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November 18, 2020

Information Technology

What is a network engineer?

Network engineering

Data science and network engineering are booming! Topping LinkedIn’s Emerging Jobs Report for three years in a row, it’s had 650% job growth in less than a decade and expects to add 11.5 million new jobs within the next few years. Now is the time to make your move into this thriving industry. Networking and engineering skills are in constant demand by employers looking to boost their systems.

One of the best paying and most stable roles within networking is that of a network engineer. Also known as a network administrator, these networking engineers design, build, and maintain networks for optimal performance. And if you secure an engineer role in this burgeoning field, you’ll be responsible for managing the foundation of your organization’s IT networking system.

Sounds exciting, right? If you want to know how to become a network engineer or have been wondering, “What does a networking engineer do?” then read this helpful guide covering the network engineer salary range, education requirements, and career-path opportunities. With more open networking engineer positions than available candidates, networking is absolutely an occupation worth considering.  High salary levels, positive job outlook, and high job satisfaction are just a few of the reasons why an engineer career could be a great option for you.

What does a network engineer do?

Nearly every business has a network that keeps it running. These networks can include an organization’s phones, computers, routers, intranet, and extranet. It’s the job of a network engineer or network administrator to plan, implement, and manage these business-critical systems—which is why it’s such a valued, well-paying role.

As this kind of engineer, your daily activities and responsibilities will include:

  • Configuration—installing routers, VPNs, proxy servers, switches, WAN accelerators, and load balancers.

  • Maintenance—scheduling network updates, performing upgrades, and installing patches or service packs.

  • Performance—monitoring and troubleshooting network systems for new ways to improve performance.

  • Security—performing data backups, updating virus protection software, and implementing new network data security systems.

  • Optimization—working with external service and support vendors to ensure optimal network operation.

Network engineer specialties.

Since network engineering is such a big field, there are many specialties that you can pursue as a network administrator or engineer. Here are some of the most popular options with brief job descriptions:

  • Network analyst—analyze computer systems for more efficient and effective performance. 7% job growth with a $90,920 average annual salary.

  • Information security analyst—protect an organization’s systems and networks with planned security measures. 31% job growth with a $99,730 median salary.

  • Computer and information systems manager—oversee all of an organization’s computer-related activities. 10% job growth with a $146,360 average annual salary.

  • Computer hardware engineer—design, develop, and evaluate computer systems hardware. 2% job growth with a $117,220 average annual salary.

  • Software developer—create computer systems or applications. 22% job growth rate with a $107,510 average salary.

  • Network architect—design and implement data communication networks, including intranets, LANs, and WANs. 5% job growth with a $112,690 average salary.

  • Network manager—install and maintain computer networks and train staff to provide technical support. 4% job growth with a $89,240 average salary.

The key difference in these specialty roles versus network engineering generally is that they have a niche focus. Whereas a network administrator manages the entire network and all of its components, a computer systems analyst just focuses on network performance, and a software developer just works with system software, and an information security analyst just deals with network security. So if after becoming a network engineer you find that you like one aspect of your job better than the rest, you can move into that specialty position to do it full-time.

Whether you choose a specialty job or stick with a broader network admin role, you often have the opportunity to freelance or work as a consultant—which is a great choice if you’d like to work from home and have more flexible hours. You’ll also have excellent advancement opportunities, which we’ll discuss in the “How do I become a network engineer?” section.

A group of IT professionals look at a laptop screen.

Network engineer job outlook.

According to Burning Glass Technologies, which tracks data on U.S. job growth and labor market trends, network engineers are in high demand with 147,448 job postings over the past 12 months and a projected growth rate of 6.5% through 2030.

This occupational growth is based on American companies’ ongoing investment in newer, faster, and more efficient network technology. Growing use of network applications in industries that previously underutilized the technology, such as healthcare, also accounts for the projected increase in employment.

One area to note: as cloud computing continues to rise, the productivity of network administrators will continue to improve as well. Thus, earning an advanced degree or certifications in cloud computing will help you remain competitive. 

Network engineer salary.

