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The future of networking jobs in the new normal

Soft skills will grow in relevance as network pros adapt to a post-pandemic world that includes more remote troubleshooting and the move away from a hard network edge.

In the pre-COVID-19 days, network engineers and other NetOps professionals knew the rules and boundaries of their collective domains. Debates were common about who could or should work remotely and how productive remote workers are. Network pros traditionally believe their responsibility stops at the edge of the corporate-controlled network and aim to know where a problem occurs to avoid the dreaded "network is down" trouble-ticket circus. Not anymore.

Network pros troubleshoot enough to understand whether a problem occurs in the global Border Gateway Protocol tables somewhere or whether a particular ISP has a run-in with a fiber-seeking backhoe. But, with multi-cloud deployments growing more common and many employees working from home due to the global pandemic, the days of being able to stop troubleshooting problems at the network edge are gone.

These changes present new problems for network practitioners who must now deal with more unknown situations, many of which are much harder to visualize. For example, does a problem with the CEO's latest video call stem from a problem on the network, voice gateways, something between the network and the last mile, or something in the CEO's own home internet configuration?

Generally, the latter reason causes the most problems. While many similarities exist between deployment scenarios at an employee's home versus business deployments, home network designs present a tremendous number of unknowns. Assuming the provider isn't having problems and it appears to be a classic "everything else works fine" scenario, how do network pros approach troubleshooting with a strategic methodology?

A new troubleshooting methodology

Network practitioners are going to need better, and different, tools at their disposal, along with something that doesn't always come easily: patience with less technical co-workers.

Understanding how to guide a nontechnical person through troubleshooting steps to provide information germane to diagnosing the problem will be a key skill set in the future.

Trying to troubleshoot a nontechnical employee's home internet connection is going to be taxing even with great tools. So many different modems, providers and home internet routers are available on the market that it's difficult for network pros to know all of them well -- let alone get access to them. Understanding how to guide a nontechnical person through troubleshooting steps to provide information germane to diagnosing the problem will be a key skill set in the future.

Network practitioners can eliminate much of the confusion by shipping out preconfigured routers to end users for plug-and-play operation -- users can connect it to the modem, and they're ready to go. However, this option won't work in all cases, and not all users are amenable to having a company-owned device plugged in to their network, aside from laptops and such. The tech industry tends to be wary when it comes to privacy, and end users might not respond well to company network pros having control of part of their home internet experience.

valued soft skills
Soft skills will continue to be vital for network pros as they adapt to remote troubleshooting and hybrid deployment models.

With new deployment models for corporate applications and the shift from a hard-edge network perimeter to a more interchangeable one with resources spread across multiple clouds, the need for end-user troubleshooting is increasingly becoming obviated. However, this doesn't mean network pros can avoid it entirely. A hybrid deployment scenario is going to be the currency of the realm for some time, so it's important to brush up on the soft skills now.

Soft skills for network engineers

While soft skills might not showcase technology-specific expertise, they do provide employees with abilities that can aid them in many aspects of their jobs. Below are some soft skills that are relevant to network pros:

  • Communication. Understand how to clearly articulate information to managers, clients and co-workers.
  • Time management. Allocate and prioritize resources appropriately to avoid wasted energy or time.
  • Teamwork. Take the time to listen to others, and use collaboration tools to keep in touch with team members.
  • Adaptability. Tackle problems and challenges creatively, considering other perspectives and strategies that could improve processes.

Next Steps

What roles are included in a network engineer job description?

This was last published in August 2020

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