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Tapping into old skills in the face of networking evolution

Even outdated learning and skills, when adapted properly, can be important and useful for engineers adjusting to today's networking evolution.

I was a Lantastic wizard when I first got involved in networking. If you gave me some coax, a box of those funky half-height 8-bit cards and a 3.5-inch floppy, I could have a room full of PCs wired up and talking to each other at the DOS prompt in no time. At the time, I worked in a training center, so reloading rooms of PCs was my thing and I was very, very proud of the hours I spent creating shortcuts, batch files and spare lengths of cable (not to mention, my coax terminator sculptures). Looking back, however, I can write those hours off as a complete loss.

But should I?

Recently, Seth Godin made a comment on his blog that caught my attention in light of the changes brought about by the continued networking evolution. He wrote, "It turns out that this thing, the thing we have now, is worth working with, because it offers so many opportunities compared with merely waiting for the next thing."

This is a very important idea for us networking pros -- and all IT pros, really -- to come to terms with. After all, as Berke Breathed noted back in 1984, "Hackers, as a rule, do not handle obsolescence well."

To extend Godin's idea, learning "it" may be the wasted time that leads to an actual measurable skill. Or to quote another almost-as-famous artist -- Randall Munroe of XKCD -- years later, that "one weekend messing with Perl" may turn out to be far more useful than you imagined.

What happens if …?

However, that's not my point. We spend time learning skills today with the express intent, or at least hope, that they will end up being more useful down the road as the networking evolution progresses. What happens when they aren't? And what happens when you have several skills, hard-won with hours of dedication, which turn out to be utterly useless?

So, Lantastic and Pascal and WordPerfect and Token Ring and all the rest? They were all worth it.

More to the point, how do we -- those who dedicate our time learning complex skills in the hope it will help us succeed -- reconcile the fact that all that time we took actually pulled us away from learning some other skill that might have turned out to be more useful?

After spending a few years in IT and having a dozen or so false starts, one may be inclined to look at every new trend in today's networking evolution and think, "I'll wait and see if this pans out and let some other guy do all the heavy lifting to get us there."

You may also wonder why you should bother learning a particular NetFlow tool when they keep adding more features, even within the same vendor, or why you should tackle a configuration management application now when new network standards -- not to mention IPv6 and even SDN -- are cresting the horizon?

For that matter, I've personally fretted that my Cisco CLI skills may not be worth much in the future, either.

On the other hand …

But I think that line of thinking is a mistake. Not the idea of letting some less-convincing trends pass you by -- we all have to budget our time -- but that attitude; letting "it" pass by simply because you think it will ultimately either (a) fail or (b) be replaced by version next-dot-zero, which will be so much better that we may as well wait for that to get here.

The truth is learning "it" may take away from time spent doing something else, but the simple act of getting into something, being excited about it, falling in love with it (warts and all) is what feeds the soul of many a lifelong IT enthusiast. It keeps us ready for the next generation, which will undoubtedly be better and, of course, we will love it even more than we love what we have now.

At one point in time, I spent weeks on end with a buddy creating what we were certain was the next-generation inventory scanning tool, only to discover that one of my favorite monitoring tool vendors -- which, in the interest of full disclosure, I now work for -- already had a product that was a fraction of the cost we planned to charge and did so much more. Even so, that chapter in my life is still one of the stories I tell around the table with friends, and contains some of my fondest professional memories.

Taking a chance to take a chance

So, Lantastic and Pascal and WordPerfect and Token Ring and all the rest? They were all worth it. Not just because they taught me concepts that make me better at using today's stuff -- which they did -- but because learning them was worth it in its own right. The process had value. It was worth the investment even though I can see now how temporary it was.

There's a phrase in Hebrew, "Gam ze ya'avo." It means, "This, too, shall pass." It's a double-edged sword of a phrase that can give hope -- this bad situation won't last forever -- and at the same time be a sobering reminder -- this good thing won't be around forever.

So, when you're wrestling with technology fatigue, it's important to remember, this, too, shall pass. Dive in head first if that's what you want. Or sit this one out if you prefer. But do it not out of fear of obsolescence, but rather so that you are ready for the next phase of the industry's networking evolution.

Next Steps

Skills needed for SDN jobs

Network skills for an SDN world

Network engineers evolve

This was last published in April 2016

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