Like many IT professions, network engineering is benefiting from the tech industry boom. As a result, many young professionals are curious about the network engineer career path and what it entails. The problem is that a network engineer’s career development is not straightforward.
In this article, we define what network engineers do, provide a summary of network engineer career goals and milestones, and break down the various jobs you can get by pursuing a network engineer career path.
Network Engineer Career Prospects: Why Is Network Engineering a Good Profession?
Network engineering is a good profession in large part because it pays well. A career in network engineering also comes with a variety of interesting duties, and job openings in the field are projected to grow in the coming years. With this growth, experienced network engineers will have opportunities to develop new technical skills and earn more money.
Network Engineer Salary and Job Outlook
According to PayScale, the average annual salary for a network engineer is $76,961. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies network engineers as network and computer systems administrators, and BLS estimates that the employment of network professionals is expected to grow by five percent by 2030. This works out to about 24,900 new job openings every year.
What Does a Typical Network Engineer Career Path Look Like?
Stage 1: Entry-Level Network Engineer
To qualify for this entry-level role, you need a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology, Computer Engineering, or a related field. As an assistant to more senior members of your team, you will help plan, design, install, and troubleshoot IT networks for companies. At this stage, you should also understand Internet Protocol and be able to select the right hardware for the job.
According to PayScale, the average base salary of an entry-level network engineer is $61,747 per year, with annual bonuses ranging between $498 and $8,000. Another common name for this entry-level position is a computer network support specialist, and getting certified as a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) can increase your earning potential.
Stage 2: Network Engineer
With entry-level experience under your belt, you’re ready to become a staff-level network engineer. Not only will you plan and build network infrastructures, but you will also play a vital role in protecting your clients’ security systems from attack. You should have in-depth knowledge of network architecture, system software, and all applicable configurations.
Along with your bachelor’s degree, you should seek professional certification in CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, and CompTIA Security+, which will set you up firmly for the next stage of the network engineer career path. According to PayScale, the average annual pay for a network engineer is $76,873, with bonuses reaching as high as $12,000.
Stage 3: Senior Network Engineer
Once you have between five and seven years of experience, you can start applying for senior network engineer positions. The technical and analytical skills on your resume should include detailed knowledge of AWS, Azure, Cisco ASA software, the Domain Name System (DNS), Internet Protocol Security (IPsec), firewalls, and wide area networks (WANs).
At this stage of your career, excellent communication skills and the ability to manage a network of people are crucial. These soft skills will help you oversee network configuration, manage the installation of network hardware, and implement networking solutions with your team. PayScale estimates that senior network engineers make $103,523 per year, not including bonuses of up to $20,000.
Stage 4: Network Engineer IV
As you continue to climb the ranks, your job titles will become more specific. Companies that hire level-four network engineers are looking for a network architect who is skilled in analyzing wide and local area networks (WANs and LANs) for network issues, backing up security systems, conducting site surveys, and acting as a network administrator.
The demand for network engineers at this level is high. The average salary for a computer network architect is $120,520, according to BLS. You need between five and ten years of professional experience to qualify, and one of Cisco’s Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certifications will help you specialize your skillset and access a high-paying salary.
Stage 5: Principal Network Engineer
A principal network engineer, or principal systems engineer, oversees an entire computer system’s everyday operations. At this high level of expertise, many candidates have a master’s degree and several top certifications. ZipRecruiter estimates that the average principal systems engineer makes $141,317 per year, with the highest earners making over $200,000.
Network Engineer Career Path: Important Milestones
To move along the network engineer career path, you have to achieve certain milestones. In this field, there are educational milestones, experience milestones, and more concrete network engineer career goals. Here are the five most important items to check off your list.
- Meet the minimum education requirements. The first milestone is getting your foot in the door with a Bachelor’s Degree in Network Engineering or equivalent formal education credential. You can also learn the rudiments of networking at certain coding bootcamps, and Automation Workz is a good place to start.
- Get certified. Several reputable providers, like Cisco and Juniper, offer networking certifications that can validate your skills. Not only will these certifications increase your confidence, but they will also make you more employable.
- Get some hands-on experience. Mid-level and senior network engineers have a lot of experience. Starting as an intern, apprentice, or network support specialist is important groundwork for any network engineer’s career development.
