Career evolution

Analysts are predicting that many of the basic tasks that occupy a great amount of a network professional’s time will no longer be on the agenda for the smarter managers of the future. Instead of assigning IP addresses, they will have to make the network pay to differentiate themselves in the market.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  March 20, 2005

|~|soubhi-aspire_m.jpg|~|“Increased automation might have an impact among unskilled professionals, however, skilled professionals should look at automation as an opportunity to allow them to focus on other areas and enhance their knowledge.” - Soubhi Abdulkarim, IT manager at the Aspire sports academy.|~|The role of the network professional is in flux and this is creating uneasiness, with many wondering what skills they need to keep their jobs and take their careers forward. Many analysts predict that network managers need move beyond focusing solely on infrastructure and become more aware of applications and how to use infrastructure more effectively. “Network managers will have to worry about a lot more than border gateway protocol (BGP), managing routers and assigning IP addresses in five years time,” says Jean Louis Previdi, senior vice president and research director, EMEA Meta Group. “They need to be able to solve dilemmas such as when the enterprise should stop using IPv4 and if the business needs internet protocol (IP) in its data centre,” he adds. Previdi predicts enterprises will outsource many basic tasks within five years, with network managers expected to take on a greater level of responsibility for how the network pays off. Whether these tasks are outsourced or shifted to junior staff members, the implications are the same for established network professionals. While they may need to retain a grasp of the bread and butter tasks, they will have to add new strings to their bows in order to demonstrate how they are adding value to the business. “The vision of a network administrator who can add users, change passwords and move PCs around isn’t disappearing, but it is being relegated to a significantly lower spot on the professional totem pole,” says Matthew Moran, the author of The IT Career Builder's Toolkit. “Technology jobs morph just like technology does, but part of the pleasure of being in the field is the learning process,” he adds. There are a number of key trends behind the evolving demands being placed on network professionals but arguably the most important are new business realities. Typically IT budgets are being cut and high-level management are shifting their outlook on IT spend from a cost-based analysis to a value-add approach. These two pressures together mean that IT managers are being asked to come up with more impressive results and often with less resources than they have had in the past. This pressure is being felt across the board, but especially in industries such as finance, which are themselves entering an uncertain period. In the financial business, compliance and accountability are the buzzwords that matter and new regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, Basel 2 and anti-money laundering legislation are shining light more intensely upon the activities of IT departments. In this environment, the task of IT managers becomes more difficult. If they are going to successfully deliver ICT proposals they should be aware of the fluid business climate. “An IT manager should be a broker of sorts, asking the board what they want and then delivering it as effectively as possible either using internal or external solutions,” says Azzam Al Dari, regional director of consulting for Meta Group Middle East. “IT managers must ask themselves; is my personal value to be a guru of a particular technology that may become obsolete in a few years or is it to be an infrastructure planner?” As well as a dynamic business environment, network professionals have to contend with a rapidly developing technology landscape. The increasing sophistication of devices and software in general, and autonomic computing in particular, are leading to more automation of tasks. For many companies, this is simply a matter of economics — as more tasks are automated they can cut back on staff and save money. “On our trend line, we predict that by 2008 autonomic computing will start to demonstrate value,” says Larry Velez, programme director of infrastructure strategies at Meta group. “Those companies that have invested strongly in one vendor technology may be able to reduce their IT management staff by half,” he explains. As uneasy as many IT professionals must be feeling, the tide cannot be turned back, and in fact, many commentators are arguing that increased automation could be a good thing. The trend can allow managers to get rid of the mundane tasks that take up large chunks of their time. If networking professionals can build more standardised and automated networks, they can concentrate on solving user and management level problems within a company. “Increased automation might have an impact among unskilled professionals, however, skilled professionals should look at automation as an opportunity to allow them to focus on other areas and enhance their knowledge,” says Soubhi Abdulkarim, IT manager at the Aspire sports academy. Adding spice to the tense business environment and technological innovation is soaring competition among network professionals. With more people gaining relevant qualifications, it is more difficult to get a foothold in the business than it was ten years ago. “The number of individuals with network certifications has greatly increased in the past few years. The days are gone where the number of jobs was greater than the number of certified network professionals,” says Susan Bodinson, general manager of e-learning firm Element K Middle East. “As a result, network professionals now make it a priority to distinguish themselves from their peers,” she adds. This is a trend being seen across the world, but if anything it is more apparent in the Middle East, which has attracted many IT professionals that have lost work in Europe and North America. People generally don’t like change, so nervousness among network professionals about these developments is understandable. However, with an open mind, there is no reason the network managers should not be able to adapt, turn these new circumstances to their advantage and build successful careers. Network managers should look upon an adaptable mindset and a range of hard and soft skills