We had a conversation with Rita Younger, the National Practice Lead for SDN and ACI at CDW. CDW is a leading multi-brand technology solutions provider to business, government, education and healthcare organizations in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. A Fortune 500 company with multi-national capabilities, CDW was founded in 1984 and employs more than 8,700 co-workers.
Rita is certified in Cisco ACI, VMware NSX and HP NFV and is responsible for leading CDW both from a presales and delivery perspective into the major network transition of Software Defined Networking. A strong woman in the world of tech and a pioneer for SDN, this was an interview we were excited about.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I’ve been a Network Engineer for the past 28 years, a long time. Prior to CDW, I had my own consulting business and Cisco was my No1 customer. I taught their courses all over the world, I specialise in Datacentre and Datacentre Security. I would teach their Advanced Services engineers, their pre-sales engineers, as well as customers and I led many projects with Cisco.
Probably the strangest consulting job I ever had was I worked with Telesur. I spent 4 weeks in total inParimarabo, Suriname, South America helping with their engineers get up to speed. This was not that long ago, about 12 years ago the availability of the internet there was really just emerging, so I helped get them up to speed. This was one of the most rewarding consulting jobs too.
It must be strange to come from a world where the internet is so accessible to a place in the world where it is almost non-existent, it must be a bit crazy?
Exactly! When it was described to them what it was like in the US, with internet access into our homes, that just seemed like an outlandish concept to them. It was very rewarding because I was the person who was helping them with this project and I ended up with an invitation to the presidential palace for the Keti Koti Festival and to the US Ambassadors 4th July party. I thought ‘who am I to get that kind of special treatment?’ But it was really neat.
You’ve been at CDW for 10 years, what attracted you to them?
I’d been doing consulting for a long time and travelling globally, and I have a family. I have 3 children so I was looking for a position with a guaranteed paycheck and a big company, a company that I could grow with and I could really make a difference with. That’s what attracted me to CDW.
I absolutely love my job! I get to constantly be studying and learning, influencing, enabling and helping others within my organisation understand this concept of SDN which seems so different from everything they’ve always done. They’ve always been tied to hardware and now they have to be working with logical networks. To be able to break that down so my colleagues and customers can understand that and see the ‘light bulbs’ go off is really cool.
How do you find working in such a large company after working for yourself?
It was a little bit difficult at first trying to navigate, however, I’m probably the loudest one on the team, in terms of making sure everybody knows who I am, and communicating everything to the highest level of our organisation. It’s kind of unique because I am a technical woman, there’s not many of us out there. It is a cool position as people remember me because I am the ‘technical woman’. Some people think it’s a disadvantage…I think it’s an advantage, especially when working in such a large company.
Looking at your Social Media presence I can see you’re passionate about what you do.
There is definitely a bond between women in technology, especially in Emerging technology and in leadership positions, we all tend to know each other. Like Susie Wee, she is an amazing person, Carly Stoughton…just amazing people and who passionate and vocal women in technology.
The thing is when I first worked as a Network Engineering, I didn’t realise I was a ‘women in technology’, because I would be in a room with 300 men and I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t look around and go ‘wow, I’m the only women here’, it didn’t occur to me I was different. Then about 5 years ago, we started this ‘women in technology’ and that really made me begin looking around the room and thinking ‘we need more…we need a lot more!’.
When I was promoted to the position I am in now, I did hear a few things of ‘oh she got the promotion because she’s a woman’, and so I would say, ‘you know why I got promoted? I got promoted because I have to work twice as hard, prepare twice as hard for every meeting because when I walk in the room, the presumption is I’m a salesperson. So, I’ve had to know my stuff, I’ve had to be very technical and prove myself all these years. That’s what fuelled my fire to make sure that I’m putting my best foot forward every single day. So now I’m at this position, at this stage in my career, I’m just very much into influencing, especially young women, to go down this path.
SDNDaughter (@SDNDaughter) has been with me with 6 different technology conferences, making a name for herself. It’s my 22 yr old daughter, who is an intern at CDW. She’s a really big advocate for careers in technology, even though, she’s still an intern, she’ll be graduating and have her CCNA within a year.
I just founded a webcast called TotalPackets, my daughter is my co-host. We have some amazing topics already filmed and we will be launching in late August of 2018. We are featuring industry leaders talking about their technology passion, we are hosting innovative companies, of course featuring many female Technologist and filming from unexpected locations. A little sneak peak, one amazing Data Scientist from Cisco hung out in the torture chamber of a castle with me to talk SDN. Follow us on twitter @TotalPackets and @SDN_Girl for the Launch.
Having worked in such a male-dominated industry how do you find peoples attitude, you mentioned before people assuming you’re a salesperson, is there anything else you’d like to add?
