The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way enterprises view networks and network experts. Virtually overnight, networks have evolved from a business support tool into a technology the binds employees, customers, and business partners into an integrated virtual infrastructure that takes advantage of videoconferencing, collaboration tools, and numerous other network-driven technologies.
As networks and enterprises have evolved, so have the skills needed to plan, build, maintain, and secure network operations. A new talent market has arrived. Here's a quick rundown of the top three network skills IT leaders are now actively seeking.
IT is navigating its way through uncharted economic waters. Recovery may include a long period of fluctuating customer demand, stop-and-start supply-chains, and oscillating sales, any of which can cause network budgets to veer wildly. "Leadership won't have months or years to hire, onboard, and develop staff as before," observed Patrick Hubbard, head geek at IT management software provider SolarWinds. "They'll need new network engineers to be effective day one, and existing staff who excel in their ability to rapidly redeploy as needed."
Leaders are looking for generalists with experience that extends well beyond traditional network skills. There's now a need for network professionals who can configure a server or detect and resolve security vulnerabilities, said Yaniv Bar-Dayan, CEO and co-founder of Vulcan Cyber, a cybersecurity vulnerability remediation company. "Demand for these soft skills has skyrocketed, in great part, because cloud and digital transformation initiatives are breaking down long-standing silos in networking, security, and IT operations," he noted.
As companies digitally transform, cross-team collaboration has evolved from a buzzword into a necessity, yet the baggage accrued during years of working in silos often predisposes teams to be at odds with each other. "Getting everyone to collaborate effectively requires empathy, strong communication, and relationship-building skills," Bar-Dayan advised. "As useful as these skills are, enterprise IT has placed a premium on technical skills to the point of over-reliance," he added.
Network engineers must possess strong technical skills—that's a given—but team members who also have strong people skills will be better equipped to maintain the level of partnership that's necessary for cross-team initiatives, such as network security and ongoing maintenance, which are essential for digital transformation, Bar-Dayan observed.
The most sought-after network engineers are those skilled in in-demand program languages, such as Python, and who know how to configure, operate, and manage networking infrastructure through the APIs provided by cloud service providers, explained Sounil Yu, CISO-in-residence at venture capital firm YL Ventures.
The pandemic—and the rapid digital acceleration that followed—has sped enterprise movement to the public cloud. "Network engineers are accustomed to working with on-premise networking gear with different interfaces, whether graphical or command line," Yu noted. But transitioning to the public cloud requires familiarity with a new group of technologies, such as APIs. "In order to properly leverage APIs, one has to know how to program in a language that seamlessly works with them," he said. "Those [engineers] who don't know how to program will find themselves at a severe disadvantage in the 'new normal'," he added.
Network experts skilled in DevOps, containers, Kubernetes, and Docker will be in high demand in the months ahead, predicted Jason Albuquerque, CIO and CSO at IT consulting and management firm Carousel Industries. "Also, developers who are highly proficient in ITIL, LEAN, Agile and able to script in Linux, Python, PowerShell, JSON, SQL, REST API, and Bootstrap," he suggested.
With enterprises of all types and sizes forced to transfer an array of essential business operations to a work-from-home model with virtually no advance warning, many IT leaders have come to realize that network operations and cybersecurity are now inextricably and permanently linked. "The resiliency of a network is aided with proper cybersecurity practices and policies," said Theresa Lanowitz, head of evangelism for AT&T Cybersecurity and a former Gartner analyst. "Open collaboration and communication between network and cybersecurity professionals is critical to mitigate the business impact," she added.
Over the past several years, enterprises of all types and sizes have experienced a string of serious cybersecurity breaches. Cybersecurity has been, for many organizations, an afterthought. "Cybersecurity teams frequently did not have a seat at the proverbial table and, therefore, organizations did not lead with a security-first mindset," Lanowitz explained. "The pandemic has taught organizations that pro-active cybersecurity matters." COVID-19 has also increased the need for network teams that are deeply familiar with network security concepts and know how to effectively defend vulnerable digital assets.
Proper cybersecurity practices will help keep the enterprise network and, by extension, the entire business safe. "The network extends beyond the infrastructure to the applications that run the business, the endpoints attached to the network, and the workers who rely on the network to continue daily activities without interruption," Lanowitz said. "The business relies on a robust network and the proper protection of everything connected to it for business continuity, regardless of where its employees are working—in the corporate headquarters, in the field, at home, or anywhere else."
In the years ahead, network and cybersecurity professionals will need to work closely together to form a holistic view of network operations and security practices. "Companies will be looking for individuals who understand that the network is the business," Lanowitz said.