How to Become a Network Engineer

For organizations of all missions and sizes, maintaining the network is a critical function—maybe even the most critical function. Research firm Gartner places the average cost of network downtime at around $5,600 per minute, so it’s easy to see why network engineers play a crucial role in ensuring that an organization’s computer networks stay up and run smoothly. But how do you actually become a network engineer?

A network engineer’s major duties include installing and configuring different types of networking equipment and devices like routers, switches, repeaters, load balancers and more. They are also responsible for maintaining the network and optimizing its performance, which involves network performance monitoring (NPM), troubleshooting, installing patches and upgrades, and collaborating with third-party vendors. In today’s high-threat environment, network engineers are also responsible for knowing and implementing the principles of network security design and maintaining firewalls, VPNs and antivirus software.

Given that pressure, it’s not only crucial to have strong technical and analytical skills, but also the ability to work well under stressful circumstances and solve problems quickly.

How much do network engineers get paid?

As with any career, network engineer salaries vary depending on your experience level, specialties, certifications and location. The average starting salary for a network engineer is $79,000; however, those with a high level of experience can pull down as much as $129,000 per year. Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which regularly analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, found that employers posted some 195,336 jobs last year, suggesting a high level of demand.

Best of all, landing your first job as a network engineer may not be as difficult as you think. Here are some success stories and tips from three practitioners who made a successful transition.

Mastering the network engineering fundamentals is key

The most direct way to land your first job as a network engineer is to complete your formal education (such as a community college program); alternatively, you can also take a network engineering bootcamp or online courses, or even engage in self-study courses and read books. Many network engineers then get an introductory cert like the CCNA (which stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate).

For instance, Andrew Roderos completed the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum at a community college and passed the CCNA exam in about 18 months while working full-time in IT support for Walgreens. He transferred to his first network engineering job within the company, gained additional certs and experience, and now works as a backbone and network security engineer for Stanford University.

Don’t overlook the military as a launching pad for a career in network engineering. Savannah Cannon received intense classroom training for two months when she joined the U.S. Marines. And though she was thrown into the job, she had the opportunity to learn from her mistakes. Over the course of her career, she has earned additional networking and security certs, including a CCNP and CISSP as well a master’s degree in IT and now works as a network engineer for the Department of Defense (SPAWAR).

If you study full-time, you can learn enough to get your CCNA and land your first job in about 11 months, advised Amy Arnold, who dropped out of law school to study network engineering and now works as a systems engineer for Fortinet.

However, while passing a certification test will impress employers and affirm your commitment to becoming a network engineer, hiring managers want to see that you can apply your newly acquired skills and continue to master new ones, Arnold noted.

Getting hands-on experience is crucial

To land your first job you need to prove that you can build and configure a network, troubleshoot and resolve issues, and more. How can you gain this valuable hands-on experience?

Because it’s best to learn on real hardware, many successful transitioners built a home learning lab by purchasing used networking equipment on eBay or similar sites. They also simulated real-world scenarios by downloading simulators and emulators such as Cisco Pack Tracer, GNS3 and Boson’s NetSim. Finally, they gained insights into networking and infrastructure engineering best practices from working professionals by reading the content on Packet Pushers and joining its Slack group.

Job shadowing and working under a mentor is yet another excellent way to learn valuable skills and protocols from network engineers with more experience. Most network engineers love sharing their knowledge with aspiring professionals, so if you attend Meetups or interest groups and offer to buy someone coffee, they may let you learn about the real, day-to-day work by looking over their shoulder.

Once you get your CCNA and a year or two of experience, continue to build your skillset and value by moving on to the next certification level.

Tips for landing an entry-level job as a network engineer

To make sure your network engineer resume passes initial screening, be sure to use the proper acronyms and terms to describe your home network design and components, as well as the process you use to run simulations, tests, and the like.

During the job interview itself, you’ll most likely be interviewed by another network engineer or a panel of engineers, not a hiring manager, Cannon said. Therefore, you need to be comfortable explaining the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, the layers of networking, and conveying an understanding of standard network protocols and services like TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP.

Blogging about what you’ve learned is another way to help you stand out in the market, added Arnold, a CISCO IT Blog award winner. Basic technical skills are no longer enough to succeed in this field. Blogging demonstrates mastery of must-have “soft skills” such as communication, teamwork, creativity and problem-solving.

Today, most network engineers work as part of an integrated, highly collaborative team. Being able to communicate effectively with everyone who uses the network increases the likelihood of getting the job you want. If you can convey to a hiring manager that you have the right mix of technical and soft skills, you can certainly become a network engineer.