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A day in the life of a network engineer in 2020

Cameron Cooper
Business Journalist

Cameron Cooper is an experienced business journalist from Brisbane, Australia, and chief writer for Coopermedia.

Cameron Cooper
Business Journalist

Cameron Cooper is an experienced business journalist from Brisbane, Australia, and chief writer for Coopermedia.

Highlights
  • The new breed of network engineers have to be generalists and they take advantage of automation and technology.
  • Seeing technical problems through a human lens helps engineers to deliver better results.
  • Despite fears that job market would reduce because of artificial intelligence, the market is strong for engineers.

It’s 2020 and network engineers are no longer just IT nerds. Sure, they need technology skills, but their problem-solving ability and sense of empathy are just as important to their career success.

Time for work

Anna’s warm inner glow from her morning cycle-ride  suddenly fades as an alert chirps loudly on her smartwatch.It’s her digital assistant, and the news is not good. A malicious ransomware attack, dubbed The Disruptor, threatens to compromise all the data on her healthcare corporation’s networks, including the technology devices of more than 200 employees. The hackers’ demand? Wire them $1 million in bitcoin or they’ll wreak havoc. As chief network engineer, it’s ultimately Anna’s job to fix the problem. Her first response? She sends an SMS to all staff to warn them about the threat and get them to shut down their computers and devices until further notice.

Two network engineers inspecting data cables. The daily duties of network engineers have come a long way since the 1990’s.

Rise of the generalists

Anna represents the new face of network engineering. In her early 40s, whip-smart and with people skills that complement her inner geek, she is an acknowledged master of programming languages and powerful algorithms that can predict individual human behaviour – and she has a psychology degree for good measure.

It is a far cry from the start of her career in the mid-1990s when network engineers were trying to get their heads around a new-fangled thing called email and kilobytes were the measure of data storage (the tech world is now dealing in zettabytes, with just one zettabyte having the equivalent storage capacity of about 250 billion DVDs).

Anna’s predecessors were typically confined to narrow roles involving wireless networks, routing and switching, for example. The new breed of network engineers have to be generalists and they take advantage of automation and technology – plus sensible delegation skills – to get through a mountain of work each week. Today, Anna’s focus may be on software-defined networks (SDNs) that enable cloud and network engineers to quickly tackle changing business needs using a centralised software-based controller. Tomorrow, her priority may be working with the DevOps teams (software DEVelopment and OPerations) ensuring productive collaboration between those responsible for developing the software and those tasked with keeping the infrastructure on which it runs operational. One of her team’s current projects is to create wearable devices for elderly patients that can count their steps, monitor their sleeping hours and diagnose health issues with a view to predicting and warding off untoward health events.

 In between, Anna deals with network automation and the integration of cloud computing. As generalists, network engineers like Anna must be able to switch seamlessly between tasks involving networking, security, systems, storage and software.

In essence, Anna is a problem-solver who draws on her 15 years of experience at some of the biggest global brands as well as her current role. She is overseeing a platform that is shifting to ubiquitous open wireless environments and the holy grail of 6G networks, while the latest software automatically manages hundreds of thousands of devices and detects most malware threats.

Her motto for her 20-strong team of applications software engineers and systems software engineers is clear: “Let’s be fast, let’s be safe – and let’s make sure our network infrastructure does not fail.”

So The Disruptor has her on edge.


Taking on the hackers

It’s lunch on the go for Anna and her colleagues.  Their team has been revamped in the past two years as automation has superseded some of the more mundane and predictable aspects of the job. They are working in programming languages such as Java, Swift and Go, and using advanced versions of open-source operating systems such as Linux, while hypervisor technology that runs virtual machines is all the rage. If you need to run hundreds or thousands or operating platforms securely at any one time, rather than just one, hypervisors can do the job.


Most importantly, Anna has been recruiting talented engineers with a balance of technical skills and empathy. Her belief is that seeing problems through a human lens helps her engineers to deliver better results. The approach served her team well 18 months earlier when they thwarted infrastructure attacks as hackers sought to target patients by remotely shutting down pacemakers and disrupting insulin pumps for diabetics.


Today, Anna leads a brainstorming session to discuss ways to stop The Disruptor. In an era of the Internet of Things (IoT), the closely related phenomenon of machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and the prevalence of millions of connected devices from smartphones and tablets to wearable devices and even white goods, her team understands the risks from ‘unpatchable’ IoT devices. 

They get to work on fixing this patching issue, while a process of network segmentation is also part of the plan. This involves creating segmented networks for digital finance systems, printers, devices and servers to limit fallout and quarantine highly sensitive data from cybercriminals. It is a proven way of preventing a threat from spreading across networks. Anna is confident this dual approach will work.
 

Mentoring matters

Despite the day’s pressures, Anna has to briefly leave her team to address a group of rookie international engineers who have come to her company’s HQ to see how the experts do it. 
Her message? First, cover the basics such as managing local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), intranets and extranets. Second, get up to speed with open-source languages such as Ruby, which is a popular tool for social media platforms. And third, work on soft skills to become leaders who can think like a scientist while having the conscience of a saint. All of this for an average salary of $120,000 or so!

The stakes – and responsibilities – have never been higher for network engineers. Anna tells the rookies about her Silicon Valley-based friend who is involved in the rollout of a new range of driverless cars. Not only does he have to ensure the cars can navigate traffic; he also programs them to make decisions in the event of an impending accident. Does the car veer towards a nearby person on the side or a road, or go over a steep verge? Today’s programmers have to consider the ethical problems as well as the technical ones, while also being aware of the law. A moral compass is required, along with an advanced satnav.

Anna also encourages her guests to think about the intersection between technology and social policy issues such as climate change and terrorism. Concluding her speech, she says: “Our job is no longer just about coding and routing. We need to use our ingenuity and creativity to keep people safe and stop the cybercriminals.”
 

State of the industry

Despite a tough job market in the early noughties and fears that artificial intelligence could wipe out network engineering roles, the market is strong for Anna and others. Growing corporate adoption of cloud services and virtualisation strategies has created a surge in demand for applications software engineers who can roll out secure web-based programs. Similarly, systems software engineers are in vogue as the adoption of electronic data-processing systems rises. 
However, don’t look on employment sites for broad network engineering roles – the terminology has switched to jobs for integration architects, business systems analysts, cloud architects and cloud infrastructure administrators who are just as likely to help invent new products and services as they are to manage software.

A job well done

It’s 8.45pm and Anna is exhausted. She can rest easily, though, safe in the knowledge that her crack team has done its job and The Disruptor has been disrupted – for now at least. 

Considering your network service options? Read on to learn about the IT balancing act.
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