When, Not What, Defines Today’s Networking Career

Back in December, Cisco filed a lawsuit against Arista Networks because Arista’s network device operating system, EOS, was too similar to Cisco’s beloved IOS.

 This caused Tom Hollingsworth (a.k.a. “The Networking Nerd”) to speculate that this action presaged the ultimate death of the network device command-line interface (CLI).

Time will tell whether Hollingsworth is right or wrong and to what degree, but the idea intrigued me. Why would it matter if the command-line interface went away? What would be the loss?

Now, before going further, here’s a little background on me: I tend to be a “toaster” guy when it comes to technology. I don’t love my toaster or hate my toaster. I don’t proselytize the glorious features of my toaster to non-users. I just use my toaster. If it burns the toast, it’s time for a new toaster. Sure, over the years I’ve built up a body of experience that tells me my bagels tend to get stuck in the upright models, so I prefer the toaster/oven combos. But at the end of the day, it’s about making good toast.

Today’s networking career means learning new techniques

Jeez! Now I have a craving for a panini. Where was I? Oh right, technology.

I use a lot of technologies. My phone is Android. My work laptop runs Windows 8.1. My home desktop runs Linux. My wife lives on her iPad. So on and so forth. I’ve come to believe that learning technology is like learning to play cards.

The first game you learn is new, interesting and a little confusing, but ultimately thrilling because of the world it opens up. But the second card game, that’s the hard one. You know all the rules of the first game, but now there’s this other game that completely shatters what you knew. Then you learn your third card game, and you start to see the differences and similarities. By the fifth game, you understand that the cards themselves are just a vehicle for different ways of structuring sets.

I believe that’s why people are concerned about Hollingsworth’s prediction of the death of CLI. If you only know one game — and let’s face it, CLI is an extremely comprehensive and well-known “game” — and you’ve invested a lot of time and energy learning not only the rules of that game but also its nuances and tricks, finding out that game is about to be discontinued can be distressing. But when it comes to CLI, I believe that distress is actually due to a misplaced sense of self. Because you aren’t really a CLI professional, are you?

You’re a networking professional, not a CLI pro

Sure, you know a lot about CLI. But really, you’re a networking professional. Being able to configure open shortest path first (OSPF) from memory makes your job easier. But your job is knowing what OSPF is, when to use it versus enhanced interior gateway routing protocol, how to evaluate its performance and so on.

No, the concern about the death of CLI is really rooted in the fear of personal obsolescence. I’ve heard that notion repeated in conversations about the mainframe, Novell networking, WordPerfect 5.1 and dozens of other technologies that were brilliant in their time, but which, for various reasons, were superseded by something else — sometimes something else that is better, and sometimes not.

And a fear of personal obsolescence in your networking career is ultimately false, unless you are digging in your heels and choosing never to learn anything new again. (OK, that was sarcasm, folks. As IT pros, we should be committed to life-long learning. Even if you are two years away from retirement, learning new stuff is still A Good Thing™.) As long as you are open to new ideas, new techniques and yes, new systems, then you won’t become obsolete.

Employers exploit networkers’ insecurity

I’ll be honest. I think there are a lot of employers that exploit this insecurity. “Where’s a Perl script-kiddie like you going to find this kind of role?” they whisper — usually implicitly, although sometimes much more explicitly than any of us prefer. Or if we’re interviewing for a new job, they ask, “I see you have a lot of experience with AIX, but we’re a Windows shop. Do you really think your skills translate?”

I’m not here to talk about interviewing skills, salary negotiations or career improvements, so I’m not going to get into the potential responses, but I will say that the ultimate answer in each of these cases — and many others — is “Yes.” Why? Because it’s not about whether I know the fifth parameter of the gerfrinkel command in CodeMe version 12.3.9.7, which was deprecated in 12.3.9.8 in favor of the unglepacht function. It’s not about any of that. It’s about my experience on when to use certain commands, when to look for a workaround, how to manage an environment of this scale and scope and so on.

To play off the old joke about the copier repairman, a small part of your paycheck goes toward turning the screw; more of it is based on knowing which screw to turn.

As IT pros, we are paid — and are valuable — because we know how to find out which screw to turn and when to turn it. So to speak, of course.