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A versatile, well-paid profession at the forefront of today’s technology, network engineer is a role for IT enthusiasts with a bent for problem-solving and thinking on their feet.

From their frontline positions in communications technology, network engineers directly engage with some of that technology’s most inspiring innovations, such as the rise of cloud computing and voice-over-internet-protocol, along with some of its persistent plagues, such as data breaches and hacks. It’s an essential position in today’s ever more wired world.

In the following article, we outline how to become a network engineer, tracing a typical network engineer career path and citing some of the more common certifications and specializations that are necessary to succeed in this highly sought-after profession.

Key Takeaways

  • Network engineers know the ins and outs of communications hardware and software.
  • Certifications help you get established; specializations help you find your niche.
  • Continuous learning is the norm for network engineers, so get comfortable with the idea that you’ll always be absorbing and adapting to new information.

What Is a Network Engineer?

Network engineers oversee the communications and connectivity infrastructure of businesses and other organizations. They build and maintain networking systems (which support data, voice and wireless network services) and then ensure that those systems run smoothly and efficiently.

A network engineer’s responsibilities extend from developing network architecture and installing and configuring network hardware (routers, switches, firewalls) to setting up network security measures, troubleshooting and anticipating the next round of technological updates and upgrades.

Most network engineers have a background in computer science or information technology. They often start in entry-level IT positions and get experience in network administration before advancing to network engineering roles. After additional experience (which usually includes obtaining a relevant certification or two), they may move into higher-level positions.

Network engineers work in a variety of settings, including corporate IT departments, telecommunications companies, consulting firms and data centers. The job often requires being on-call to repair system crashes and security breaches. It may also entail working outside of regular business hours to perform maintenance and upgrades.

How To Become a Network Engineer

Becoming a professional network engineer usually begins with obtaining the necessary education and foundational experience (i.e., an internship or on-the-job training). It continues with certifications, specialization and continuous learning. Here are five essential steps:

Get the Relevant Education

The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant discipline such as computer science, information technology or network engineering. Some positions in this field may accept an associate degree or vocational training, but a bachelor’s degree tends to create more options.

Courses related to networking should make up a big part of your curriculum: network design, for instance, along with network security, telecommunications and computer systems.

Get Practical Experience

Internships and/or co-op programs during your undergraduate studies may be your earliest opportunity to gain hands-on experience. Think of them as your entrée into an actual entry-level job—such as network technician, help desk support or junior network administrator—that will help you build foundational skills.

On-the-job training that teaches you network setup, maintenance and troubleshooting under the direction of experienced professionals will be an invaluable benefit of your entry-level job.

Get Certified

Earning certifications in a specialized area within network engineering boosts your professional credibility and demonstrates your commitment to the field. It’s also a way to focus on your interests and start to carve out a personal career path.

Begin with a basic certification such as the CompTIA Network+, a good starting point for demonstrating your grasp of networking fundamentals, or the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), another widely recognized entry-level certification that covers essential networking concepts and skills.

Then you can proceed to a more advanced certification such as the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), for the next level of networking expertise.

Specialize

Specialization in network engineering builds on the benefits conferred by certification (above). It can hone your skills, increase your job prospects and raise your professional visibility.

Typical specializations include, but are not limited to:

  • Network security: Understanding firewalls, VPNs, intrusion detection systems and other security procedures
  • Cloud networking: Skills related to cloud computing platforms (Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure) and their networking requirements
  • Wireless networking: Knowledge of Wi-Fi technologies and wireless networking standards

Keep Learning

This fast-moving, constantly evolving profession in the tech industry expects practitioners to keep up with the newest networking technologies, standards and best practices. That means reading trade journals and websites and attending workshops and conferences that will update your skill set.

Additionally, professional associations and online communities will connect you with peers in the industry—indispensable if you’re ever back on the job market or just trying to stay well-informed.

Network Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide data on network engineers specifically, but it does report data on network and computer systems administrators, an adjacent or even overlapping career. The BLS projects a 2% growth in employment (roughly as fast as the average for all occupations) for network administrators between 2022 and 2032.

In the Bureau’s state-by-state geographic profile for the profession, Texas, California, Florida, Ohio and New York had the highest concentrations of network administrators.

The BLS also lists Maryland, California, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island and New Jersey as the top-paying states for the field, with annual mean wages well over $100,000 in all five locations.

According to Payscale, the average annual salary for network engineers in the United States is $83,313—significantly higher than the BLS’s reported national average wage of $65,470 for office occupations.

Network Engineer Specializations

Professional network engineers routinely specialize to deepen their expertise in a specific aspect of networking. Here are five common specializations:

Cloud Networking Specialist

As businesses shift their infrastructure and services to the cloud more and more often nowadays, cloud networking specialists focus on building and managing network architectures optimized for cloud environments. They collaborate with cloud service providers including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform to ensure the best-possible connectivity, scalability and security.

Network Security Specialist

Network security specialists are responsible for protecting network infrastructure and data from hacks and other breaches. They rely on security measures such as encryption protocols, firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS) and virtual private networks (VPNs).

Wireless Networking Specialist

With the spread of wireless technologies, these specialists design, install and optimize wireless networks, working with technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular networks to ensure fast, consistent wireless connectivity.

