The Career Diaries: The Network Engineer

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Today I’m starting a new series on FiscalGeek profiling different professions giving you an insiders view of various jobs and careers. The goal being to give you a better view of a potential career by giving you more than the 10,000 foot view offered in vocation guides and top 50 job lists. A job is much more than a paycheck, it’s an activity that consumes roughly half of your waking hours. Every so often I’ll profile a different profession from the most valuable insights, someone who actually works in that field. So I figured I would start with my profession.

Career: Network Engineer / Network Analyst / Telecom Engineer

The position goes by many titles but the most applicable is network engineer. My fancy title is Principal Network Engineer because I’ve been doing this for a fair amount of time.

What does a Network Engineer Do?

To the technically challenged I often describe my job as a digital postman. You are using your computer at home which has an address, technically an Internet Protocol (IP) Address. When you open your browser and type in your address bar you are requesting that your computer talk to a server somewhere else in the world. Your computer decides that it doesn’t know how to get to this server locally so it sends the letters (packets) to your local post office (a router). The router then makes decisions on how to get to the server’s address. These routers are connected to each other via various connection methods, copper wiring, fiber optic cables, wireless and a variety of other technologies. My job deals with everything from the connection from the computer out to the Internet.

It involves network design work, physically installing network equipment like routers, switches and load balancers and troubleshooting the whole mess. Networking deals with the lowest layers of making the Internet operate, at least for my companies portion of that puzzle.

What’s the Pay Range for a Network Engineer?

It depends on experience but Networking is a relatively specialized field and pays well starting pay would be in the range of $50,000 up to $150,000. Certainly depending on the area you can make even more.

What type of Education is required for a Network Engineer?

This is a more difficult question to answer but like many IT jobs, it’s difficult to get a more formal education tailored around network engineering. Until recently it was merely a side topic or elective at best but that’s been changing and there certainly are courses and even degrees focused on network engineering. A college degree is definitely helpful although not necessarily required depending on the company. I work with a lot of smart network engineers some of which have degrees, some not. My background is in Computer Science and Communications but truthfully I learned everything I know about networking from my own self study and on the job training.

How long have you been a Network Engineer?

I have been in some aspect of Networking for almost 14 years. In that time I’ve gone from being a network administrator, Senior Network Engineer, Director of Network Operations, Network Architect, Group Manager of Network Engineering to my latest position of Principal Network Engineer. I have spent about 5 years of my professional career in some form of management but missed the technical hands on aspects of the job so I moved back to an individual contributor role. I’m a geek at heart and desperately missed that side of things while in management. I have worked from companies as small as 15 people to my current employer which has over 90,000 employees.

What Type of Traits or Skills Should I have to be a Network Engineer?

  • Self Motivated.  Many times especially in smaller companies you may be a one man or woman show.  Often you’ll be the only person that actually understands what it is you do and how the network works at your company.  It’s key that you can figure things out for your self.
  • A Thirst for Knowledge.  Network equipment, technology and protocols change by the minute.  If you don’t self study through a variety of means you will not be able to keep up.
  • Enjoy Troubleshooting.  A huge part of my job is figuring out why something doesn’t work and how to remedy that situation sometimes in a very stressful environment.  Odds are when the network is down money is being lost.

What Do You like most about Your Job?

I love working with new technologies and finding solutions to complex problems.  I’m happiest when I’m working through something on the whiteboard or testing some new configurations.  I love the ever changing nature of my field and it keeps the job new and exciting.

What Don’t You Like about Your Job?

Many times it can be very stressful working on the network.  So many things depend on the network working when problems show up as they always do there can be a huge push to fix it immediately and you may not know readily where the problem lies.  This is even truer in a smaller company where you may not have multiple network engineers to help, and you may spend a large portion of your career on call.

Advice for Getting into Network Engineering

First I would start to fiddle with networking a bit to see if it’s something that holds your interest.  That’s pretty easy these days and you could start by firing up a Cisco Router Simulator that will let you try your hand at setting up your own networks in a virtual environment without paying thousands of dollars to purchase your own equipment. It’s an extremely cool setup that’s totally free that will give you an idea of what you may be in for. You should also check into some of the products that a network engineer may be working with every day, routers and switches from the likes of Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks to hit the two biggies. I can’t recommend enough just doing some fiddling on your own which will expand your knowledge base. You can also read and study to pass a base level certification like the Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA). This gives you a base to work from and may help you get your foot in the door.

Help your neighbor, parents, church, animal shelter setup their network. Work your way into a larger corporation by working at their Network Operations Center as a first level support person. This is 24×7 shift work and will give you valuable experience to move on in your network career. Also look into internship programs this is a great way to get your hands on some real networking equipment.


If you have any specific questions about network engineering feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly I’d be happy to share what I know. Also if you work in a different profession and wouldn’t mind being interviewed for an upcoming career diary please shoot me an email and we’ll set up a time to talk.

