Being a good network engineer requires a strong technical skill set. In fact there’s an entire industry devoted to technical training in networking technologies. We know that persistent technical training is necessary to keep pace with constant changes in technology, so I’m sure we agree that technical proficiency is important for the network engineer. If you don’t have a deep understanding of how VPN technology works, you’ll have a very difficult time troubleshooting a site-to-site VPN without the help of some [unnamed] technical assistance center. But is that all that’s required for a successful career in networking?
In my opinion you can do OK focused purely on technical ability and little else. However, I believe that in order to truly succeed in your career, a network engineer must develop an entirely non-technical skill set vital to being an excellent networking professional.
When I say a “successful networking professional” I’m referring to one who’s gone beyond simply the ability to program a router or troubleshoot a VPN. They’ve also developed an ability to interact with others in their workplace to foster friendly relationships, respectful professionalism and reasonable expectations for themselves and others. They have the ability to understand business needs and how to derive appropriate technical requirements. They have the ability to communicate with a manager, co-worker or customer in such a way as to get the job done without sacrificing the relationship.
Maybe this goes without saying, but I’ve worked with enough server admins, network engineers, storage people, developers, virtualization specialists, etc. to know that folks with very strong technical skills can also be deficient in their ability to get the job done efficiently, quickly and without creating interpersonal tension. The ability to work with others and marry technical skills with business needs is what sets apart a truly successful networking professional. In my humble opinion and in my experience, those that have both skill sets are the engineers being promoted, sought after by HR departments and successful as sole proprietor consultants. And I believe that the superstars do this intentionally.
Let me explain where I’m coming from. I think there is a self-awareness that causes a person to constantly reflect on how they’re interacting with the world around them. This is part of being human. We all have a constant stream of thoughts, images and self-conversation going on in our head. We’re self-aware. And I believe a healthy self-awareness of how we interact, moment by moment, with the world outside our own minds is an immensely important factor to being successful in any social context in life including our careers.
So in terms of network engineering, many people can hit the books and learn about packets and frames. Clearly a strong technical skill set is vital to the job, but the ability to then apply those skills in the context of a real office with real people with real customers and with real business requirements is what sets apart the person that knows some stuff about VPNs from the professional that is called upon because they can really get the job done.
I had the luxury of a liberal arts education. Some would scoff at this, and sometimes so do I. But something I value from that type of education is the ability to write emails clearly and create customer-facing documentation that’s coherent. Have you ever had to re-read an email nine times because you had no idea what the sender was trying to say? Have you ever read “professional” documentation that caused more confusion than it cleared up?
I’ve also had the privilege of being an English teacher which taught me the skills to choose my words carefully in the context of a mixed classroom environment and deal with interpersonal issues in a diplomatic manner. That’s standard classroom management and something I developed over a few years in front of a group of students, but it’s been a tremendous advantage for me as a network engineer delivering presentations, meeting with customers and working on a team.
Could any of those lessons be applied during the sales process of a major network overhaul? Could some of those skills be useful during the design and implementation of a huge virtualization solution? How about in daily network operations?
Maybe these skills aren’t able to be taught but instead develop only from experiences. I really don’t know. But I do know that we can work to create those experiences, and in that way we can train ourselves in those ambiguous “soft skills” LinkedIn articles like to talk about all the time.
Ultimately, though, to be truly successful we need to remember that we work with people just as much as we work with packets.