State of the IT field: Demand is high for SKILLED engineers

I've been thinking about writing this post all week and decided to wait until I processed my thoughts a little more before I wrote it out. There's a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt that's been going on in the field for years and here are some of repetitive questions I tend to hear on Linkedin, Techexams and other social media: 

  • Is it worth going into networking/getting a CCIE/etc if SDN is going to take over? 
  • There's so many engineers out there, why do companies choose to hire H1Bs? 
  • Do I have to worry about my job getting outsourced to another country? 
  • Do I have to worry about H1Bs taking my job?  

Honestly, I really don't worry about any of the above. IT has always been an evolving field. From the inception of computers to now, look how vastly different the field is. The skills needed for today are vastly different than what was in demand 10 years ago as well as 10 years before that. 

The fears about SDN killing everyone's jobs or that you don't need to know networking skills anymore is one I hear often. Things will  certainly change, sure. But let's say your overlay breaks or you need to troubleshoot the underlay, it's going to be hard to do if you have a bunch of programmers who have zero understanding of how a network works or the underlying protocols. Also not every company is going all-in with SDN solutions and never will.  That being said, there are some companies that are all-in with automation and/or SDN and they still have a hard time finding engineers with the right amount of skills and aptitude to fill the roles. I've seen jobs like that remain open for months and months because there just weren't enough engineers on the market with those skills. 

Now if you've been reading this blog or any of my social media, you know that I'm usually studying for one certification or another. I definitely treat my education as an ongoing process. I think the people that tend to struggle the most are those than think they are "done" learning at some point. In order to stay relevant in IT, your education needs to continue past a certificate or degree. Most professional careers are like that. If you were in the medical field as a doctor, you'd have certain continuing educational requirements to complete to remain licensed and it makes sense because medicine is changing and evolving as well. The same goes for attorneys - laws change and court cases establish new precedence.

That being said, the point of a certification should be the journey and what you learn while achieving it - not the piece of paper you get when you're done. If you think that the piece of paper without the implied skillset of that certification is going to open the doors of prosperity, you are in for a very very very big disappointment. The issue of cheating and buying your way to a certification is one that's been brought up many times on forums I've been on. There's certainly some industry damage they do to the perceived value of said piece of paper by employers but most of the damage is to themselves. If you're sprouting an expert-level certification and you can't whiteboard a simple packet walk during an interview (or any other random whiteboarding scenario someone thinks up), then why would anyone hire you? If you do get hired by some miracle, you'll either be marked for firing/laid off quickly enough  or be in a crappy entry level job despite having a piece of paper that says you're a "professional" or "expert." 

That brings me to my next discussion piece which is the fear of H1Bs. There's always going to be an sensationalized story in the news about some abuse that's been taken with the H1B program or how  some company brought some H1Bs in under a fake job title so they could pay them less than the role they are doing, but try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. I don't genuinely believe that most large companies refuse to staff large amounts of open spots and halt their business from being completed just so they could spend thousands of dollars to import someone in from overseas with the hope that they can save $5-10K a year on salary. That's not to say some companies don't find ways to abuse the system but I don't really worry about H1Bs lowering the average salary of the IT worker or ruining the IT field. There us a decent study if you're interested in reading here and if you're ever curious how much H1Bs are making, this is all public information which is indexed by employer, city, and job title here

I do think that the H1B system, when used correctly, help fill a desperate skills gap. I'm not a hiring manager but for the last 2 employers, my managers have used me to perform the technical interviews for perspective candidates. The dozens and dozens of technical interviews I've performed definitely have opened my eyes up quite a bit. I'll give you a couple of the more amusing stories as an example:

  • Someone with "Master of BGP" written on his resume and 20 years of networking experience on his resume but couldn't explain how to bring up a neighbor-ship. He thought that typing "neighbor x.x.x.x" would do the trick. I thought he might have been nervous but when I asked him questions about basic BGP attributes or route manipulation, he was completely confused. 
  • Someone who listed that they just completed the CCNP Switch exam the previous week per his resume but couldn't tell me what DHCP Snooping was or what a private VLAN was. Now I understand this might not be topics someone labs out every day but if you took the CCNP Switch exam in the last week and studied hard for it, you shouldn't have forgotten that quickly. 
  • Network engineer with 12 years of experience but couldn't name a single routing protocol and didn't know what IPSec was. 
  • Network engineer with 4x professional level certifications who couldn't explain what STP was. He knew what it stood for but that was it. 
  • Network engineer with over 20 years of experience and several expert level certifications who couldn't walk through a packet walk and didn't know what ARP was. Claims he never heard of it. 
  • TONS of people with experience written on their resume of deployments they have done but after a little questioning, they admit that they only "supervised" the deployment but it was there VAR that did it so therefore they could not answer any technical questions about it. This one happens a lot.