I have to say that even women make that assumption about each other as well. I had someone walk up to me at the Dell conference and she worked for another company, I was standing in the CDW booth, she introduced herself and said ‘you must be in Marketing?’ I said ‘Wow! As a matter of fact, I’m an engineer.’
One of the hashtags I’ve been socialising with some of the other female leaders in IT, is #IWorkLikeAnEngineer, because it is about changing that mindset. Just because of the way I look, doesn’t mean that I’m not technical. We shouldn’t be making assumptions, it’s everybody and we need to change that mindset.
#IWorkLikeAnEngineer Rita, with Kori Younger and Carly Stoughton.
Are attitudes starting to change, have you seen them change?
We are clamouring for more diversity in the workplace. I do have a son who’s a network engineer also, working for a competitor.
You must really ooze energy about your career that your children have said, ‘I want to do that!’
They both started out thinking they would be doctors and then changed their mind. My son works for our biggest competitor in the US and I was very happy with that decision because I didn’t want him being in my shadow. I am so passionate about my job and my career.
My daughter and me…we’re like the mother-daughter duo in technology. I can’t tell you how many people introduced my daughter to their CEO’s and gave her their business cards asking her to contact them once she finishes her degree because they are clamouring for that diversity. They are rooting for young women to enter the workforce to be part of their company, it’s a great time for women.
What do you think the industry needs to do to attract more women?
We need to be talking to kids and girls in particular not even in high school level but the beginning of middle school, when their 12, 13, 14 yrs. old and telling them what this career is about, encouraging them to take a speech class, drama class because they tend to think that Network Engineering, any type of engineering your nose is in front of a computer and it’s not a sociable job…I can tell you, my job is one of the most social jobs there is. I do my studying in the background but I’m in front of an audience and speaking and evangelising technology.
Changing the perspective of what 12 and 13yr. olds think what IT is and letting them know there are different paths. Going into IT doesn’t mean you’re going to be coding, stuck in a dark room in the middle of the night coding unless that is what you choose, sure that is an option but it’s not the only option.
What would your advice be to women that would be looking at this as a career?
The first thing I would say, particularly if they were young would be to go to college study Math and Science, study STEM, also something to do with public speaking because I think that’s the difference between being a Network Engineer and being a leader, it’s that ability to articulate technical knowledge. I think that is a very unique skill set for someone who is technical, to be technical, to be able to articulate and talk about it and be able to do that confidently in a way that people understand and being able to translate the business need to the technical talk. I think that’s a very unique niche.
When did you first hear about SDN?
I can tell you almost exactly, I started speaking about it in 2013, pretty early on. I started speaking about it because to me the writing was on the wall. It was so clear to me that within the next 10 years, SDN was going to be the way we were provisioning and managing networks. That logical networks were going to be just as important as physical networks – just like when we first moved into logical servers and virtualization, when I started talking about that, people were sceptical people didn’t jump on board right away. I just knew that SDN would be the same way, it was going to be a slow-moving train, but boy once it picked up speed, they’d be no stopping it.
I started doing SDN roadshows all over the US, where we would invite customers and the Cisco teams. It showed that we had an eye on what was going on. We have an incredible team called the ‘Technical Innovation Group’, we study Emerging Technologies, so I had a strong opinion that this was going to happen.
Really, our early adapters have adopted it for security. We analysed all our customers and the ones who have adopted it, over half of our customers come from verticals of retail, manufacturing, healthcare or finance, so if you look at those verticals and what they all have in common, it’s the need for compliance. Due to the additional security, they adopted SDN and this is a combination of NSX and ACI customers, these verticals, retail, manufacturing, healthcare and finance are all typically risk-averse, which means that they were early adapters because of the need for additional security and micro-segmentation, overcame what was more important than the perceived risk, of moving in this direction
A lot of companies were waiting to see if SDN would take off, but I was like, no, it is taking off. If you’re not moving to SDN with datacentre refreshes today, I think you’re going to look back, 2 or 3 years down the road and say, we missed the boat. You take micro-segmentation, it’s just one-use case the other is the automation. So once we’ve automated the network, we’ve already automated the server storage, then you overlay orchestration and you have a true self-service private cloud and then you can combine that with your public cloud, using Cloud Centre or other technologies or API Anywhere, then you have the utopia which we’re all trying to get to – where we have a true hybrid cloud, with a mix of public cloud, private cloud, portability and that’s where we’re going.
How long do you think it will be to get there?
We’re trying to get there right now. We have been talking about private clouds for years, talking hybrid clouds for several years but we haven’t really been able to get there. With things such as joint partnerships between VMware, Cisco and Google and AWS etc, with these partnerships, we’re making it happen.
From your experience, what industries have been the biggest adapters, Manufacturing, finance etc as you mentioned?