Network engineers can expect a good salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median salary of $83,510, with the lowest 10% earning less than $52,370 and the highest 10% earning more than $132,520.

Your network engineer salary will depend on your education and the industry that you work in. Several years of experience can also push you into the six-figure range. And the BLS lists these as the top-paying industries for network engineering (note: salaries reflect the median annual wage):

  • Finance and insurance: $89,420

  • Information technology: $89,300

  • Corporate management: $87,360

  • Computer systems: $87,110

  • Educational services: $73,640

How can I become a network engineer?

For entry-level network engineer jobs, you’ll first need to get your bachelor’s degree in network operations, information systems, or computer engineering. You can then gain critical on-the-job experience to become a valued member of your team and move up within your organization or onto other senior-level opportunities.

Since network technology changes quickly, you should also regularly take training and earn several information technology certifications (aka “certs”)—many of which may be required by your employer or for future roles. Cisco offers the premier certification for network engineering. Cisco is well known in the IT realm for having top certification options for this career path and, depending on where you earn your bachelor’s degree, some certs can be included with your coursework.

Here’s a list of certifications that can help advance your skills and career:

  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)

  • LPI Linux Essentials

  • ITIL® Foundation Certification

  • CompTIA A+

  • CompTIA Cloud Essentials

  • CompTIA Network+

  • CompTIA Project+

  • CompTIA Security+

  • CompTIA IT Operations Specialist

  • CompTIA Secure Infrastructure Specialist

  • Amazon AWS SysOps Administration-Associate

Of course, earning an advanced degree can make you extremely competitive for moving into senior network engineer jobs. If you’re worried about finding the time to get your master’s while working full-time, you should consider earning your M.S. online. WGU, for example, offers an M.S. and MBA in information technology online with full NWCCU accreditation.

Network engineer skills.

Hard skills.

As an extension of your education, on-the-job training, and certs, you’ll need the following hard skills to be successful in network engineering:

  • Networking. Knowledge of how to integrate WAN, LAN, SD-WAN, SD-branch, and other networks and architectures is a must.

  • Programming. You should know popular scripting languages for enterprise-grade networks like Ruby, Python, and Perl. Automation-friendly languages are helpful too, like Java, Ansible, and Terraform, since many network functions are becoming automated.

  • Infrastructure. You’ll be responsible for maintaining your network’s infrastructure and advising on what hardware it will reside on.

  • Domain-name system. The internet was built on DNS, as are most of today’s enterprise networks, so you need to know how to troubleshoot it.

  • IoT. Some network architectures, like SD-branch, use Wi-Fi to support their loT ecosystems. And it’s expected to significantly impact enterprise network security, infrastructure, and traffic.

  • Security and Firewalls. While your organization may have an IT security officer, you’ll still probably need to deploy and maintain network firewalls.

  • Virtualization. You must be able to work with automated network functions like SD-WAN to optimize your network’s resources.

  • MPLS. Even though it’s being replaced by SD-WAN, working with an MPLS-exclusive (or hybrid WAN) network is still an essential skill.

You should also be well rounded in other basic technical skills, like data research and data entry, since a lot of your job is centered on analyzing system performance.

Soft skills.

Network administrators work on a variety of tasks and with a variety of people. So you’ll need a broad set of soft skills, including:

  • Communication—to effectively describe your challenges and solutions to non-IT employees and management.

  • Organization—to handle multiple tasks and issues simultaneously.

  • Analytical thinking—to ensure your network and systems perform reliably and proactively identify new requirements as needs evolve.

  • Problem-solving—to resolve issues as fast as possible to minimize network damage or downtime.

  • Time management—to keep numerous projects on track and meet ongoing deadlines.

As a network engineer, you’ll open the door to a world of benefits and opportunities. In addition to working with a diverse group of employees and departments, you’ll be able to continue learning and growing as you stretch to think outside the box. Add to that the ability to earn a fantastic salary while working with technology (something you undoubtedly love), and you’ll enter a profession that can provide a lifetime of stable, rewarding employment.

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