Understanding the path to becoming a network engineer

Network engineering is an essential role in the digital landscape of today, even a brief network interruption and subsequent downtime can result in significant financial losses for organisations. With responsibilities ranging from software updates to hardware installations, network engineers play a crucial role in maintaining the health and growth of businesses.

So how can you get into the role of network engineer, what aspects are there to the career path, what skills are required, and what opportunities are out there? Here we explore these questions.

A typical network engineer career path

The career path of a network engineer may very depending on a verity of factors such as skills, experience, and personal interests. However, there are common stages that money network engineers go through, regardless of their industry niche. These stages include:

  • Entry-level – Most network engineers will begin their careers as network technicians or assisting desk engineers. The roles provide much needed hands-on experience with network hardware and software, as well as problem-solving and user support scenarios.
  • Junior network engineer – After gaining some experience, network technicians or help desk engineers often progress to the role of a junior network engineer. This role allows them to assume more significant responsibilities, such as designing, configuring, and troubleshooting networks.
  • Senior network engineer – Becoming a senior network engineer is the next step for any hopeful network engineer. By this point, you are expected to have a deep understanding of networking concept and technologies, with the abilities to implement them. They will take charge of designing, implementing, and managing complex networks, while also providing mentorship to junior and entry-level engineers.
  • Network architect – Moving even further up the ladder, network architects are responsible for designing and implementing large-scale networks, often for big clients. They are expected to create robust network infrastructures that meet the organisations requirements, as well as being scalable, efficient, and maybe even innovative at times.
  • Network manager – Network managers oversee the day-to-day operations and maintenance of networks. They will possess strong knowledge of networking concepts and technologies and are skilled in manging and motivating teams. They will also be the core to pioneering new networking ideas within organisations.
  • Chief information officer – Becoming a CIO is generally the peak of a network engineers’ career, playing an integral role as the most senior executive in an organisation that works within the IT realm. They provide a critical interface between business, users, and IT on multiple different levels.

Aside from these common career stages, network engineers have numerous options for specialisation within the field. Some may focus on areas like network security or Cloud computing, while others may transition into management roles such as IT director or network manager. There are also additional paths to be had in network admin and analyst roles.

Is network engineering for you?

In the complex realm of computing, networking stands out as a niche and particularly challenging part of it taking a certain mindset and passion to truly thrive in it. Therefore, you must self-reflect and ask yourself if this is truly where you want to steer your computing career.

Steve Petryschuk, Director at Auvik, suggests that a passion for technology and an inclination towards problem-solving are key indicators that network engineering may be the right path for you.

Matt Witmer, Senior Principal Engineer at Opengear, notes that many network engineers stumble into the field from positions such as system administrators or developers. The ideal candidate for network engineering enjoys a dynamic, fast-paced role that requires constant learning and problem-solving.

Tracy Howard, Senior Vice President at Experis, emphasises that network engineers should possess a drive for building and designing. Effective communication skills are also crucial for conveying complex designs to management and team members, especially at higher levels.

Educational requirements

When considering the educational background for aspiring network engineers, a degree in IT or related fields can provide a solid foundation. Degrees in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, or mathematics are also beneficial and can open the door for the role. However, a degree alone may not teach the specific technical and troubleshooting skills required in network engineering. Practical experience and problem-solving abilities gained through internships, co-op placements, and volunteer work are invaluable assets to have as a part of your portfolio.

However, it is possible to pursue a network engineering career without a degree. Real-world experience and continuous skill development through certifications, bootcamps, and online courses can help compensate for the lack of formal education. Lifelong learning is crucial in this ever-evolving field, regardless of the educational path chosen.

Becoming a network engineer

With all this considered, ultimately the goal is to achieve a career within the field, so what sort of roles lie ahead for a prospecting young network engineer? Here’s some of the more general roles you may choose to follow, as well as some niche options you may wish to consider:

  • Network engineer
  • Senior network engineer
  • Principal network engineer
  • Network manager
  • Director of Network/Infrastructure
  • Network architect
  • Network analyst
  • IT director
  • Network support
  • Network security engineer
  • Network consultant
  • Chief information officer

A final note

Embarking on a network engineer career requires a diverse skill set, a passion for technology, and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing environments. From entry-level positions to senior roles, network engineers have various opportunities for specialisation and career advancement. Assessing personal suitability, pursuing relevant educational paths, and staying updated with industry trends will contribute to a successful network engineering career. Specialising in areas like cybersecurity can also provide a competitive edge. With the right skills and experience, aspiring network engineers can thrive in this exciting and critical field.