“If you are a network administrator, be aware that there are a lot of industry movers and shakers who want to put you out of a job.” So began a grim article in The Register in May. Reporting from the Ethernet Summit in Mountain View, Calif., journalist Rik Myslewski provided perspectives on network automation—technology that could, he posits, make network administration a dead-end career.
Myslewski quoted reps from network equipment providers HP and Juniper, as well as U.S. cable TV service provider Comcast, saying network automation is the key to reducing network management overhead: time and money. The reps suggested that by relying less on human resources for network configuration and more on smart software, businesses could build nimbler, less expensive networks. People employed as network administrators, Myslewski wrote, may soon have to find a new line of work.
“All those Cisco CCIEs—sorry—their jobs are at risk,” said Juniper VP Steve Collen.
The Register is known for its cheeky take on the tech industry (the publication’s tag line reads, “Biting the hand that feeds IT”) so it’s possible the situation for network administrators isn’t so dire.
In fact, industry insiders say net-admin positions are not about to disappear en masse. Yet a kernel of truth lurks in The Register’s report.
Here’s the good news: network administrators who keep learning new technologies and techniques (always be educating or ABE) have the least to worry about, according to Kris Johnson, Toronto branch manager at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology.
“You should be concerned if you want to stay with the same skill set you started with and you still want to have a job,” he says. But most technology pros—including any network administrators worth hiring—relish the chance to try novel software and apply new management mechanisms. They don’t mind employing solutions such as network automation, because these programs enable technologists to spend less time on basic chores such as configuration and more time on strategic IT—looking for ways to help their user communities work faster, share better and beat the competition.
EtherealMind questioned the future of network administration in a post in 2011—ages ago in this high-speed era, yet Ziyad Basheer’s assessment still rings true. He argued that automation tools for simplified network deployment could affect bottom-rung administrators, but “automation tools do not alleviate the need for enterprise and service-provider network architects… The networks still need to be designed.” Administrators with design capabilities continue to be in demand.
Jean-Pierre Bedard has a different perspective. As the director of telephony and unified communications at CBC/Radio-Canada in Montreal, he knows his team, including two network management pros, provides essential support that no automated software can match. “When things go bad and users can’t make calls, you need someone in charge. I wouldn’t rely on a piece of equipment to auto-recover.”
Yet he also seems sure change is on the way—and it could affect net admin numbers in other organizations, where IT departments might still employ many administrators for basic network configuration and deployment. As organizations look for ways to cut costs and boost revenues, IT decision makers are forced to find solutions that both reduce expenses and support faster business operations. “The number-one area where you can improve is in the number of staff you have to do the job,” Bedard says.
So maybe The Register wasn’t necessarily wrong when it reported that careers could be throttled as businesses buy into network automation. Clearly, though, the highest skilled network administrators—and those who continue to learn—have the least to worry about. They might even welcome automation as a way to simplify boring chores and enable savvy net admins to focus on tasks like network design, which call for creative human intervention.