Not trying to sound cynical or mean to anyone in the field here but for every 30-40 people we'd interview for the position, we'd get lucky if there was 1 would could answer CCNA-level questions. Obviously, I tried to give the people a fair shake by asking them questions based on the experience and skills they claimed on their resume but most failed at that. If we were hiring for entry-level positions, maybe some of these entry-level gaps could be excused but most companies have a business to run and desperately need someone who can hit the ground running. They can't afford to stop their business for 2-3 years while they try to train up someone completely green on how to have decent skills and not everyone is willing to learn. That much is clear by the fact that there's people with 10+ years of experience who either let their skills fade or didn't try to learn anything outside of the daily tasks they were doing every day. 

So yes... there is still a need for H1Bs and they're not all bad. I'm sure a lot of folks will read just that sentence and send me some anecdotal story about some abuse that happened  but as I said, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm for eliminating abuses and I'm not for displacing existing workers but after interviewing technical candidates for years in densely populated Los Angeles, I refuse to believe that we have more highly skilled engineers in the area than we have jobs for. 

The next thing I want to address is outsourcing. I think throughout the early 2000s to recently, people were scared of IT support jobs being shipped offseas or completely outsourced to countries like India, the Philippines, etc  and for awhile, there seemed to be a big rush to do so but like the US, these countries tend to have an even larger struggle finding competent IT workers and it's hurt their industry.  Most of the problem comes from the economic conditions being harsher, denser populations, and harsher competition when grades are lower. Due to these factors, you get issues like the following: 

Not trying to pick on India and not everyone in India is cheating. It's not just India that has that problem, they just are more widely reported because they have have a disproportionately large outsourcing industry compared to most. I, for one, do not rejoice when other countries have economic issues like the above for issues like that. There's always going to be middle management or folks somewhere who think they can save a buck by trying to ship IT jobs elsewhere but if the quality of work doesn't improve or stay consistent, things change pretty quickly. If your users aren't happy or the environment is unstable, they have to own that decision and when that outsourcing contract is up, it might not stay there. 

I guess the whole sum of this post is that SKILLED engineers are in demand, not unskilled ones that just have pieces of paper. It doesn't matter if you live in India, Singapore, the United States, or Canada - the engineers with skills will always win and stand out from the bunch. The certifications or degree provide a blueprint or a map of what to study but just having the paper means nothing. I completely understand the need and desire to change your economic condition when you're coming from hard place and it's easy to want to cut corners when you've got a family or barely making ends meet. I can relate to that because when I started in the IT field, I was as poor as can be and didn't have anywhere to live. I cut down to 1 and a half meals a day to save money,  got a second full time job at night as a security guard so I could have time to study and pay for my exams and had 4 hours a day between one job and the other to sleep. It was a very hard couple of years of my life and I hope I didn't shave off years of my life doing that. That being said, I go back to my point a couple paragraphs up: it's the journey and the knowledge you gain, not the pretty pieces of paper, that will keep you prosperous long term.  

If you're one of these folks who are in a tough economic condition and you think you can't compete without cheating or having a boatload of certifications, I'll say this: You can't afford to cheat if you want to stay employed or competitive long term. As the old saying goes:

Give a man a fish and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Cheating is having someone giving you a fish and then going hungry tomorrow. Truly learning is learning to fish. Someone with a legitimate CCNA/CCNP-level knowledge will always win out in the technical interview process over a clueless fake CCIE any day of the week. 

For the folks who genuinely want to learn, the good news is that even though there's a lot of expensive premium training out there, there's even more free or cheap resources. It's not 1999 anymore and you don't have to struggle to find materials. I'll create a separate post after this which gives some of those if people are interested.

With that, I'll bid you loyal readers adieu