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Network engineer jobs: Satisfaction comes from challenge, not money

Network engineer job satisfaction is driven more by intellectual challenge than big money, according to TechTarget's IT Salary Survey 2012.

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.

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.

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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.

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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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What keeps you in your job?
Money is not everything. I like a challenge and flexible schedule. I also work with a great bunch of co-workers in an open office setting and we are always helping each other out. We also do a few thing together outside of the office like golf and mountain biking.

At the beginning of your career, money is important and you have to make enough to at least pay the bills. I think people like challenge and change and it is not only challenging work.   if you work with a great team, the members will push and challenge you to learn, grow and stretch.  The challenge from the dynamics of a great team is motivating and full filling. 

There are several factors - having a boss who gives me the liberty to work on what I deem most important, the challenges that I get to work on and the colleagues I get to work with, the benefits and pay are good, and I love the location (close to 5 impoundments, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and numerous state parks.
Almost forgot the creativity aspect. I have worked place where it's push out code as fast as possible to meet deadlines. It may not have been the best solution but the job got done.. Now move on... My new position allows a lot more creativity and freedom to shine. Now that a lot of the stuff I work on is for the web we get to show off a bit.
In a word, variety. The vast collection of assignments I have - and have had - over the past 23 years serve to enlighten and energize me. Having control over my schedule is key. Working on creative projects keeps me coming back for more day after day. Perhaps the real key is doing something you're good at and something you love.
This will always be a task for leadership and management to consider.  And the reason is that everyone is different.  What motivates one person may not motivate the next.  But that is why managers are in the role they have.  Because the people aspect and being able to understand what specifically motivates your team is one of the most important qualities of the role.

The one thing that we all must be aware of is the fact that there is no golden ticket here, no silver bullet that solves all of the problems.  Being in a management role requires us to know the specific situation that we have within our team, and knowing what the team sees as the driving force that gets them out of bed every morning and makes them happy to come to work.

With that said, there are obvious core needs that everyone would seem to have.  While money, recognition, special perks (e.g. time off, special days out of work, dress down days, additional vacations or holidays, etc), it would seem likely that each and every person in the workforce wants to feel appreciated for what they do.  Nothing will kill a person's demeanor and self respect like a boss that doesn't make them feel like they are working on something important to the organization, and nothing will kill a person's self respect more than coming to work every day and not being sure if your boss even knows (or cares) what you are doing.

So there are surely more motivating aspects of the job than just money and physical takeaways from the role.  If we want to grow an organization, we need to ensure that the teams know exactly what is expected of them, exactly how they are doing to meet those goals for which they are responsible for assisting, and exactly what they are doing well (and not well) along this journey.
That's a very interesting question for me to answer!
I'm self-employed testing consultant and contractor.

I like my occupation because testing is a thinking challenge and a learning journey. I like accomplishing projects and taking on new ones. Though I also had to learn to be a "firefighter" and jump right into the troubles by the client's request.

There were hard and stressful contracts I still really enjoyed because there were a great team, real impact, or both.
I would also add a sense of solving a problem and making a difference.
Having a boss that understands about real life and issues. A while back I fell and broke my foot in 2 places. I had to stay of it for a while and keep it elevated. Instead of going on disability at work, they got me a laptop with a VPN so I could work from home at my leisure. When other things have come up in life, he's like "No problem do you need just a day?" . By him acting like a human as opposed to some other bosses I have had. I'm willing to put in extra effort and take on more responsibility.
First and foremost is the people I work with. When I respect the people I wrk with, when I enjoy working with them, when I look forward to coming in to work specifically because I look forward to that interaction, that's a great feeling. That's not to say that we are all necessarily pals or share the same interests across the board (not even close ;) ), but a sense of camaraderie helps tremendously.

Second is interesting technical challenges and a chance to solve authentic problems. As a software tester, I enjoy when I find something important, or figure out a way to do something that saves time but still provides important information to the stakeholders and customers.

Third is the chance to stretch beyond my comfort zone, and discover talents and skills I never knew I had, and again , working with people that encourage that discovery and help you reach new goals.

Of course, all of this would be moot if I was not earning enough to pay for the things that are important to me (such as upkeep for a home, caring for a spouse and children, saving for children's education and our eventual retirement, and the ever important making sure we can pay for food, clothing, utilities and various creature comforts where we can). With all that, I don't necessarily look to a higher salary as a first incentive. If all of the above are met, and I'm offered a higher paying gig, sure, I'll consider a transition, but I'm much less likely to consider it if the money is the only thing. 
I agree with Michael, co-workers can make a big difference. Everyone can have an off day. Blow off some steam at you desk. What makes things bad is when that co-worker runs to the boss. That can break trust issues and keep you looking over your shoulder instead of staying focused on your work.
I stay where I'm working because the jobs are exciting, because I get strong support from those around me, because I have ready access to the smartest people in the room.

Agree with Todd and Michael that without trust and mutual respect with co-workers and manager,  it is not a nice work environment.

Recently I changed my job and transferred to a telecommunication company because they have thousands of opportunities to motive what I want to challenge in the next few years .
Balance between good co-workers and fair pay