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Network engineer jobs: Satisfaction comes from challenge, not money

Rivka Gewirtz Little

Network engineers are more interested in intellectual and creative challenge than they are in boosting their salaries, according to the TechTarget IT Salary Survey 2012.

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When asked why they remain in their jobs, 32% of 274 networking professionals pointed to the intellectual challenge. Another 20% said they liked their co-workers enough to stick around. Meanwhile, 13% said a good salary keeps them on the job. The overall survey included 2,277 IT leaders working in 22 industries, with a little over 300 of the respondents identifying themselves as networking professionals.

Networking pros are not alone in their yearning for a creative outlet. Survey wide, 30% of IT professionals said their job satisfaction depends on an intellectual challenge, while another 21% said it comes from enjoying their co-workers. Likewise, 22% said they would only leave their jobs for a new challenge, while 11% said they would leave because they wanted more money.

More from the TechTarget IT Salary Survey 2012

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It's not shocking that engineers are more attracted to challenge than money, but what's more surprising is that the average salary of network pros interviewed was mediocre and raises are flat. Of 145 respondents, 30% earn between $50,000-$69,000 dollars; 29% earn between $70,000 and $89,000, and 19% earn between $90,000 and $109,000.

Raises and bonuses only slightly sweeten the pot. Of 220 respondents, 40% received both a raise and a bonus, while 36% said they received just a raise. Yet the average raise remained between 2% and 5%. The same holds true across the IT spectrum, where the average senior professional earned between $70,000 and $89,000 and received a salary increase of about 4.5%, according to survey results. Directors of IT and C-level executives don't have as much of a problem seeking bigger bucks. Senior-level IT leaders earn an average of $98,000 per year, with the higher end falling at around $150,000. Yet even top IT executives see salaries differing greatly by industry and they report challenge as more of an incentive than money.

Why opt for less money in network engineer jobs?

Keith Townsend, a civil chief enterprise architect at Lockheed Martin, has seen these trends in action. A few years ago, the market was soft and Townsend took a job as a network manager at a data center provider where he earned about $20,000 less than he would have in the same position at an enterprise. The shop was full of very talented network engineers, who were all making significantly less than they could elsewhere, he said. At some point along the way, Townsend had a candid conversation with the chief architect about his own future and salary, but the senior executive was not about to budge on money.

They say, 'Yeah, but I won't tell my wife [about a new job opportunity] because I don't feel like the job is challenging or I don't like the structure of the company.'

Steve Noble,
network architect and president, Router Analysis Inc.

"He said the job satisfaction was in that you could learn so much," Townsend said. "The data center provider was one of the big ones, and it had a ton of different kinds of customers. In the enterprise you wouldn't see as much."

For Townsend, that range of experience couldn't outweigh the compensation, so he moved on. But when he got to his next job, he offered positions to the engineers at the data center provider only to find out they weren't interested.

"They said they were content," even though they knew that in the enterprise they would work less for more money, he said.

Steve Noble, network architect and president of Router Analysis Inc., said most engineers won't leave a challenging and satisfying job unless the money is significantly higher than what they're already earning.

"It's not worth changing a job if you're going to get 5% or 10% more because the stress can eat you up," he said. "I've seen some people do something different only because the money was just too much to ignore."

On the other hand, Noble has also seen engineers join nonprofits and opt to make as much as $30,000 less than they would in the enterprise, so they can have a longer lasting impact.

"They are able to contribute to the community, and they benefit because at a nonprofit they are writing code and putting their name on it," he said.

Finally, layoffs at notable companies have put fear into some engineers, even though there is no real shortage of IT jobs.

"In this industry, it's scary to take on a new job when companies like Cisco and Juniper have been continuously laying people off -- and it's not just run-of-the-mill engineers. There have been some well-known, qualified engineers laid off," he said.

Network engineers have no shortage of job opportunities, but still not tempted

Despite highly publicized layoffs, network engineers have plenty of job opportunities. According to the survey, 64% of 313 networking pros said they had been contacted by a recruiter in the previous 12 months. Recruiting was even more intense among network engineers working for large companies. More than 70% of engineers at enterprises had been contacted by recruiters, while 57% from small organizations had been head-hunted.

Network architect Greg Ferro, who runs the popular EtherealMind blog and is a founder of the Packet Pushers podcast series, said recruiters pay lots to advertise on his sites in their constant quest to find network engineers. Meanwhile, at a recent visit to Marist College, which has a networking program and full OpenFlow lab for students, professors said they send 100% of their students out the graduation gates already employed. What's more, conferences that attract hard core network engineers and systems admins, such as the LISA USENIX show, also attract vendors that spend more time recruiting than they do hawking their technologies.

More on network engineer jobs and careers

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Yet survey results show that engineers are unmoved by these options. Among 313 respondents, 47% said they are open to new opportunities, but are not actively seeking a new position; 26% said they are happy with their current jobs and plan to stay put for the foreseeable future; another 15% said they are starting to look around so they can make a strategic move when the economy picks up.

In the longer term, network pros hope to reach their career aspirations from their current positions. Of 313 respondents, 30% hope to move up higher in their IT organizations, while another 25% said they hoped to move up higher in the overall organization (potentially outside of IT). Some have found the level of comfort they're seeking -- 20% said they were fine staying in their current positions.

Noble noted that a recruiter contact doesn't equal a satisfying job. In fact, he knows plenty of engineers who don't tell their significant others about recruiter contact or offers that are attached to "obscene amounts of money" because they don't want to feel pressure at home to take on a job that will be overly stressful without the intellectual payoff.

"They say, 'Yeah but I won't tell my wife because I don't feel like the job is challenging or I don't like the structure of the company,'" Noble said.

Will network engineers with SDN and virtualization skills earn more?

Now that virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN) are changing the network so drastically, engineers with these skills may find themselves in a position to be both challenged and demand more money. But Townsend said this will take time.

"Providers are the ones that most need [the SDN] skill set, but I still don't know if they would be willing to pay that premium. I wouldn't pay that much of a premium for those skills -- not yet," he said.

Virtualization networking skills are a different story.

"I need [virtualization] skills and I would pay a premium," Townsend said. "It's been my experience that the engineers in the enterprise have a resistance to learning virtualization and there is a clear line between traditional hardware networking and virtualization. The old school guys have no desire to learn that stuff."


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