I’ve been thinking a little more recently about how to be disruptive in the networking space and in particular in the data center networking space since that’s where I spend a lot of my intellectual cycles. One thing that we always talk about is reducing costs and in particular reducing CAPEX (capital expenditure) and OPEX (operation expenditure). Generally, there’s more discussion around reducing OPEX than CAPEX because purely software tools for simplifying management and increasing automation can improve OPEX while improving CAPEX typically happens in more complex ways over longer timescales.

However, as this recent Packet Pushers blog post points out:

When companies discuss reductions in OPEX, just remember you are OPEX most, if not all the time. Self-service and automation are great, but if that service is what you provide (and provides your income), you better do something about it. Don’t become roadkill on the path to the future.

This is even a bit more interesting because the disruptive products that we intend to sell are typically sold to IT departments. That is we’re selling the product to the people whose jobs the products most endanger.

There is a bit of a silver lining which is that automation and simpler management also appeal, very strongly, to the very same people. Nobody wants to be doing simple, menial, repetitive tasks all day and tools that cut down on such things tend to be broadly popular.

How do we reconcile these two things? On the one hand we have tools that, if they are successful, clearly make it possible for a smaller number of people to accomplish the same tasks which should reduce the number of total jobs. On the other hand, the people whose jobs are being threatened often embrace these tools. A knee-jerk reaction would be for them to oppose the tools. Why don’t they?

A simple explanation would just be that they’re short sighted and are willing to take the short-term reduction of menial work without worrying about the long-term career jeopardy. That may be a little true, but there’s also a more satisfying answer which I think has more of the truth that the blog post points out:

Virtualisation in the server space didn’t lead to a radical or even a slow loss of roles that I’m aware of; if anything more are required to handle the endless sprawl. Perhaps the same will happen in networking?

Jobs (and entire skill-sets with them) will be lost, but the removal of the pain associated with networking will increase its use. Along with general market growth, this may absorb those affected and history shows we’re all mostly resilient and adaptable to change. Of course, there are always casualties; some can’t or won’t want to change their thinking and their skills in order to reposition themselves.

This resonates with me. It also reminds me of comments that James Hamilton of Amazon AWS fame made during a talk he gave while I was at UW. Essentially, his point was that for every cost reduction they made in AWS, it increased the set of things people wanted to do on AWS more than it decreased profits. In other words, making computing—and networking specifically—more consumable and cheaper will result in there being more computing, not less.

That’s not to say that strictly everyone will be better off, but just that there’s likely to not be some huge collapse in IT and networking jobs as we do a better job of automating things. At least not in the near future.

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