Data Center Networking Specialist

These specialists create and maintain large-scale data center networks. They ensure the reliability and performance of the networking infrastructure inside data centers—routers, switches and other hardware components that make it possible to run applications and process vast amounts of data.

VoIP (Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol) Specialist

The convergence of voice and data networks has given rise to a new breed of specialists who focus on designing, implementing and managing voice communication systems over IP networks. Their overriding goal is to deliver reliable high-quality voice services.

Certifications for Network Engineers

Certifications are crucial for establishing credentials and advancing in any IT career. Here are a few of the more important for network engineers who are just entering the profession:

Regarded as the industry-standard “foot in the door” certification, the CompTIA A+ certification covers the fundamentals of networks, security, hardware and software. Candidates have to pass two exams, Core 1 and Core 2, which cost $492 in total. CompTIA recommends nine to 12 months of hands-on experience in the lab or field prior to taking the tests.

The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification verifies your ability to install, configure, operate and troubleshoot advanced networks. No prerequisites are necessary, but Cisco recommends at least a year of professional experience with Cisco systems. The single exam costs $300 and lasts two hours.

The Juniper Networks Certified Internet Associate (JNCIA-Junos) certification validates foundational knowledge of networking technologies and protocols and is the first step for anyone who wants to earn more advanced certifications in Juniper Networks platforms. The single exam has no prerequisites and costs $200.

With cloud-based networking now all but ubiquitous, another practical choice is the Microsoft Certified: Azure Administrator Associate certification, which demonstrates expertise in designing and implementing solutions on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. The Administrator Associate certificate costs $165 and acts as a stepping-stone to advanced Azure assessments for more experienced network administrators.

The VMware Certified Technical Associate: Network Virtualization (VCTA-NV 2024) certification is another entry-level certification for network engineers who want to specialize in virtualization—an important concept in cloud computing that refers to a process in which one computer’s hardware is divided into several virtual computers, or virtual machines. The VCTA exam costs $250.

Professional Organizations for Network Engineers

Professional organizations are another resource for raising your profile as a network engineer. They facilitate access to industry events such as conferences (and the attendant networking opportunities) in addition to career services, mentorship and the possibility of further training. Here are a few of the best-known:

A worldwide nonprofit organization for IT professionals, the Network Professional Association (NPA) advocates for best practices and ethical standards in the IT field. NPA offers resources for both students and working professionals, including a jobs board, conferences and other events touted for their networking opportunities. Membership in the NPA begins at $40 per year. and is said to enhance any network engineer’s credentials.

Another nonprofit, CompTIA (short for the Computing Technology Industry Association) supports the IT industry and IT professionals through certifications and other training. The CompTIA A+ certificate is considered an IT entry-level standard.

The IEEE Computer Society (IEEE) is another worldwide convener of IT professionals. IEEE supports the profession via peer-reviewed journals, a digital library, opportunities for continuing education and other resources. Students earning a degree in computer science, engineering or math are encouraged to join IEEE through special reduced annual dues.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is another professional organization through which IT workers, teachers, researchers and students support one another, share information and set standards for the field. Volunteer-driven, ACM promotes its local chapters as the best way to get involved and take advantage of all its resources.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Network Engineers

What qualifications do I need to be a network engineer?

Qualifications start with education. Most network engineers have at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, electrical engineering, information technology or a related field.

Certifications aren’t always mandatory but can improve your prospects. Some of the most popular certifications are the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), the CompTIA Network+, the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and the Juniper Networks Certified Internet Associate (JNCIA).

Depending on the specific role and industry, employers may look for candidates with specialized skills such as routing and switching, network security and network automation and scripting.

How long does it take to become a network engineer?

Becoming a network engineer commonly takes anywhere between three and seven years, factoring in education, certifications, practical experience and skill development.

Four years are the norm for earning a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field such as computer science, information technology or electrical engineering. (Alternative routes such as an associate degree or vocational training program can take two to three years.)

Acquiring relevant certifications such as the entry-level CompTIA Network+ might take a few months, while more advanced certifications such as Cisco CCNP or Juniper JNCIP may require several months, a year or even longer. Additional hands-on experience (through internships, co-op programs or entry-level positions) and developing specialized skills can take anywhere from a few months to a few years.

Note, though, that it’s possible to accelerate this timeline via alternative paths such as intensive bootcamps or accelerated degree programs.

How do I start my career as a network engineer?

Launching a career as a network engineer requires a combination of education, certifications and practical experience. These are the major milestones:

  • Get a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field such as computer science, information technology or electrical engineering. Learn the fundamentals of networking, including TCP/IP, subnetting, routing, switching and network protocols. Many online resources, books and courses are available to help you learn these concepts.
  • Get certified, beginning with entry-level certifications such as CompTIA Network+ or Cisco CCNA. From there, work your way up to more advanced certifications such as Cisco CCNP or Juniper JNCIP as you learn on the job.
  • Get hands-on experience through internships, co-op programs or entry-level positions such as network technician or help desk support.
  • Specialize in an area of networking that interests you, whether it’s network security, cloud computing or wireless networking (to name just a few options).
  • No matter how confident you feel about your skills and experience, it’s always a good idea to stay current with the latest technologies, trends and best practices.

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