Work environments may look dramatically different when the Covid-19 pandemic abates, and IT teams will have to continue to adjust technology services to meet the shifting needs of organisations.
While much is still unknown, network pros can be learning new skills even during the pandemic, so they'll be better prepared for what comes next.
"Coming out of this crisis, I think companies will be examining how they do networking," says Mark Leary, research director, network analytics, at research firm IDC. "What technologies to wind down? What technologies to accelerate? What projects to continue? What new ones to commence? What skills mattered during the crisis and what matters less?"
Understanding which skills might be in greater demand can help network pros who want to advance in their current jobs and those who hope to find new hiring opportunities following the pandemic.
"Solutions and skills that support the virtual business operating model that accelerates out of this pandemic will be winners," Leary says.
These include software-driven technologies, cloud-based services, higher bandwidth connections such as 5G, pervasive security capabilities, automated management systems, edge computing, distributed data sourcing and storage, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
These all "accelerate an organisation's ability to provide a more flexible, agile, protective, proactive, virtual, and fast-moving technology infrastructure," Leary says.
Employers' need for cloud computing skills such as expertise with Amazon Web Services, cloud-based design, and cloud architecture will increase in years ahead, as companies realise that cloud-heavy infrastructure lends the necessarily resilience to their operations, says Paul Farnsworth, CTO of DHI Group Inc., parent company of IT careers site Dice.
Skills related to network and cloud security, as well as business continuity and data recovery, will be in demand as well.
"Cloud security is a huge topic moving forward," Stanger says. "To cut costs and increase resiliency and be more flexible, folks are moving to the cloud. We're also seeing companies that aren't used to the cloud be increasingly surprised at the lack of control" and loss of asset visibility the cloud can bring.
Companies are looking for individuals who know how to create cost-effective but capable alternative business platforms, Stanger says, in case a company's primary systems become unavailable or impacted by a stay-at-home order or other event.
The rise of the remote worker has also led to greater demand for people with the skills to resolve network access issues and optimise network connections.
"If you have remote workers, you need to make sure they have good bandwidth," says James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at CompTIA, a trade association for the global IT industry. "If you are moving to the cloud, you need good QoS [quality of service] and bandwidth control."
For that matter, any skills that support the work-from-home model will be in demand, says Jim Johnson, senior vice president for staffing firm Robert Half Technology. These include not only cloud and security related skills but also those in data analysis, automation/robotic process automation, and AI/chatbots. The firm is seeing an increased demand for these skills.
And given how quickly the Internet of Things (IoT) is growing, any skills related to this area will be in demand for some time, according to experts.
"The proliferation of IoT devices and the range of use cases is exploding," says Cushing Anderson, program vice president at IDC. "Managing, and effectively using IoT devices, will require robust and nearly ubiquitous network access."
Network training opportunities
Professionals can learn about these and other skills by taking advantage of distance-learning programs while working from home.
"Nearly everything IT professionals want to learn can be effectively learned at home using either self-paced e-learning options or 'virtual' instructor-led training," Anderson says.
Networking vendors are offering online learning programs during the pandemic.
Cisco, for example, is offering many training courses online, including Implementing Cisco Collaboration Core Technologies and Implementing and Operating Cisco Enterprise Network Core Technologies. The company also offers virtual instructor-led courses with real-time instruction, and a selection of self-study resources to help individuals prepare to get certified in a number of network areas.
In early April, Cisco introduced Share IT Solutions, a community forum to enable business continuity in the midst of the pandemic. Individuals can share their IT challenges, get input from the broader community and share their best practices. For a limited time, participants can get 50 per cent off the company's DevNet Fundamentals course to keep their developer skills up to date.
VMware recently announced it's offering complimentary access to a premium subscription to its VMware Learning Zone (VLZ) digital learning program for six months.
In addition to the content available with the basic subscription, including more than 1,300 troubleshooting, support, and other training videos, the premium subscription includes access to content such as the full Learning Zone video library; advanced troubleshooting, configuration, and solution-oriented best practices videos; and VMware Certified Professional exam preparation with 12 exam prep courses featuring more than 650 videos.
For those looking enter the network field, certifications are a great way to jumpstart a career, Anderson says.
"Many organisations leverage IT certifications as part of their development program, but it's hard for aspirants to know which IT certifications a particular company is after," he says.
IDC research shows that managers who have certifications tend to favour them, while those who don't are more mixed. "But when it comes down to a new hire with limited experience, a candidate that has demonstrated initiative by taking a course or achieving a certification will be a better choice than one who did nothing during the stay-at-home order," Anderson says.
For people looking to move from one area of IT into networking, taking courses and basic certifications demonstrates commitment and self-motivation, Anderson says. "Try to find out from managers in the department you aspire to what content they think would be most useful," he says.
Overcoming distance-learning limitations
The biggest challenge for professionals is the motivation to apply themselves to the task of learning new and challenging skill sets, Anderson says. For those who are new to learning outside the classroom, virtual instructor-led training can be a good place to start, he says, because it typically has scheduled meeting times.
These can be prearranged sessions, and depending on the depth or length of the course, they can take place over several weeks with practice sessions and in some cases group projects, Anderson says.
"Many training vendors build in labs or practice sessions with either virtualised or simulated technologies," Anderson says. "These labs can be complex and are realistic examples of how the technology or techniques get used in practice. But they take time and concentration."
Another limitation is that certification providers, like many other organisations, are not able to get around the closure of in-person testing centres or must work within restricted parameters. "Appointment availability at physical testing centres is limited, due to social distancing precautions," Anderson says. This of course varies by location depending on state government restrictions in place.
Online certification testing, with the right security controls in place, can replace in-person testing for the vast majority of learners and the majority of certifications, Leary says.
Cisco and VMware, for example, have introduced online testing for their respective certification programs so that individuals don't have to wait until in-person test centres reopen.
Both vendors are using Pearson VUE software, which employs live proctors augmented with AI that uses techniques such as facial recognition and eye movement tracking to flag potential security violations.
"Unfortunately, the one area still lagging in testing is the replacement of hands-on labs," Leary says. "While virtual labs have been introduced into in-person classroom training and online courses, their use in testing situations is very limited.
"Given that both IT managers and individual contributors place a very high value on hands-on experience and real-world skills, demanding lab tests remain a challenge for the more expert-level technical certifications."
Then there's the issue of whether there is enough time to master a new skill before the pandemic winds down and hiring picks up.
Some of that depends on the type of skill and how much demand there is for it. "Overall, the goal isn't to be 'done' with skill development at the end of the pandemic, but to begin a path that leads to a better career," Anderson says.
All IT professionals should get into the habit of taking a meaningful course continuously, Anderson says. "It won't matter if the boss cares; your skills will improve and your value to the enterprise will increase and drive your career forward," he says.