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 http://www.fiscalgeek.com 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.

Questions?

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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