You're mulling a career as a computer network engineer, but you have questions. What does a network engineer do?...
Is there a demand for network engineers? And what's the typical salary? To answer these questions, let's look at the various roles and responsibilities in a network engineer job description.
A network engineer can be involved in any of several subdisciplines, ranging from network design to network operations to network automation. The general category of network engineer requires an understanding of multiple layers of network communication protocols.
The fundamental protocols are used to send and receive data over a physical medium, like Ethernet, WAN, wireless and optical transmissions. The next layers of protocols implement data transport protocols that perform end-to-end data transfers, typically using IP, TCP and User Datagram Protocol. Other protocols may be used in special cases.
Network engineers then need to understand routing and switching protocols, like Open Shortest Path First, Border Gateway Protocol and Spanning Tree Protocol. Other protocols, such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), are used for network management, control and operations.
What skills does a network engineer need?
The network engineer job is increasingly complex, which has led to dividing the position into multiple subcategories. The specific knowledge and skills outlined in a network engineer job description can vary significantly. In all cases, though, an understanding of basic network protocols is required.
Network protocol researchers are frequently employed at universities or in large corporate research labs. They investigate improvements to existing network protocols and create new protocols. These positions require a good understanding of higher-level mathematics. Software development skills are used to create protocol simulations and to demonstrate proofs of concepts.
In addition to protocol researchers, a network engineer job description typically includes the following roles and responsibilities:
- A network design engineer creates network designs or modifies existing designs. New designs are typically needed when the industry adopts new standards, such as higher-speed links, new protocols or changes in network topologies. The design engineer must have a good understanding of all network protocols and their interactions, making sure the design supports the organization's business functions in terms of reliability, resilience, throughput and responsiveness. An important task of the design engineer is to specify the desired equipment and connectivity services that are required and the interconnection topology. This job typically requires many years of experience and the highest levels of certification, which coincide with the highest levels of compensation.
- The network operations engineer implements and performs day-to-day operations that keep the network running. The daily tasks include moves, adds, changes and deletions, combined with network troubleshooting to identify and correct problems. This job requires a deep understanding of configuration details of the network equipment. Someone in this position will typically work within a network operations team and with the network management engineer. Certifications and experience range from entry level to expert level, with compensation levels across the entire spectrum. Some knowledge of networking protocols and configuration is required at the entry level. Attention to detail and the ability to work with complex systems are essential. Many individuals start out in operations and branch into one of the other categories during their career.
- The network management engineer works closely with network operations to ensure the network is performing as desired and to facilitate troubleshooting when failures occur. This position requires an understanding of network management protocols, like SNMP, and must be comfortable working with network management products, such as Cisco Prime, SolarWinds and NetMRI. The daily functions in this network engineer job description include product configuration, network report generation and identification of network failures that the products report. The network management engineer should have a good understanding of common network failures and how to detect them with the network management systems.
- The network automation engineer is a relatively new discipline that developed as IT systems became dynamic, driving the network to be more agile. This engineer develops the software to automate the installation, configuration and operation of a computer network. The knowledge of programming languages, like Python, and frameworks, like Git, Ansible, Jinja2, Napalm and Salt, are required. The frameworks and best practices will change over time, requiring continuous education. Individuals rarely possess the combination of software skills and understanding of networking technology, which increases the salary for these positions. Certifications for network automation engineers are new and will be changing over time. Candidates for the network automation engineer position can start with either a software or networking background and learn the other discipline.
- The network cybersecurity engineer understands common vulnerabilities and how to respond to network security threats. This individual knows the technologies to deploy to protect organizations from cyberattacks and how to detect when attacks occur. This is a rapidly growing segment, with increasing staff, budgets and products. Hundreds of products are in this space, and no single product does everything that an organization needs. The volume of data that must be processed to identify vulnerabilities and attacks is extremely large. The combination of data volume and integration between products makes this an interesting and challenging job. Senior network security engineers can expect high levels of compensation.
- The unified communications (UC) network engineer understands the protocols used for IP telephony, real-time messaging, screensharing, collaboration and video. This engineer must understand the difference between streaming protocols and interactive protocols and how to make them work on the network. This individual is typically part of a UC team and works closely with the design and operations engineers to ensure the network can support interactive collaboration systems. Candidates should expect to perform UC system design tasks, such as designing a telephone dial plan. Troubleshooting skills are also highly valuable, since non-UC applications can negatively affect real-time UC applications.
- The network equipment designer works for a network equipment vendor to design network products. This person must be familiar with network standards documents and software development. Most engineers in this position are software development engineers who learn network protocols in order to develop products. Other equipment design engineers may be electrical engineers who perform hardware design.
What does a network engineer make?
In mid-2019, network engineer salaries typically range from $60,000 to $180,000. The variation depends on the local job market, the experience of the individual and the certifications obtained. Advanced certifications and demonstrated past experience make a big difference in salaries.
Salaries over $150,000 are common among higher-level certified engineers with demonstrated experience. The senior-level positions are typically team leaders and require the ability to communicate effectively with organization executives. Even higher salaries are possible in some job markets with high-demand positions.
How to become a network engineer
The computer network industry has developed a variety of certifications that measure an individual's competency. Low-level certifications are typically a written test, administered in a proctored testing facility. Tests are now including simulations of real-world scenarios.
The most advanced certifications, such as the Juniper Networks Certified Internet Expert and the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, are especially difficult hands-on exams, which result in higher demand and salaries.
Finally, networks are complex puzzles with many parts that interact with one another. Network engineer candidates must have knowledge and experience comparable to a college degree. The jobs require continuous learning of complex topics. Attention to detail is required.
See how network engineer compensation compares with other IT professionals
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