Voice Engineers Will Rule the SDN World


Voice Engineers take a lot of crap.

 

There’s definitely a hierarchy to the world of network engineers and sometimes it looks a little like the following

 

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As a former Voice Engineer, I’ve definitely been the victim of this good natured jockeying for positioning. As a former voice engineer, I have to admit that I’ve even participated in the ribbing of my former voice peers.  Being a voice engineer is kinda like being the Rodney Dangerfield of the networking world.  ( You know the tag line )

I’ve even been told on more than one occasion that my CCIE “doesn’t count” because I did Voice. I’ve always taken it as the joke it is. I’ve got digits just like everyone else who’s ever passed a lab. But some people out there might not have the same thick skin I’ve developed over the years. ( Thick skin is something else Voice Engineers get. I think it’s all the exposure to end-users ). 

For the record, I have the upmost respect for voice engineers. It is one of the toughest gigs in networking. You have to have skills in so many areas, not to mention the constant human interaction that comes with the job. And we all know that not every network engineer handles constant human interaction well.

I spent some great twitter conversations reminiscing about the past and I realized that it just might be that voice engineers might just be the most well positioned to really make things happen in the new world. I think if we look at any past experience, there are skills which are transferable if you just look at them in the right way.  

There’s a lot of network engineers of all stripes and colours out there who are busy asking themselves the questions “ How do I make myself relevant in the new SDN world?”.   I think the first part of answering this question is to identify which of your current skills are transferable. Once you’ve got that figured out, you identify what’s missing and then hit the books. 

So here’s the list of why I think Voice engineers will have a great shot of making themselves quickly indispensable in the new world order.

Why Voice Engineer will rule the world

Experience with Controller-Based Networking

When explaining the concept of controller based networking, people always jump to the obvious analogy of wireless controllers with FIT APs. But it occurred to me last night that a potentially better example is the voice PBX.  Especially in a world where VMWare’s NSX is quickly becoming part of the conversation, the parallels become even stronger.  Voice is the original overlay.

Voice has it’s own addressing scheme (E.164) independent of the underlay infrastructure. There’s a centralized controller ( Callmanager ) who has completely knowledge of the state of every endpoint ( phone ) in the network.  As voice engineers, we’re so used to looking at symptoms of a problem with no direct linkages between the overlay and the underlay other than our knowledge. I believe this experience is going to come in very handy for those of us who chose to make the jump.

System-Level Thinking

Voice Engineers think in terms of the entire PBX as a system. There’s something just different about the approach of voice engineers as opposed to traditional R&S engineers. R&S guys have a great ability to focus in on the individual device they are working on. The are so used to living in a distributed state system that they can comfortably skip into the shoes of any device on the network and quickly analyze that particular devices perspective. As a voice engineer, having the ability to see things from the perspective of one particular voice gateway and analyze dial-patters is important, but been able to understand the entire system is what makes us fundamentally different. 

Operating System Skills

I have no idea how this happens. But I’ve actually seen REALLY good network guys who actually struggled to statically define an IP address on a Windows box. As a network management advocate now, I’ve seen the feet that a GUI can place in the eyes of a packet head one to many times to dismiss how valuable all the exposure to operating systems was. As a voice engineer, I had to work with Windows NT4 ( Callmanager 2.4 ), Windows 2000 ( Callmanager 3+), Linux ( Callmanager 5+), VXWORKS (3Com NBX), Linux ( 3Com VCX), not to mention all the client machines that I had to install the original Cisco Softphone ( oh! the pain!) the IP Communicator, or any of the other soft phone clients that have come along the ways. 

I’m comfortable on OS’s. And when I’m asked to install the HP VAN SDN on Ubuntu, or want to play with the OpenDayLight or NOX or Floodlight or any other controller out there right now. I’m not intimidated in the least. I wouldn’t call myself a Linux expert, but I’ll jump right in and figure it out. 

Programming skills

 

The CCIE Voice is one of the only ( THE only?) Lab which has ever forced candidates to do java programming. For those of you who’ve never done it, ACD programming in an IPCC environment is based on java beans. Digit translations are based on RegEx. And trouble shooting complex number translations through an entire dial patter with AAR turned on will force you into a boolean mindset whether you actually understand that term or not. 

 

People Skills

Voice Engineers have to interact with people. A lot. In fact we probably have to interact with people more than any other sub-genre in the networking profession. We have to learn various IT dialects to communicate with the legacy voice people. The hard-core network people. The “real” programmers who are going to do the complex ACD scripts for us. Not to mention the actual end-users who are experiencing difficulties with one-way audio or making a fax go through. ( Yes – People still use fax machines ). 

Strong communications skills and the ability to quickly shift vocabulary to effectively communicate between the different stockholders in an SDN environment is going to probably be one of the most important skills as the silos start to break down.

 

Strong Networking Skills

As much as people like to make fun of voice engineers, most of them have an unbelievable level of foundational networking. They may not be the strongest in BGP or MPLS, but in my experience they understand the basics of networking at a level that most of the other sub-genre’s don’t get to. You don’t ever want to get into an argument about QoS with a voice engineer. We understand spanning-tree like nobodies business. In fact, because of the complete lack of tolerance of RTP for any packet loss or delay, we have had to become really, really good at performance tuning the network to ensure that every packet arrives in order in less than 150ms ( G.114 standard people!). 

 

Wrapping it up

To be honest, I believe every network person who wants to is going to make it into the new world. I think that we spend so much time talking about whether or not that SDN is going to force people to become programers that we haven’t spent enough identifying what skills we already have that are going to serve us in the new world.

 

Do you believe that one of the other network sub-professions above are better equipped to move into the SDN world?  I challenge you to write the blog and make a better case. 

 

Comments, as always, encouraged and welcome!

 

@netmanchris

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One thought on “Voice Engineers Will Rule the SDN World

  1. The key point is the systems level thinking that voice engineer specially the IP voice engineers have. Also agree with the networking and OS skills also have to be top notch without having to know too much in detail about mpls, bgp, ACLs and all the other really specialized stuff like LAG, MLAG etc … You are correct voice engineers know QoS and I’ve always been surprised that a lot on engineers that haven’t touched voice know so very little about it. I’m also surprised based on how important VoIP is in most networks today that they also have no idea about what SIP and RTP are, but maybe they a feigning ignorance.

    Another good place to get the same type of systems level, OS and networking skills is in the Network Management field. In fact I started out in Network Management of SONET, DWDM, (H)DSL, ATM systems. In Network Management you get exposed to networking, security, OS, databases and programming languages so much that the skill set is applicable to many other areas.

    In fact I got hired as a architect and manager for a green field “Vonage Like” VoIP project back in 2004 without any VoIP or Voice knowledge based solely on my exposure to many of the network mgmt areas.

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