Network engineers should learn project management skills such as budgeting and scheduling as they come under pressure to deliver advanced networks for businesses, said attendees at the Cisco Networkers 2008 event this week.
Network design experts are increasingly required to build networks that underpin a business's ability to offer new services to customers and employees. For example, hotels now need to offer network services such as Wi-Fi connectivity to attract customers and stay competitive.
Professionals need to demonstrate strong planning skills to ensure the networks they built matched business goals if they wanted to be seen as competent by management, delegates at the conference said.
Martin Godfrey, network and telephony manager at the University of Plymouth, is in the process of extending a converged data, voice and video network for 30,000 students and staff.
He said that forecasting the amount of bandwidth the business will use as new applications such as video lectures are deployed on the network is now a key skill for network engineers.
"Management will give IT a fixed budget to last over a period of time. But network managers need to be able forecast how introducing new applications could change bandwidth requirements," he said.
Godfrey said network managers needed to be able to draft budget proposals so, for example, if the business wanted to introduce video conferencing - which would need more bandwidth - it would allocate funds more willingly and with a better understanding of why money needed to be spent.
Raymond Mohr, director of IT at Balfour Beatty Rail in Germany, said that network managers should learn project planning skills. If they can demonstrate this kind of planning to the business, then they will be able to get higher salaries and more senior positions.
"You need skills that are beyond your own little box. Nowadays, it is not only about monitoring networks and TCP/IP." Network managers also needed to master contingency planning if there are delays to projects or if the business needs a network deployed at short notice, he said.
Tony Wood, senior network analyst at the British Medical Association, which has 135,000 users on its network, said that larger network projects at the BMA often have a dedicated project manager assigned, But he recommended network professionals take up project management training as a way of becoming more valuable in an organisation.
"It is easier to teach an IT expert project management skills than it is to teach a project manager a lifetime of technical experience. Learning project management skills like Prince 2 can make the network manager valuable to the company."
Gerry Martin, IT manager for Irish Hotelier Tifco, which manages Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza hotels in Ireland, said network experts should also learn how to produce business cases to start projects where the network can create new revenue streams for the business.
Martin created a network service that allowed guests to make cheap call from their mobiles while they were staying at the hotel. This encouraged guests who might have been hesitant to use hotel phones because of high charges to make calls cheaply through the hotel network.
"Being able to express how a network service can bring in new revenue will put the IT guy on the map as managers ask what more they can do with IP networks," he said.
"Networks are strategic and the role of a network designer is becoming much more important," said Yankee Group research analyst Zeus Kerravala. "People who take on design roles impact the strategy of their organisations."
Fred Weiller, director of certifications and training at Cisco said the role of the network manager has traditionally involved troubleshooting, operating and maintaining the network but that this is changing.
He said a business-savvy network manager should be able to ask the right questions such as how will my network design scale up if the business requirements change? What is the return on investment for the business by investing in network hardware and software?
"There is real demand for the network manager who can understand the business requirements and translate those requirements into a network design and delivery plan," he said.