How to become a network engineer

Image: iStock/kjekol
Image: iStock/kjekol

Managing the flow of data is vital to many businesses' operations - and the network engineer role is key to this. Computerworld UK looks at how to start a successful career as a network engineer

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Network engineers, also known as network architects, build out and manage network infrastructures to ensure they’re fully optimised and functional.

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While IT or network technicians focus on the day-to-day running of networks, engineers are more focused on the overall design and implementation of these systems.

They need to have an understanding of the hardware and software that enable a network to function.

The role can vary significantly. It can range from more day-to-day maintenance of small business networks, all the way up to helping architect the cutting-edge hyperscale data centres run by the internet giants such as Facebook or Google. 

Most would agree it is a high pressure and at times stressful job, involving a fair bit of fire-fighting to resolve issues, preventing outages that could impact the wider business.

It is a fast-evolving role too. Advances in technology such as software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV), alongside new delivery approaches such as devops, means there are a range of new skills needed to succeed in a career as a network engineer.

Salary expectations and career progression

There are various ways to start a career as a network engineer. A common route is to begin on a service desk at a corporate firm or organisation, progressing from first line/second line/third line support or engineer roles before specialising in network management network operations.

Joining a consultancy is another path many take.

The average salary for a junior network engineering position is £27,000 in the UK with senior positions earning £42,800.

While more starter roles requiring training on the job – such as first and second line support – may offer a salary in the region of £19,000 a year.

In the US, an entry-level network engineer makes about $61,000 while their senior counterparts earn approximately $98,000. Salaries vary greatly depending on location and industry.

For example a network engineer – with responsibilities including installing and configuring network systems, investigating faults or administering firewall protection - is likely to earn between £35-55,000. Meanwhile those in charge of architecture – a more senior role involving planning of network systems across a business – are likely to be paid between £50-70,000, according to Robert Half figures.

This all depends on the size, sector, and type of business, as well as the size and scope of the projects engineers will be working on. 

In terms of region, London is unsurprisingly where many of the highest paid network engineers are employed, alongside Edinburgh and Leeds.

Education and qualifications

Most network engineering roles will require a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering or information systems. Depending on the company, some roles will require a Masters in computer science or similar.

An aptitude for maths fundamentals such as statistics and probability will be beneficial for this role, though a degree in maths isn’t necessarily a prerequisite.

Aside from formal or university qualifications, there are a number of industry certifications that will help professionals accelerate their career in network engineering.

Companies like Microsoft, Juniper, Google and Cisco offer certified courses which are a great way to grow your skills.

The Cisco courses CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) and CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional Level) are among the most popular and recognised accreditations and cover the theory of computer networking as well as practical assignments. Knowledge of ITIL concepts and foundations is also becoming more sought after in a network engineer.

Udemy offers free online ‘taster’ courses which help IT professionals determine the best path to take when choosing a career pivot or upskilling opportunity. If you’re unsure of what area of engineering you would be best suited to, this is a good place to start.

Apprenticeships are another possible route to take to get into network engineering. Although they are currently less common than a formal education track, they can provide excellent on-the-job training in industries that require specific practical skills.

Key skills

Network engineers obviously need a strong technical background but specific knowledge of LANs and WANs is crucial to the role.

An understanding of cybersecurity and the evolving sophistication of cyber threats has become increasingly more prominent in the role of the network engineer as well as programming skills such as Linux.

In addition to tech expertise, network engineers require a number of soft skills such as communication and time management to be successful in their jobs.

It’s often the case where engineers will need to be able to create buy-in from stakeholders on certain projects and so need to be good at getting their point across while fielding questions from those who may not have much technical knowledge.

Network engineers also need to be adept at identifying and solving problems as this is core to their day-to-day duties.

Being adaptable and able to learn on the job are also extremely attractive qualities to have in this role. A large part of a network engineer’s day can be fighting fires so being able to change tack and reprioritise can be really valuable.

Gaining relevant experience in IT is crucial to your professional development. Often, network engineers come from technical support positions and progress into a network engineering role.

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