As businesses become ever more reliant on IT, managing the secure flow of data across complex networks is vital to their success. And key to this is the network engineer.
So what is the best way to kick-start a career as a network engineer?
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.
“The industry is changing rapidly with the introduction of SDN and NFV, creating exciting opportunities to design network in a more agile and cost-efficient manner,” says Brian Menezes, network architect at data centre and network services providers Colt Technology Services.
Consequently, expertise in the role is increasingly sought by IT leaders, says Charlie Grubb, associate director at recruitment firm Robert Half Technology. “Our research with UK corporate CIOs shows that they put networking as one of the top five challenging functions and areas to recruit for."
He adds: “There is a good demand for network engineers at the moment - it is never going to go away because we keep trying to get more data quicker, store more data and be able to access that data more effectively. “
How to get a job 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.
“Or someone might go through more of an engineering business where you are dealing with products that are already highly integrated into deep technology,” says Grubb, “therefore you will get quickly into network engineering and the complexities of how you manage networks.” This could mean joining a telecoms firm or even a networking business like Cisco, for example.
While more junior roles – such as first and second line support – may offer a salary in the region of £19,000 a year, experienced network engineers can expect to earn anything from £35,000 a year, up to around £70,000 for network architects, says Grubb.
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.
How to get a job as a network engineer: Qualifications and certifications
For those aiming to get to the top of the profession, almost all employers will prefer at least a bachelor’s degree at university, as well as industry certification.
Preferable academic qualifications to begin a career involve IT and computing courses, as well as maths-related subjects which tend to provide a strong analytical background, according to Grubb.
As for technical certification, unsurprisingly industry-leader Cisco’s CCIE is the most desirable. Rival vendor Juniper’s JNCIE certification is also increasingly in demand from employers.
Other training, such as knowledge of ITIL processes is beneficial too.
Colt’s Menezes says: “At a basic level, I would advise researching heavily the type of business you want to work in, the educational and training requirements for that role and the tools that are available to help you.
“Gaining experience is beneficial, alongside achieving the right qualifications.
“I have specialised in network architecture, but also work closely with colleagues in other areas of network engineering. “
Apprenticeships offer another, if under-utilised, path into a network engineer job. This is more common among smaller firms and consultancies, says Grubb, rather than large firms which tend to prefer a university degree.
“Apprenticeships are undervalued at the moment - a lot of bigger organisations have gone down the degree route,” Grubb explains. “But some of the smaller businesses and network consultancies, or infrastructure consultancies, will make more of apprenticeships, and it can be a good way in for individuals.”
How to get a job as a network engineer: Other skills
Gaining a strong knowledge in areas like network design – such as the implementation of LAN and WAN interfacing, virtual servers and understanding of TCP/IP - is vital, says Grubb.
However, other areas such as a strong knowledge of security protocols is seen increasingly important too.
Grubb says: “Cyber security is a genuine threat, and with that you need to have robust firewalls and technology that can recognise when there is a threat, and protect the data and protect what is valuable to your business.”
Colt’s Menezes says that, while a network engineer is expected to have “extensive knowledge of network design, technology and vendor management”, softer skills are also becoming key to building a career.
“Confidence and persuasion skills are also important. We’re often required to present to key stakeholders in the business at Colt. Therefore, a certain level of oral and written communication skills is needed.”
Menezes adds that network staff are becoming more of an “integral part of IT and business” and therefore "your traditional engineer needs to have good communication skills, and be able to interface with other parts of the business”.
“That is a different challenge than seven or eight years ago,” he says.
“You tend to get a lot of people who do first line/second line and then people move out into a more generalist business management route, and choose not to go down the more technical route.
"Or you have a lot of technicians who don’t have the communication skills.”
How to get a job as a network engineer: How is the role evolving?
The fast-changing technology supporting many data centres provides opportunities for those seeking to begin a career, but also requires keeping up with new skills.
“It’s evolving all the time, but I think there will be a big shift over the next three to five years in particular; we’re moving much more towards SDN/NFV,” says Menezes.
“More than ever, network engineers and architects will need to demonstrate the ability to be nimble and innovative in this environment. SDN and NFV are changing the skill set required in a network engineering role - a ‘computing’ skill set will be key to making this transition a success.
“Additionally, the need to act as a consultant and provide a service to the customer is becoming even more central in everything we do - so the role itself will grow as customers’ needs develop.”
Knowledge of devops workflows are another plus, as the barriers between operations and development teams. The increasing automation of the data centre - or the concept of infrastructure as code - means that an understanding of tools such as Puppet and Chef will be valuable.
This will also mean breaking down the siloes between different aspects of the IT department, global IS manager at Columbia Sportswear, John Spiegel said at a recent event attended by ComputerworldUK. See also: Software defined data centre: 7 tips for the next generation network engineer
“Individuals or groups cannot be sole owners of technologies. We need to lop off the heads of the IT silos - the fiefdoms of the past must fall. Teams must collaborate: if you don’t make the change it will be forced upon you," he said.
“Look for projects to collaborate with your peers on networking, computing, storage, operations, development and security. Create opportunities and network with them - invite them out for a beer. You are all in the same boat now.”
Network engineers should also considering picking up programming skills such as Linux.
“For years we focused on closed, monolithic operating systems, Cisco IOS is great example. But the times are changing: Nexus OS from Cisco is built in Linux, Arista is in Linux, and so is Cumulus Networks," said Spiegel.
“Networking is moving in the direction of a Linux philosophy, so if you don’t know Linux start learning it now.”
Ultimately though the role requires a focus on the fundamental skills that have always been required, namely the ability to keep a cool head and get to the root of faults quickly.
“A network engineer or architect must be a problem-solver, as there are some very complex problems that we’re faced with. They must also have the ability to learn very quickly against a steep learning curve, manage multiple projects at a time,” says Menezes.
“It goes without saying that they must be a team player but also able to work independently and take ownership of projects.”
A typical day for Colt Tech Services network architect, Brian Menezes
“Typically my day is split into a few different areas, all of which are just as important as the other. I act as quality control on all network designs, so I am always involved in making sure that what we’re delivering is flawless- and ensuring that the transition of technology into a Colt infrastructure for customers on boarding is seamless.
“Another part of my role is evaluating new technologies. This involves looking at Colt’s own IT/Network infrastructure and seeing how it can be optimised. I work closely with vendors to make sure the new technology can be introduced into the business and that it addresses customers’ requirements.
“Lastly, I am always liaising with key stakeholders and project managers throughout the business to ensure we’re in-sync with customer requirements. I thrive off the diversity that this role brings.”
Read next: How to get a job as a data scientist
Find your next job with computerworld UK jobs