What Is a Network Engineer?
August 03, 2022
Network engineers maintain network infrastructures by performing basic tasks (like installing upgrades and configuring routers) and complex assignments (like troubleshooting network security issues and analyzing network performance data).
Network engineers are silent contributors who ensure their organization's computer network runs smoothly. These professionals do more than maintain a network infrastructure by troubleshooting IT problems, monitoring network performance, and scheduling upgrades; they can set up new networks and even improve cyber security.
While network engineers rely primarily on technical skills, they also need soft skills. In interviews, many network engineers stress how challenging their career path was until they learned "soft" collaboration, problem-solving, project management, and communication skills.
The interviewees also emphasize the rewards of network engineering and how gratifying troubleshooting and working with different network systems is. The best network professionals constantly learn and optimize their skill sets (as well as their networks, of course). This article exploring the question what is a network engineer? covers topics like:
- What is a network engineer?
- Network engineer: where they work
- Network engineer: a typical day
- Network engineer: training
- Master of Science in Network Engineering
What is a network engineer?
Network engineering can mean different things in different settings. Field Engineer notes that network engineers are frequently confused with network administrators; the latter typically only manage established networks, while engineers can actually build and manage a network. Many engineers first gain experience as network administrators. Network architect is another similar job, but architects usually have advanced responsibilities that include constructing the bulk of the network.
Network engineers earn a good salary. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), network and computer systems administrators earned a median annual income of $80,600 in 2021. Pay rates depend on where you work. Professionals in tech hubs like New York and San Francisco typically earn more than those who live in small cities. Similarly, experienced professionals typically earn more than young professionals.
The sector also plays a role. The BLS says network engineers engaged in management or finance and insurance earn nearly $100,000 annually. Those who work in information make almost $95,000. Computer systems design (and related specialties) engineers make almost $85,000 while the professionals working in education typically earn around $80,000.
Network engineer: where they work
Network engineers can work in many sectors. According to the latest BLS figures, the highest percentage (19) work in computer systems design and related services, followed by educational services, information, finance and insurance (all ten percent). Finally, seven percent manage companies and enterprises.
Network engineer: a typical day
Network engineers do not have set daily tasks; much depends on the company or project to which they are assigned. Generally speaking, they work with the internet. That could mean basic jobs like setting up routers but could also extend to tasks like installing a firewall or addressing network issues and vulnerabilities.
According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net system, network engineers establish and monitor security practices, offer technical support, test software and hardware, analyze operations data, back up information, and stay current on industry standards.
Their typical day also includes basic office administration tasks, such as coordinating with people over the phone and via email. Network engineers work as part of the IT team—one reason why they need excellent communication skills. They need to coordinate their work with other upgrades and overall system improvements.
Network engineer: training
There's no set education path to a network engineer job; many degrees and certification programs work. However, most network engineers have a bachelor's degree. It's possible, though difficult, to prepare for a technical career through open courseware and self-teaching. Earning a bachelor's or even a master's degree is more impactful. According to O*Net, only ten percent of network engineering professionals have no degree.
O∗Net reports that 52 percent of network engineers have a four-year bachelor's degree, while 20 percent have an associate's degree. These professionals commonly study computer engineering, computer science, computer systems engineering, electrical engineering, math, or information technology.
Those who do not have a bachelor's degree should pursue at least one certification. Valued early career certifications include Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Network Computer Technician (NCT). Both teach and reinforce basic network engineering concepts and offer live and online learning options. It may be advisable to engage in some self-study or find an entry-level IT position before jumping into one of these programs.
Working network engineers complete certifications to improve their skill sets and establish a specialization. Top mid-level and expert certifications include Certified Network Defender (CND) from the EC-Council and Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). These programs look for applicants with experience and training.
According to Indeed, hiring manages typically look for network engineering candidates with a bachelor's degree and between five and ten years of experience—especially in a role like network administrator or junior network engineer. Senior positions require more experience, while junior roles require less.
Master of Science in Network Engineering
A Master of Science in Network Engineering is not necessary, but earning one can help advance or launch your career. For career-changers, a master's can offer a more robust and direct pathway than self-study or earning a certificate. Completing an accredited degree means you won't need to worry whether employers will accept your credentials.
Current network engineers may complete a master's to improve their skill sets, earn more money, and find better job prospects. Graduate students can network with professors and peers and gain experience by working on group projects.
What you'll learn
Traditional master's in network engineering coursework addresses information systems, local area networks (LAN), wide area networks (WAN), municipal area networks (MAN), network design, network management, network security, and switching and routing. Ultimately, coursework depends on the program. One school may focus on data science and offer programming coursework (often Python or Java) while another takes a cybersecurity approach.
Programs frequently allow students to choose a concentration like network design, hardware, software, and services. Again, it depends on the school. At Southern Methodist University, students don't pursue a structured concentration but can choose from a wide variety of electives. Programs may also require a capstone project, providing an opportunity to synthesize all you've learned.
Earning your degree online
Online degree programs are more common now than ever before. These programs typically offer the same curriculum as their in-person counterparts. Many programs include asynchronous classes (pre-recorded lectures) students can complete on their own time. Some include live streamed classes, typically meeting once a week. Even online degrees may have in-person components. For instance, SMU's lab classes allow students to gain experience while working with faculty.
Because online programs are so flexible, many students decide to work while studying to save money and continue accruing work experience. Though these degrees are typically not cheaper per credit than in-person programs, online students do realize some savings by avoiding commuting, parking, and relocation expenses.
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