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Full Stack and the Opportunities for Network Engineers

As enterprise IT explores ways of streamlining operations, there’s a growing requirement for individuals with cross-functional skill sets. The full-stack revolution, as this is called, combines conventional networking skill with other disciplines, such as application and security skill sets. It’s been seen by some as a threat to traditional network engineering. Not so, says Pablo Espinosa, director of network engineering at Intuit.

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Pablo Espinosa, Intuit

“Network engineering will still be required because we need someone who knows networking engineering principles,” he says, “what’s changing is how you manage and maintain that environment to deliver a service. That’s really what it’s about.”

Espinosa adopted full stack when he established a dedicated tooling, monitoring, and automation team at Intuit. The team integrates conventional IT teams, and the personnel were encouraged to develop a “devops” mindset. Problems were approached holistically not just from the standpoint of a particular discipline.

The approach has helped Intuit streamline its day-to-day work significantly. Espinosa points to how Intuit personnel once spent a fair amount work every day updating SSL certificates, pushing out firewall policies, and modifying those policies. Each of those areas was very resource-intensive, requiring specialists in various disciplines.

With a dedicated tooling, monitoring, and automation team, Espinosa was able to tackle that challenge with less people. “Many of these provisioning aspects can be done more efficiently by full stack engineers. What took two or three individuals can now be handled by a single engineer,” he says.

But finding the personnel with the right mix of skills for full-stack teams will not be easy for hiring managers. “In many cases, it’s still challenging to find one single individual who can go broad and deep. Traditionally, day-to-day technical skills have largely been driven by vendor environments. We have Cisco CCIEs and VMware VCPs, but we need people with more of the right mindset and approach. A full-stack trainee should know the kind of questions to ask across areas,” says Espinosa.

This shift will also place more stress on networking vendors to create products that can help bridge the gap between teams. “Part of that responsibility will fall on the vendors. They will need to supply the capabilities for a technologist, but not necessarily a specialist, to use their products,” said Espinosa. One such example would be developing simplified front-ends to their environments.

Certainly until such front-ends are available, networking engineers have a unique window. “The traditional network engineer has a tremendous opportunity to become one of the new full stack engineers,” commented Espinosa.

“An engineering-level of understanding of the new domain isn’t necessary. Developing an operational understanding of additional technologies will position them for growth. It’s a trend that’s happening already at Intuit. A small percentage of networking engineers in my organization are interested in this ‘storage stuff’, so you’re starting to see this intersection a bit more,” says Espinosa.

Intuit is far from alone. “A lot of large companies have started down this path in large part as a result of building more self-service, virtualized environments,” stated Espinosa. “Wherever services present themselves, organizations are all of a sudden faced with streamlining capabilities. And that’s only good news for adventuresome network engineers.”

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