In a recent customer meeting, I was asked to provide insight on how to hire "unicorn" employees to develop an infrastructure automation program to manage the installed base of branch networking routers.
The challenge before this network operations manager is the nature of the company and the competitive local job market. As a 100-year-old public utility, it is a challenge to hire engineers with a solid grasp of network engineering, programming and soft skills necessary to lead the team on transitioning the existing WAN networking routers into a programmable network.
My colleague Jeff Andiorio recently published a blog, Why a CCIE Should Pursue a DevNet Certification, defining CONEs as Crusty Old Network Engineers. With the rise of software-defined networking (SDN) in the past decade, today's network managers are increasingly pressured to develop and form infrastructure teams, and the existing infrastructure has grown too large to be adequately maintained without some form of automation.
Cloud adoption initially spurred the interest in SDN, but then major networking vendors introduced controller-based networking into the data center and, more recently, the WAN.
The early adopters of programmable networks were network engineers with a programming background. Throughout the decade, the industry has evolved and matured to a point where APIs are universally expected and generally available.
Let's talk about unicorn employees.
To attract unicorn employees, the manager must focus on the dynamics of his organization, something he controls and influences. To compete in the job market, he must provide an environment where people have a sense of accomplishment and are making a measurable impact. An infrastructure automation team is motivated by increasing the velocity of changes, whether establishing a baseline for the existing network or enabling more rapid new deployments.
Equally important is re-tooling and training the existing team. Initially, this means evaluating the current skills and interests of the organization. Then, determine which are most receptive to learning programming and automation and provide a path forward, a training and enablement plan.
- Network operators must create a team culture fostering a sense of accomplishment.
- IT operations staff skills and organizational structure must be evaluated, and the members up-skilled.
- Adopting programmable infrastructure is key to managing existing infrastructure and new deployments.
Given this immediate need for implementing programmable networks, along with a focused push by the Cisco announcement restructuring of the certification program to include DevNet certifications, we formed a DevNet Cisco Certified DevNet Associate Certification study group.
The logistics of the group are conventional — schedules and content are managed via a meeting room. There are weekly topics led by a group member or moderator presented over Webex. The sessions are recorded and posted to the meeting room along with the presentation material. See an example of the weekly course.
The goal of this session was to introduce the group to the definition and concept of software development kits (SDKs) and also provide a sample Ansible playbook to provision an AWS EC2 instance, a Dockerfile and sample Jupyter notebooks to automate the creation of a learning environment for the study of the Meraki SDK.
Our goal in this initiative is to turn CONEs into unicorns. The DeNet Cisco Certified DevNet Associate Certification exam is generally available in February 2020, and the exam results will prove the success of the initial WWT study group. The goal is to expand the program in the future, with the core team leading new groups.
On breeding unicorns
For an in-depth panel discussion on best practices to successfully breed a blessing of Unicorns and become one yourself, listen to our TEC37 podcast episode.
By definition, unicorn employees are rare and therefore difficult to recruit. They embody the E-shaped individual described in The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations. They combine their expertise with the ability to execute and are always exploring novel ways to improve the overall efficiency of the organization.