The network engineers of tomorrow will spend more time writing software than they do physically configuring routers and switches. It’s an emerging role, with an evolving skillset, and I had the great honor to work with some of the promising young talent in the field this week for the start of the SDN Throwdown in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

SDN stands for Software Defined Networking, and it is an important technology that we are using to build the smarter networks that will power the next generation of fast, rich online experiences. We’re partnering with Juniper Networks’ OpenLab to host the Throwdown, where some of the brightest engineering students in the country – and beyond – will study the latest SDN concepts and test their skills in a competitive hackathon.

The Throwdown is the third we’ve hosted with Juniper OpenLab, and the biggest, as the interest and engagement in SDN technology continues to grow throughout the global networking community. Ten teams of students from eight universities in the United States and the Netherlands are participating in the eight-day event, up from just four schools in 2014.

We’ve been using software- and cloud-powered tools to build more intelligence into our network for years, and we’ve seen firsthand how those tools boost performance, maximize efficiency and increase reliability. Our Comcast Elastic Cloud allows us to embed compute and storage in our network, and software-powered networking architecture has allowed us to evolve our network ahead of the rapid pace of Internet growth.

Those tools are powerful on their own, but when combined with the other network innovations we have been driving for years – whether that’s our aggressive adoption and deployment of IPv6, or our evolution to a regional data center model that puts services closer to our customers – they help build the foundation for a network that is not just powerful today, but future-proof against continuing change.

Events like the Throwdown give us a chance to share those learnings with the next generation of engineers.

SDN, in conjunction with the technology often associated with it, Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), is a powerful technology that is helping to transform large and sophisticated networks like Comcast’s into flexible, software powered platforms that move data faster and more efficiently. These and other virtualization technologies allow for levels of precision and reliability not achievable in the more manual networking environment that defined the past generation. They are critical building blocks for networks that are faster, more reliable and, above all, smarter.

We have evolved the job description of Comcast network engineers to include a greater focus on software development and the coding and operational skills necessary to build and operate smarter networks.

The students we’re working with this week aren’t just learning software skills in conjunction with network engineering – they’re software natives – which makes me very excited to see where they go next.

I’m hoping that a few of them move on from their successful college careers to join us in engineering the smarter networks of the future.