"I don't think they need to understand programming as much as they need to understand good programming practices," McCarthy told the panelists. He cited interactive syntax checking, component testing and eliminating redundancy by writing code once and using it many times.
It's time to pick up things like code standards and code review, Stanford's Cheriton said.
"All these things that are standard parts of careful software engineering are not necessarily part of what we see is the practice in network operations," he said.
Automating halfway, with software that carries out network functions but doesn't use those programming principles, has hurt some enterprises, Cheriton said.
"They've been left with a big pile of Perl scripts that everybody depends on but nobody understands, because the guy who wrote it now has left for Italy."
With modern languages and a growing number of APIs, programming is now easier than knowing the syntax for each vendor's CLI, Bloomberg's Boyes said.
Today's traditional network engineers will go in different directions as enterprises change, and some will be left behind, said Ernest Lefner, Bank of America's senior vice president, network engineering. IT upper management needs to figure out how to keep them around for the value they can add to the company.
"You need to be thinking about how your employees are going to make that change," Lefner said. "How are they going to get the skills they need?"
Others agreed that some people won't be able to make the transition. But Boyes is more optimistic.
"I actually really think that jobs aren't going away." "There's going to be a complete shift in just the things that we're doing."
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