The following is a guest post by Matt Oswalt. Matt is currently a Software Engineer at StackStorm and is also the author of the Keeping it Classless blog where he writes on the topics of networks, automation, systems, and software engineering.
Ever since the massive disruption of the network industry in 2011 by the advent of Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and related technologies, network engineers have had to face an increasingly faster moving target when it came time to answer hard questions about which skill-sets to pursue in order to enhance their career. As a result, I'm frequently asked for career advice, with questions like "Are IT certifications still relevant?", and more.
To be blunt, the required skill-set for a network engineer is likely going to change even more rapidly as outside factors continue to demand more and more from network infrastructure over the next few years. However, I'd like to outline a few key fundamentals that should guide you through the noise and set you up for success in the network industry.
Why Become a Network Administrator?
I initially became interested in being a network engineer because I noticed just how critically dependent nearly every other area of IT was on the network. It sat so low on the technology stack that if you knew how the network worked, you had the "keys to the kingdom".
Indeed, most in the rest of IT still to this day view the network as a sort of "black box" - a magical land of protocols and unique operating systems that require the local network shaman to speak the right incantation. For a while, this was sufficient; applications were mostly self-contained, only requiring the network to get involved when it came time to send information to, or receive information from, a user.
Enter the cloud. Ever since companies like AWS introduced fully-automated infrastructure services, application development and deployment methodologies have adapted to take advantage of the new way infrastructure is built and operated.
Security is also more important than ever, and the network is a critical piece of properly segmenting and securing applications. These days, the network is front-and-center again. Now, developers are building ever-more-distributed applications that use the network in ways never before observed. While the network never stopped being critical infrastructure in the age of the Internet, it's now more important than ever for the network to be resilient and responsive to the exponentially changing needs of modern application architecture.
Therefore, the network industry is already, inevitably, being dragged along into the "cloud-native" era, and network engineers will need to adapt to this new way of how applications are built and deployed. While this does present a challenge, it also presents a huge opportunity, as engineers with both cloud and networking skill-sets will be incredibly rare and highly sought after. The cloud presents a new, untamed wilderness in which a networking skill-set can provide immense value.
In short, the "traditional" allure the network industry used to have is still alive and well. Knowing how to run an operational network - and more importantly how to interoperate it with other areas of IT - is still a highly sought-after skill-set.
The relevance of IT certifications in general is still a hot topic, and network certifications are no exception to this. While SDN may not have "taken off" in its initial form, the impact it made on the network industry will be felt for decades. With it comes the fear that "old-school" IT certifications like Cisco's Route/Switch track (.e. CCNA/CCNP/CCIE) no longer have any relevance. However, as with most things, the subject of IT certifications is far more nuanced than this. Networking certifications didn't stop being useful in 2011 any more than they solved world hunger. Like every other skill-set, they are a tool - a means to an end.
It used to be that you could obtain your CCIE certification and immediately the world was your oyster. To be fair, you can probably still get in the door at quite a few places with a certification like this today. However, it's nowhere near as "exclusive" as it used to be, and as a result, IT certifications like the CCIE are expected, not necessarily a huge differentiator. In addition, vendor-specific certifications like the CCIE are still very specific to one particular area of technology. They train you on the details for running a specific platform, or line of products, but they don't prepare you for the reality of most IT positions, which is often very heterogenous, both within networking, and between networking and other areas of IT.
The question then becomes, how do you separate yourself from other candidates? The answer lies in how well-rounded you are. Infrastructure silos are continuing to converge into each other, and the average IT administrator is in charge of way more than just the network - they're often also doing enterprise architecture, systems administration, and now working with and integrating cloud infrastructure.
In 2018, the reality is that networking certifications are still a very useful tool for getting your foot in the door as a network engineer. Many IT shops, especially at the HR step, will still require some of the "core" certifications from companies like Cisco.
Increasingly though, these by themselves just aren't sufficient; over the long-term, a broader skill-set will have more and more value. Where certifications used to give an applicant a competitive edge, they're now expected as part of the "status quo", and experience with broader IT systems, automation, and cloud technologies is becoming a key differentiator for prospective employees.