It’s time we developed our next generation of network engineers

By on 7 Nov 2019

Categories: Community, Development

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As engineers, we know what to do when something is broken.

If there is a routing reconfiguration, we know there are buttons to push and knobs to pull in BGP to make packets flow the way we want them to. If we need to update the DNS, or issue new ROAs, we know what systems to use, and what changes to make.

Importantly, if there is a problem that’s new to us or perhaps more complex than we’ve dealt with before, we know how to ask for help. We can turn to our colleagues in the office and ask for their thoughts. Or if we need to solve the problem by ourselves, we can go to a search engine and we know what questions to ask to obtain the answers we need.

But how do you engineer your career? How do you go from network engineer, to senior network engineer, to network architect, to principal architect, and on to wherever you want to go? What’s the path? What’s the config?

It can be as little as sharing your own experiences with a new generation

One of the things we haven’t done a great job as an industry is to discuss career development. When we attend industry conferences — events such as RIR and network operator group (NOG) meetings such as APRICOT, APNIC, RIPE, and NANOG, and protocol development conferences such as IETF — we go in expecting to network with colleagues, discuss current technologies, debate policy, and, if we’re lucky, get to spend some time walking around a cool foreign city. But we don’t often spend formal conference time talking about careers.

I think it’s time for that to change. Career development is incredibly important in our industry, because we always need more good engineers and more good engineering leaders. As a first step, I moderated a career development panel at the NextGen Careers BoF during APNIC 48 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We had an all-star panel of industry leaders who shared their experiences building their careers.

Joy Chan, Deputy CEO of TWNIC, described some of the earliest engineering lessons she learned while working as a systems engineer.

Narelle Wakely, Principal Security Advisor at Trustwave, shared some of her tips for what skills will be needed by the next generation of engineers.

Swapneel Patnekar, Managing Director of Shreshta IT Technologies, discussed how he began his own company and some of the earliest challenges he faced.

And Donald Clark, who oversees network strategy and acquisition in APAC for Google, talked about how key flexibility is to capitalize on new opportunities.

Listen to their stories below:

Did it help?

Of course, it’s all well and good to stand up and regale 20- and 30-something-year-olds with our life lessons and achievements. But understanding if it is of use was an equally important outcome of this session.

Although we got some live feedback during the Q&A session (and on Twitter), I and other panellists were heartened to have attendees approach us during the break to learn more and share the challenges they face. As I’m sure many of you can remember (and some of you still may struggle with) having the courage to approach senior people can be daunting. So, it was great that the session at least made the approach a little easier. And as can be seen from the reports from some of the attendees below, it seems that we’ve imparted something that has helped.

The most important learning from the session was your education background doesn’t matter. As long as you have a passion for working in the ICT sector, you can pursue your goal. Also, the value of learning new technology is more important than gaining a lot of certification. As too is the value of work and personal life balance.

                                                            Farah Diba, System Engineer for NovoCom Limited

All of these speakers had one thing in common — they all came from different academic backgrounds, contrary to the positions they hold in the industry at present. I remember Donald Clark talking about how he was originally trained as a chemical engineer, but now works in Google’s infrastructure team on the networks needed for the Asia Pacific.

I felt I could relate to this as I originally began studying biology and chemistry at school, to prepare for Med School. However, I started to become interested in computer engineering during my undergraduate and now a few years later, I’m a graduate student in ICT and network engineering, working on information-centric networks as a tentative master’s thesis topic.

So, my takeaways were that it’s okay to not come from a networking background. It’s okay to be confused and question if you belong in a particular academic or professional field. Because there are so many incredible people in such respected positions today who also went through what you’re going through. But they managed to find their niche eventually, and that means you’ll be able to as well.

Pavel Farhan, Masters student, AIT

If you’re interested in learning more about the session and would like to see this repeated in future events, leave a comment below.

David Huberman is a senior staff member in ICANN’s Office of the CTO.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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