Cisco engineers – an innovative future?

Will network engineers be given more chances to innovate post-economic crash? We ask those at Cisco Live 2014

This week is Cisco Live Europe 2014 – the networking giant’s annual conference to talk all things infrastructure with customers and partners.

With 7,000 people present and undoubtedly many more watching online, a number of topics have been raised, but none more prevalent than the changing role of the network engineer.

The wider picture is a change for the IT department as a whole. Chris Dedicoat, president for the EMEA region at Cisco, who attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last week, said the attitude of CEOs towards their future as businesses and the part IT had to play had changed dramatically.

Citing figures that showed the balance sheets for the top 1,000 companies rise from $1.9tn in 2008 to a record-breaking $4.4tn by the end of 2013, he said: “The world has a lot of cash and the top companies are sat on a lot of cash. As a result, the theme this year was very optimistic compared to other years in that every single company is looking to drive growth [rather than] the last few years where it has been a cost control and hunkering down post-crisis situation.”

Companies are looking for something from IT that helps them drive the number one thing for them: innovation

Chris Dedicoat, Cisco

Companies are seeking technological innovation

Dedicoat said firms were looking for “something different” from IT and were keen for technology to take a leading role in driving growth. “They are looking for something from IT that helps them drive the number one thing for them: innovation. These companies fundamentally believe that their growth from the future will come from their ability to innovate.”

The executive referenced a PwC survey published at the WEF which said of the 500 CEOs interviewed, 86% wanted to re-evaluate their whole research and development divisions, 88% wanted to invest in leveraging the big data they have at their fingers, and a staggering 90% said innovation was the most important thing to grow businesses in the coming years.

“Companies are looking at IT in a very different way because they already spend a huge amount of money on IT but want it to do different things,” he said. "CEOs want it to be able to drive business velocity at a far different pace."

Dedicoat said every single company it met, regardless of whether they made automotive parts or were in the retail space, wanted to leverage the power of technology to change the way they monetise the delivery of their products, the way they interface with their consumers, and the way they interface on a business-to-business basis.

Automate basic tasks to unlock innovation

With IT key to innovating, Dedicoat said the simpler tasks must be taken care of to free up the talent to work on forward-thinking projects, rather than keeping current operations going.

During the conference, Cisco launched its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) Enterprise Module, extending its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) product. The main philosophy of these products is to take what are often manual, taxing tasks and automate them across the datacentre, wide area network and access devices, such as security, policies and other application-focused jobs.

Cisco believes that by implementing its products, those important network engineers can get on with the innovative jobs the CEOs are crying out for, rather than programming command line interfaces.

Zeus Kerravala, founder of ZK Research, said the network has already been a programmable entity for some time, but in the days of software-defined networking – something Cisco claims its products fall into – it has made the idea more accessible.  

“When I was an engineer we used to write our own visual basic for routers,” he said. “The problem was you needed an extremely high level of network knowledge and technological skills to do that.

“One of the differences I am seeing is the [application-centric] structure has lowered that bar significantly so you don’t have to be a Cisco-certified engineer to be able to write a script for it.”

Rob Lloyd, vice-president of development and sales at Cisco, explained further.

“The big change in access control, or ACL, is how policy and security is rolled out across a large set of branches or connections,” he said. “Most enterprises use access controllers to invoke policy across the wire so they can maintain security but, again, they are controlled manually. When one programmer leaves and another starts, no one knows what to do with that old ACL.

“So we need to automate that process, which the Cisco ONE platform does, giving us the ability to not manually be deploying ACL but find the policy for the individual application and automate it. That is a fundamental change to the complexity that exists.”

Kerravala believes the impact on the network will be like the change in the web when graphical interfaces became the norm.

“When the web was first around, the only way to create a website was programming raw HTML,” he said. “It would take you months just to do a couple of simple pages. Then all of a sudden these graphical interfaces came around that totally exploded the number of web developers.

“I think the simplification of being able to dig into data and make simple, rapid changes will mean you are going to see the whole world of networking change. And if we are to enter a world of billions of connected devices and the internet of things, that simplification needs to happen,” said Kerravala.

Is automation a threat to engineers' livelihoods?

This may be music to some network engineers’ ears. CEOs wanting to spend more on innovative projects because they have more disposable cash after automating their systems could sound like the ticket to a more fulfilling job.

On the other hand, it could sound like taking a ticket for the dole queue. If the complex skills needed by a network engineer to carry out these manual tasks are no longer needed, who is to say CEOs will put that money into innovation instead of cutting staff and jobs disappearing for the well trained?

It's not a case of fewer jobs, just different jobs

Zeus Kerravala, ZK Research

Dedicoat admitted that, in some cases, companies may take the money-saving option, but he had a strong faith that the top companies know they need to innovate to win in an increasingly competitive market.

“I think that every single company now understands they have to have IT capabilities to take on their competitors in any industry,” he said. “When they are looking at the expensive assets in IT, which is the people, they want to remove the mundane elements of what they do and they want those people to be driving IT to promote products and services in a different way than they have before.

“Businesses are becoming ultra-competitive. They know in every single market there is a new entrant, and that new entrant has agility on their side, whereas big enterprises have to try to move faster. 

"I am sure there will be occasions where people will think that way [in terms of job cuts and lower skilled workers], but I genuinely believe that the enterprise understands fundamentally they have to make IT much easier to use and more effective. Those people will be utilised to try to drive growth.”

Embrace change to secure a more fulfilling role

Kerravala believed it was up to the network engineers to embrace a new future where their jobs may look very different from their past.

“If you look historically as we have gone through these changes – mainframe to client/server, client/server to internet computing – there was always a threat of IT jobs going away,” he said. “What happened instead was the job of the IT individual changed.

“If you look at the role of the future IT person, it is going to change to someone who has to link business value to IT value and somebody who develops schemas and policies. Some may be adverse to that change, just like a bunch of guys I know who used to run mainframes and were adverse to change… they don’t have jobs any more.”

Kerravala concluded: “As a business evolves and becomes more IT-centric, the skills have to change along with it. So, it’s not a case of fewer jobs, just different jobs.”

Read more on Network security strategy