If computers are what keep people connected, network engineers are the people who keep computers connected.
One network engineer told the Princeton Review that his position was "basically a plumbing job." If one considers all the lines and cables (and wireless connections) linking today's systems, servers, routers and firewalls, the engineer's comment makes sense.
Simply put, network engineers design, set up, test and build local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), intranets and other data communications systems. These systems can be configured in many different ways, and can range from simply connecting two PCs in an office to building global information networks.
For these skilled professionals, it's all in a day's work.
Network engineers aren't just tech-savvy, they're problem-solvers. Many leaders in this field point out that their days are rarely spent typing or coding on a computer, but in front of a whiteboard brainstorming and visualizing complex solutions to all sorts of networking conundrums. Though these skilled professionals use tools like packet sniffers and protocol analyzers, the best implement a network administrator can have is brain power.
"It's a 'noodly' job; you have to be able to think your way through problems and understand how stuff works," one professional told the Princeton Review.
Additionally, network engineers might function as company managers and systems administrators. In these roles, their duties might include network security, installation of new software, distribution of upgrades, monitoring of network activity and the development and maintenance of information stored and shared via the system.
What is the average salary of a network engineer?
Like most careers, the annual earnings of a network engineer can vary. This difference can be based on a numbers of factors, which might include everything from experience, to company and region.
PayScale.com reports that network engineers can earn between $40,136 and $91,588 annually.
Data from Computerworld's annual salary survey shows even brighter figures. Numbers published with the 2011 survey findings show that, on average, entry- or staff-level network engineers earned base wages of $74,610 with bonuses of $2,693 for a total annual compensation of $77,303. Network architects at the same level fared even better, taking in $96,997 with bonuses of $13,254 for a total annual compensation of $110,251.
National information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the industry's highest-paid network engineers work in California, Texas, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
What does the job outlook look like for network engineers?
BLS data shows that job prospects for network engineers should be excellent over the next decade as employment is expected to increase by 23 percent. This growth is much faster than the national average in other occupations, and can likely be attributed to worldwide interest in applying emerging technologies to existing business practices.
A recent report from TechRepublic, an online source of career information for information technology professionals, indicates that those who choose to work in network systems and data communications -- including those working as network engineers -- are members of the fastest-growing IT field. The report suggests that 140,000 jobs will be added in this area of specialization during the next five years.
What kind of training does it take to become a network engineer?
Career and training information from StateUniversity.com displays a wide range of entry points for those who wish to become network engineers. Vocational diplomas, two-year degrees, four-year degrees and certification can all provide the needed background and skills to become a network engineer. The Princeton Review suggests that future network engineers consider the following related majors when looking at academic or vocational courses of study:
- Computer systems analysis
- Electrical engineering
- Technology education
- Computer and information science
- Computer engineering
- Management information systems
Beyond attending networking classes, BLS data suggests that those with the proper certs might be better job candidates in the competitive IT field, so it's important to be aware of which accreditations show the most proficiency in this field.
Several vendors offer certifications that can prove one's ability and proficiency as a network engineer. Here are a handful of options for those who wish to become network engineers:
- Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) certification "validates the ability to install, operate and troubleshoot a small enterprise branch network, including basic network security."
- Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) is an intermediate-level networking endorsement that "validates the ability to install, configure, operate, and troubleshoot medium-size route and switched networks, including implementation and verification of connections to remote sites in a WAN," according to vendor information.
- Certified Novell Engineer cert broadcasts an IT pro's ability to support a wide range of networks and shows one's ability to "perform planning, installation, configuration, troubleshooting and upgrade services for networks," according to the vendor.
- Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) endorsement is useful to network engineers who need to show proficiency working in Linux and Unix systems. Candidates for this cert already hold the Red Hat Certified Systems Administrator cert, with the RHCE showing additional depth.
- CompTIA Network+ authorization covers the latest skills needed by technicians, including the basics on how to secure a network. The vendor recommends that candidates for this accreditation have at least nine months of networking experience and hold the CompTIA A+ cert.
With increasing job opportunities and diverse training options, those wishing to either launch or further a career as a network engineer will likely find many prospects for success.