Photo Courtesy LeSimonPix

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2009/11/19 at 4:57 am


Brian 2009/11/05 at 7:36 am

Oh i am going to dig this new series Paul. Not that i am looking for a new career *ahem*. Good stuff, and i can’t wait to read more.
.-= Brian´s last blog ..Reviewing My Insurance Quote Saved Me Close to $100 a Year =-.

Jeff 2009/11/05 at 8:06 am

What a cool idea. I’m in the same boat with Brian, “I am going to dig this series.” Nice explanation of your career.
.-= Jeff´s last blog ..Emergency Fund Help Needed =-.

Financial Samurai 2009/11/06 at 5:54 am

Good stuff man. Every thought of doing something different after 14 years?

60% of my part-time MBA class were engineers, b/c they felt “stuck” making $150,000 / yr while their managers all made double and triple them. Meanwhile, the engineers thought they were the geniuses (which they are, but not in terms of compensation)!

.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Never Call In Sick On Friday, Slacker! =-.

paul 2009/11/06 at 9:00 am

Yeah funny you asked, every day I think about something else, and truthfully this blog represents part of my longer term plan. If I ever choose to do a new gig it will be working for myself. It doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing this that long until I write down 14 years and then it starts to sink in.

Your MBA class example is spot on. About 6 years ago I was an engineer and got asked to be a first level manager. My boss ended up freaking out and they reorganized our group. My hope was at that time to be promoted. When I wasn’t I was a little bitter and started exploring MBA classes thinking that was the answer to my career dilemna. Lo and behold not a year later my new boss was moved out of his position due to a variety of issues and I was asked to manage the entire network engineering organization. 25 employees + 3 managers. I was very excited thinking this was exactly what I wanted. 3 years later, I was done. Envy and jealousy shouldn’t be your career motivation. Thanks for the insightful comments!

The Casual Observer 2009/11/09 at 8:37 am

In my company, it is possible for the more experienced analysts to earn more money than their managers. There had been some instances of analysts being “promoted” to management, not liking it, and leaving to pursue other opportunities. The company decided that this really wasn’t a very good thing.

This was a wise deicision, IMHO. Not every elite performing network engineer wants to be a manager, nor will all of them become decent managers.
.-= The Casual Observer´s last blog ..Review of The Lost Symbol =-.

Financial Samurai 2009/11/06 at 11:33 pm

No problem Paul! I’ve done 10 consecutive years of the same thing, and I’m wondering if I can do something else eventually. I guess I could do 8-10 more years, but it may become a little cumbersome.

My site has provided me a very real and fun outlet to be an entrepreneur, even though I’ve chosen not to really monetize yet.

Look forward to seeing you at FS one day!
.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Never Call In Sick On Friday, Slacker! =-.

Jay 2009/12/05 at 1:51 pm

Hey Paul,

Came across this blog entry on a google search and have to admit I found it very insightful. I’m interested in making a career change and am looking in the direction of network engineering. However, I don’t have an IT background and all the information I’ve come across until now seems so redundant and surface (mostly coming from vocational sites and top ? lists) in profiling a network engineer. While I have an understanding of what a network engineer does, I’m still seeking info as to the entrepreneurial options in the field as well as diversity in work environments. It seems as though most network engineers get hired by a large or small company and work in their IT department to keep things running. But is that it? Is there variety in working environment? Is it possible to telecommute? What’s next after 10-15 years in the field? Do network engineers move on to consulting?

Thanks in advance for any light you (or any other commenters) can shed


paul 2009/12/05 at 10:32 pm

Hey Jay,
Glad to have you here. I personally wouldn’t worry about the lack of IT background, although with the job market being what it is today might make it harder for you to get into networking at least in the corporate environment. Speaking from an entrepreneurial viewpoint that’s really only limited by you. There are frequent requests on Elance for networking type gigs you could do remotely. The key is you need some experience of some sort whether you’ve taught yourself with simulators and pieced together equipment or whether you get hired on somewhere as a Tech Support Analysts to get your foot in the door.

As to your question about working in the IT department keeping things running, that’s far from my experience. Personally I work fully in what we call engineering which means I consult with our internal clients figure out their requirements and then I design their network infrastructure and oversee the deployment of that network. Once that portion is done I hand it over to our Operations teams who do the care and feeding of the network keeping it running. We have an entirely separate team that worries about the corporate IT environment I build the networks that interface our company to the Internet at large through our many data centers. There are a variety of paths if you work for a larger company. If you go with a smaller company you’re probably going to be wearing many hats that of engineering operations and architecture all rolled into one.

As to telecommuting that’s absolutely an option especially in networking. I work from home occasionally if somethings going on with my kids or my wife needs to be off somewhere.

As to moving to consulting, I don’t know that I would say that’s a career path but sure some people end up going that route sure. If you would like to chat about it more shoot me an email through my contact page.

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