer said to me, over WebEx, ‘This is great, but what about using output on a text file as validation of deployment?’” he says. “That person didn’t need to be able to create everything, but instead took what I did and enhanced it.”

Miron six months ago rolled out the team-collaboration feature in Microsoft Office 365, and Ruffolo already has seen a change in the way the traditional IT and virtual-construction teams collaborate. For instance, while working on the design of a virtual-reality lab, everyone got stuck on a scripting problem. One employee, whose hobby is gaming, chimed in that he had seen the problem before and knew how to fix the code. “We had no idea he had those skills before then. You never know who the person is that can solve the problem,” Ruffolo says.

Lunchtime seminars also are opportunities for collaboration, Pichardo says. “We pick a topic and people can ask questions. If we don’t know the answers, we research them, and bring them back to the group,” he says.

Ruffolo’s teams has a similar approach. At every lunchtime event, they take time to go around the room and say what they are working on. It opens the door to collaboration when someone says they know about that topic and are willing to team up. “Someone might say, ‘Don’t forget about this aspect,’ or ‘I just read a great article on that and can send it to you to learn more,’” he says.

Attend conferences and seminars

Pichardo says he is still a fan of traditional conferences and seminars to generate new ideas and to learn things outside of your immediate world. “The human interaction helps you figure out how to tie products or technologies into your business,” he says.

Conferences offer a way to find out what you don’t know, Ruffolo says. At a recent Microsoft Business Applications Summit, Ruffolo attended a keynote about augmented reality for training. By the end of the presentation, he realized the technology would be great to transform Miron’s building information modeling process. “We could walk plant facilities managers through the construction and they could point out valves would be up too high or gauges that couldn’t be read. Figuring that out before construction would save time and money,” he says.

Although the technologies involved in digital transformation will continue to accelerate, Pichardo believes network professionals must keep their basic network skills up to date. Programmability, automation and the like are just another tool in the toolbox, Pichardo says. “You’re just using [them] to do networking tasks more efficiently and consistently across the enterprise.”

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