as their most valued allies. In terms of hard skills, there will never be a substitute for sound knowledge of technology. The trick is to spot the technologies that are on the rise and will be indispensable in the workplace of tomorrow. Proficiency in these areas will go a long way to guaranteeing the network manager’s own value to his business. One area that is being widely highlighted as important in the future of networking and IT is knowledge of Unix and Linux. Research firm D.H. Brown Associates says that IT workers who are familiar with basic Unix and Linux concepts will stand out in the job market. However, learning these skills can be intimidating for many professionals who are familiar with Windows. “The ability to see the similarities between Linux, Windows and mainframes is critical,” says Moran. “Many technology professionals are reluctant to take on another operating system (OS) because they fail to see they are similar in many respects. My advice is concentrate on similarities — you already know those things — all you need to learn are the differences,” he adds. Other issues, such as quality of service (QoS) and security, are increasingly forcing themselves upon the network professional. This is happening as many companies build more sophisticated infrastructures and invest in more bandwidth hungry applications such as video and voice. Abdulkarim at Aspire is in a good position to speak on these issues, as the Qatari sports academy has built a powerful and innovative infrastructure that allows trainers to access databases while they are on the field working with athletes. Furthermore, the company is pioneering the use of IP phones over its Wi-Fi network. “Security and QoS are becoming extremely important in light of the huge number of viruses being released daily and the need to protect sensitive data on the network as well as the need to handle streaming voice and video in addition to data,” says Abdulkarim. The implications of a lack of proficiency or preparedness in terms of security can be particularly dire for the business. “The main asset of companies today is information,” says Bodinson. “If a network is not secure, companies face a high risk of theft, loss and destruction of data, any of which could potentially put a company out of business,” she adds. One of the best ways to pick up skills is to undergo training, and there are many options available from private courses, going back to university or dedicated workshop type training within the work environment. Each has its own merits and can add greatly to the company’s business health, as well as increase the marketability of individual members of staff. “Training is the top priority in my organisation,” says Abdulkarim. “My IT staff are my best asset and the more they are educated and trained, the better they are in what they do. I have a specific career development path for each and every one of my staff. Investing in people is the most important investment for an organisation,” he adds. While most IT staff are well aware of the benefits of hard skills even if they are not always fortunate enough to train regularly, the same cannot be said of soft skills. Traditionally IT professionals have been technology and task focused people and this has meant that they have spent less time cultivating the relationships that could help with their career. IT professionals often fail to network with peers and management outside their direct department. As people move from company to company, the relationships that people build can prove as important in career progression as skills learned. The same can be said about self-marketing. Often network managers are better than others in the field but don’t let people know it. If a network professional’s profile looks on paper exactly like his rivals’, then his prospects will the same regardless of actual performance. The onus is on network mangers to come up with concrete ways to let superiors and potential employers know where they excel. This is why highlighting achievements in the workplace is crucial, and speaking at events and seminars can be important in raising an individual’s profile. Asking the network manager to be more vocal and visible also goes against most previous expectations of the job. Network managers have traditionally had a low key role and are often called upon when something goes wrong. “The network user usually does not see and value an infrastructure service until it fails to deliver,” says Rabih Itani, network and security manager at the American University of Beirut. “As an infrastructure service, networks are supposed to deliver in terms of performance, availability and ease of use and as long as networks are only conceived and operated in that way, the network professional will always be an anonymous soldier,” he adds. While this will always be a large part of what defines network professionals, they will have to participate more actively in business arguments to ensure that the infrastructure they are building and safeguarding is having a positive impact on the bottom line of the company. Despite the tougher and more competitive environment, it is not necessarily a bad time to be a network manager. If anything, reality has finally hit home for the IT market. In the late 1990s many people were left with an unrealistic expectation of what it meant to build an IT career. It is not, and never has been, about pure technical talent. There is a whole set of other skills that should be mastered. If networking professionals set out to learn those skills, they can rapidly advance in their careers. “If the perception is that I do not begin and end my career as a widget technologist, then it is a good time to be a network professional,” says Moran. “The networking professional — as with all professionals — must constantly re-invigorate their career based on both the market and the business value of their role,” he adds. It may also help to view career progress not just in terms of higher pay, as it is not the only determiner of job growth. Opportunities, mentoring and learning environments are also critical in building a sense of job satisfaction. Networking is becoming increasingly important in the wider world of the enterprise, bringing network professionals closer to the business arguments. If they add management skills to their technical abilities, network managers can enhance the value of the network and have a huge impact on the overall health of the business.||**||

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