- Seek an industry mentor. Some networking professionals find themselves stuck on one of the middle rungs of the career ladder. To avoid this fate, you should find a senior colleague who can help you sharpen your skills, improve your resume, and apply for better network engineering jobs.
- Apply for senior positions or apply to bigger companies. There are two viable options for your network engineer career path. If you don’t want to move up the ladder at a small company, you can attempt a lateral move and get a job at T Mobile, IBM, Juniper, Intel, Microsoft, or Cisco.
Planning Your Network Engineer Career Path
While the network engineer career path may seem straightforward, it’s not. For anyone trying to sustain a career in network engineering, adequate planning is necessary. Below are tips on how to set yourself up for a future role in this profession.
Understand Your Current Situation
Whether you’re already in the field or on the outside looking in, you need to take stock of your current skills, education, and experience. Read real job ads and figure out what new skills and additional knowledge you need to acquire to be able to perform the responsibilities. Then devise a strategy for obtaining these skills and knowledge, taking a certification exam if necessary.
Do Well in Your Current Role
If you want a promotion, you need to show that you’ve mastered your current job and are ready for a new challenge. Seek out opportunities to demonstrate that you can handle additional responsibilities. Take part in innovative workplace projects or fill in for a sick coworker and see if you can do their job. Don’t be afraid to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Quantify Your Success
It may not be enough to be good at your job. You might only get noticed if you demonstrate your value to your company’s IT efforts. Keep a record of how you have added value to various networking initiatives, and then communicate the results to your supervisor. For example, if you introduced a new process that cut server costs, make sure your employer knows it was you.
Show Leadership Skills
You can make yourself a candidate for managerial or supervisory roles if you step up and share innovative ideas and concepts. Attend every meeting and make your voice heard, help the company’s recruiting efforts by referring people from your network, and offer to mediate team disputes. You want to show your employer that you can be a responsible and effective leader.
Choose a Specialization and Stick With It
Don’t be a jack of all trades. Study emerging areas of technology in network engineering and make yourself an expert in one of them. Whether you want to go into product management for network services or learn cloud architecture, there are professional certification opportunities that can make you a stronger candidate for more specialized roles.
Popular Network Engineering Career Paths
|Career Path||Skills||Average Salary||Job Outlook|
|Systems Analyst||Operating systems, relational databases, SQL server||$99,270||7%|
|Network Security Engineer||Routing protocols, operating systems, VPNs||$93,362||33%|
|Systems Administrator||Relational databases, shell scripting, database design||$64,054||5%|
|Network Support Specialist||Critical thinking, troubleshooting, mathematics||$62,760||7%|
|Network Administrator||Modems, antennas, routing protocols, configuration||$61,949||5%|
Next Steps for Aspiring Network Engineers
A network engineer’s career development depends largely on their specialization. If network architecture is your specialty, you can become a network manager or network architect, where you will focus most of your attention on constructing networks and developing technological roadmaps. Whatever you do, stay focused on your career goals and never stop learning.
It’s always a good idea to look far into the future and decide where you want your network engineer career path to end. Are you happy with a tech support role, or do you have higher aspirations? If you have designs on becoming a chief technology officer (CTO) or chief information officer (CIO) someday, be prepared to put in the work and keep climbing.
Network Engineer Career Path FAQ
To become a network engineer, you need to be able to troubleshoot and resolve network issues and understand the core concepts of networking. In addition to these technical skills, you need to effectively manage your time and be able to communicate and collaborate with others.
Fields similar to network engineering include network security management, systems administration, systems engineering, and network design and administration. These information technology fields are closely related in that they all deal with enterprise-scale network infrastructure and computer systems.
The most common qualification for network engineering is a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science or a related field. It is also worth mentioning that computer science certifications are common qualifications if you want to pursue a network engineering role and become a network specialist. Some of the best certification providers for network engineering are Cisco, Juniper, and CompTIA, which provide a wide range of certification courses.
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Yes, you can become a network engineer from home. Online courses and coding bootcamps and remote courses are available for most vocations, including network engineering. You can take online networking and cyber security courses to improve your basic knowledge of key concepts and principles, or you can sign up for one of the best networking bootcamps.
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