Oh yes, definitely. This is using our own data and our own customers, those verticals make up over 50% of all our SDN customers, that’s a pretty big chunk. They were the early adapters, now we’re moving into that phase 2 where my customers are purchasing ACI or NSX, for example, they are wanting the application dependency mapping, they’re also adding Tetration or vRNI to it. So, the current right now is really focused on the Orchestration Automation use case.
Who would you say are the innovators?
There’s a Company called Apstra, it’s a startup, they have a really niche offering that is network automation without an overlay layer. I think VMWare and Cisco are always innovating and of course those are the ones I work with all the time and that I have connections with the Engineers.
I think Tetration is one of the greatest products to come out in a long time as far as security and the data centre. Are you familiar with Tetration?
The original one was a 39RU cluster, sensors are put on network devices and endpoints to provide visibility. The only part of your entire IT Infrastructure to have visibility into every single packet is the network. So, the sensors on the network are collecting information from the header of the packets, they can reconstruct which applications are talking to which other applications and they can do that in near real time. So that’s kind of the big differentiator, is that the cluster does real-time analytics. As soon as you have that setup, every single customer, the first reaction when they look at the chords, which shows how applications are communicating with whichever other application, the first thing they say is ‘oh dear’, because they find out that they have outliers, they have all kinds of traffic that could be indicating breaches or threats that were completely invisible before. Regardless of SDN platform, that information can then be used for true white risk model application dependency mapping, so incredibly powerful.
It can keep your information for up to a year, so you can rewind it and look at what is taking place on the network. If you want to enforce policy, you can enforce policy or model that without enforcing it because of what it will do. You could model for example, what if you moved one application out to AWS? It will show what traffic would ping back to your data centre, you can decide whether that is a smart move or not. It’s just incredibly powerful. There are other models of it, Tetration as a Service, for example, there are all kinds of different platforms of it now.
In terms of SDN, what do you think the biggest strengths and weaknesses are?
The No 1 barrier for SDN adoption is education…plain and simple. Network engineers have been doing the same thing the same way since 1984. We’ve introduced all kinds of complexity to make our networks work with modern applications. We’ve introduced all kinds of things and network engineers even today if you’re going to get a certification you’ve got to know command line. So, it’s been something that’s been drilled into our heads that real engineers manage the command line. But it’s 2018, why in the world are we managing like that? It makes no sense.
So, the biggest problem I see with SDN is we need to be re-educating re-thinking the way we talk about networking. We’re seeing a lot more of that. I did just have a customer who was so ready to do SDN and he went to his CIO and CFO and he could not articulate the business benefit of doing it, so they ended up with just the traditional network. So, the No1 barrier is just learning the new way of doing things, accepting that there are new better ways of doing things. There’s so much free education on the internet it’s outrageous.
Any you would recommend?
I’d recommend Cisco Dcloud, especially if you’re a Cisco person. It’s free and it’s basically a hands-on lab that you can do anytime, day or night and all different topics. VMWare also has an excellent portal, lots of free courses there, Cisco DevNet Zone, even I get my hands dirty with a little bit of Python and JSon now and again. There’s some step by step labs which will get you started with writing JSon, Python and integrating the APIs.
If you look at the traditional Network Engineer, where do you see that role evolving?
There’s always going to be a need for a traditional Network Engineer. However, they need to keep on learning that’s what I recommend. They need some personal development plans, go to DevNet Zone, go to Dcloud, and learn the newer way that things are going to be done, if your company is not doing it now, your company will probably be doing it in the near future. It’s not going to take away your job, it’s just your job is evolving. Somebody still needs to know, what is under the hood, we need men and women, that need to know how to drive the car as well and not just what’s under the hood.
In terms of what you need from the skills perspective and what’s available on the market, do you see a skills gap at the moment?
I do! We need more developers, we need more developers that understand networking. I can’t take somebody who just knows JSon, or has just had programming courses, and then teach them Network Engineering…that’s a harder transition. It’s an easier transition if you’re a network engineer and you begin a little bit of programming. Not everyone needs to be a programmer but should be able to understand it and help integrate – is really important.
What advice would you give to a current network engineer out there?
Have some personal development time, do it for your career, absolutely. You’re going to have so much more value if you start developing these skills. My advice to anyone who is into their job right now or going to college right now is get into some of those courses, on Cisco DevNet, its free, you’re going to be able to put it on your Resume. Companies looking for these words, API, JSon, Python. A lot of companies scan resumes electronically and they are looking for specific words, those words along with industry certification will put you to the top of the pile!
Rita and Mike Dvorkin – Distinguished Engineer in the DCBU at Cisco whilst filming a webcast in the Castle Torture Chamber in Callistoga, California.
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