Interview – Interview with Darren O’ Connor

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Hi Darren!

Welcome to Networkcareer!

Where do you work and what’s your role?

I’m a network engineer for Google.

What kind of roles and work did you do before arriving at Google?

Most of my network engineering lifetime has been in service providers. Mostly business focused ISPs dealing with networks from the very small to the gigantic. The great thing about a service provider is that the product is the network itself. I’ve been intimately involved with BGP and MPLS, both for the core ISP network as well as for customers. I’ve dual-stacked many networks and wish more people would do the same, especially in enterprise. I’ve had the pleasure of joining two ISPs together right from start to end.

What have you learned in your career so far that you would like to tell the younger you?

Nullius In Verba. You can learn a lot from other people, but never assume that what they say is correct. Question everything. Test everything. Assume nothing. This includes what you read online and in books. Quite often there are errors which are simply wrong assumptions. Until you’ve tested and seen something for yourself, be open to how something really works.

What are the most important skills you have picked up in your career so far?

Be ready to adjust. I’ve had to retrain numerous times. Moving from vendor to vendor, product to product. It’s also become more important to have software skills too. Explaining a very technical network in layman’s terms is also a very important skill to have. Listening is also an important skill.

What’s your opinion on degrees? Are they useful for someone in the networking industry?

This can be difficult to answer. In the UK, not having a degree has had NO impact at all to my work. but I know in different markets this can be different. A degree also gives you flexibility to move countries easier. But for actual work, it’s not that important. I’ve met great engineers with and without degrees. I’ve also met bad engineers, both with and without degrees.

What about certifications? Are they losing their value?

It depends on the work. For contracting and partners it’s still very important. I spent a lot of time and hard work on all of my IE’s and I take great pride in that. I learned a lot doing them. the value in a cert is also how you see it. I saw the IEs as really trying to get deep into something. If you’re just learning the minimum to pass, then you may as well not do it.

Is the skillset of network engineers changing? What skills are important to have in the coming years?

Yes. The more software skills you have, the better. You don’t need to be a full-time SWE. And yes, you can get away with no software skills at all. But you’re just hurting yourself. I don’t understand anyone who just looks to a single vendor. There are multiple vendors doing interesting things at all levels of networking. Find the right product for what you require now. It doesn’t matter what you had before.

What skills are important for Network Architects?

Listening. Noting requirements. Being able to compromise. Being able to get the customer to compromise when needed. Basically you need to be a good communicator.

Understand the business requirements. Find the right solution.

Also you need to understand the hardware you’re using. You can’t architect something if you don’t know what your devices are capable of doing.

Will the need for networking experts go away? Is it better to be a generalist than an expert?

No. No matter what automation is there to turn up and run the network, someone still has to design and engineer it. No matter what overlays you run on top of your network, that network still has to be built. The underlay might be getting slightly more simple, but the scale is getting very large indeed.

What do you think of soft skills? Do we need them in the networking industry? If so, which ones are the most important?

I noted it before, but being a good communicator.

With SDN, orchestration etc. can we throw the “traditional” networking knowledge out the window? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. Someone still has to build the networks all of this stuff runs on. Who is going to do the initial engineering. Sure you have automation to build the network, but building towards what? Someone still has to design and engineer the system itself.

Should someone in the networking industry learn to code? Why or why not? What is your language of choice?

Yes. Is it an absolute requirement? Probably not. Depending on the company you could just have some SWEs working on your team. In that case it’s not needed. But being able to explain your problem in software terms helps a lot.

I started with Python, but most of my stuff these days is in Go.

What’s your best advice for staying updated in the networking industry? How do you stop the sipping from the firehose?

Attend conferences when you can. If there are none around, start your own! When I first came to Dublin there was no local networking group, so I helped to found inog.net. I’m not a huge fan of vendor conferences. Rather generic conferences like RIPE/NANOG and so on. I also am subscribed to multiple mailing lists, most of them in the service-provider and IPv6 threads. Mailing lists are full of real people running real networks, so no firehose stuff there.

Before we close out. What would you want to give as a final piece of advice to the NC readers?

Do something you love to do. I love networking. I love building stuff. I still get a warm feeling when I see packets moving over something I’ve built, and all failovers working exactly as planned. I work really hard, but there is nothing else I’d be doing. I love Mondays. If you staert to hate Mondays, it’s time to find something different to do.

You can find Darren @mellowdrifter on Twitter and his blog is www.mellowd.co.uk/ccie

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