Regardless of what level of certification engineers seek from Cisco or other hardware vendors, they must also start learning programming basics -- and Python is the first step.
"Python allows you to start moving in your mind between procedural programming to object-oriented programming," said McNamara. "Switching into that mind of a software developer allows you start working with SDN controllers like OpenDaylight, as well as OpenStack and, to a point, NSX."
Along those same lines, network engineers should learn Linux, and begin playing with APIs. "You will need those basic interaction skills," McNamara said.
MacVittie advises engineers to seek training that is relevant to IT management, such as Project Management Professional or ScrumMaster certifications.
Odom suggests that admins start their career path with a vendor's basic routing and switching certification. Then they should learn data center virtualization, and finally move on to OpenStack Neutron.
From there, network engineers should pick an SDN focus. Each of the vendors and open source organizations are now differentiated enough in their strategies that engineers will have to pick a road, he said.