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Network engineer vs. software engineer: What’s the difference?

Network and software engineering are two different fields, and the roles of network engineers vs. software engineers vary, despite potential overlaps in software skills.

As software integrates itself into every area of IT, it may appear that the lines are blurred between different IT professions -- which is not the case.

Even with the advent of software-defined networking, network engineers and software engineers remain separate, distinct roles. Aspiring IT professionals wondering how to choose between a network engineer vs. a software engineer career should weigh several factors, including the area of IT they want to focus on, their skill sets, and certifications they have or want to get, among others. Network engineers and software engineers have different responsibilities, so aspiring IT pros should carefully evaluate each field before they decide their career paths.

This feature explores key differences between network engineer vs. software engineer careers and lays out what IT pros should know about each field.

Defining network engineer vs. software engineer

Network engineer. A network engineer plans, designs and deploys networks and network infrastructure, in addition to managing and monitoring those networks and network data. Network engineers also handle network maintenance and troubleshoot day-to-day problems. In addition, networking positions can require skills in different categories, including cybersecurity, operations, automation and unified communications (UC).

Software engineer. A software engineer designs, tests and deploys software systems, as opposed to individual applications, and is often in charge of overseeing the overall project. The goal of software engineering is to improve efficiency in software development. Similar to network engineers, software engineering roles can encompass different concentration areas, such as development, maintenance and management.

The key differences between network engineers vs. software engineers include the following:

  • areas of IT
  • skill sets
  • schedules
  • salaries
  • certifications

Comparing skills, salaries, certifications

Areas of IT. The most critical difference between network engineers vs. software engineers is the areas of technology they cover. Put simply, network engineers design and build networks, while software engineers write software for systems like OSes.

This comparison ultimately boils down to the difference between networks and software. Networks comprise various nodes or endpoints that send and receive data, whereas software is a collection of data used to operate computers or devices. While networking can implement software-defined concepts, these two fields are vastly different.

top network engineer skills
Network engineers have several categories they can specialize in within the field, including UC and design.

Skill sets. The difference between networks and software leads to the difference in required skill sets between network and software engineering. Network engineers tend to focus more on problem-solving in their roles, whereas IT pros with more creative mindsets may prefer software engineering. Additionally, automated and programmable networks that use software and code are becoming more mainstream, yet the skills required for that area of networking still aren't the same as those required for software engineering.

For network engineers, regardless of what concentration of networking they enter, they must know network protocols and understand network topology. Software development skills can also benefit network engineers in management or automation roles, whereas operations and UC roles focus more on day-to-day activities within businesses.

Software engineer skills may seem relatively synonymous with software developer skills, but the two tracks differ, as engineers focus more on building and maintaining architecture, while developers create and build programs. Still, modern software engineer skills include machine learning and data science. Evergreen skills include software testing, programming and coding.

Schedules. Network engineers and software engineers have different workday schedules, which differ even further depending on business size. Software engineers typically have standard 40-hour weeks, while network engineers are more likely to be on call, in addition to their regular schedules, which are also typically 40 hours a week. Especially in SMBs, network engineers may need to deal with connectivity issues or troubleshooting even if their shifts are over.

Salaries. For all jobs, salaries vary based on an applicant's level of expertise and the business's location, among other factors. According to Glassdoor, U.S. network engineer annual salaries in 2020 ranged from $56,000 to $150,000, with an average of $72,362. Salaries for U.S. software engineers in 2020 ranged from $63,000 to $130,000, with an average of $92,046.

software tester skills
Software testing is a crucial part of a software engineer's job.

Certifications. While many people go the route of higher education, certifications can help IT professionals stay up to date in their fields and are often required for certain roles.

Cisco, Microsoft and Juniper Networks all offer certification tracks for network engineers, although Cisco's is arguably the most popular. On the other hand, software engineers may go for Oracle's certification tracks or Certified Internet Web Professional certifications.

Aspiring IT pros should evaluate these five key differences between network engineer vs. software engineer career paths in order to determine the direction in which they want their careers to head.

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This was last published in November 2020

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