Routers, switches, firewalls, VLANs, OSPF, EIGRP, BGP, IS-IS, fiber optics, and those beautifully cabled rooms with the blinking lights. Being the “overlord” of a company’s entire network and influencing its routing and switching for not just its end users but also for all the servers, applications, and connectivity to the public clouds such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, and Google GCP. If all of that tickles your tail-feathers then you’re in the right place!
Now as of writing this, there’s an absolute plethora of blogs and YouTube videos on how to get into network engineering. This is another one of those pieces. Network Engineering is not an entry-level profession to get into but much like any career, there are paths into it.
First, let’s get into what a network engineer does
Now a title is just a title so the job responsibilities from Company A can be wildly different than at Company B. In addition, some roles are siloed, or focused on one aspect of network engineering and others are more of an IT Generalist aka wearing many hats. My first network role was “Network Technician” but my day-to-day was more of a hybrid of a Network Administrator and a Server Administrator. I managed our entire wired and wireless network infrastructure with my senior and assisted in managing our entire server infrastructure including compute, backup, and storage. In addition, anything deemed “Infrastructure-owned”, I got involved with to further assist my team and my leader.
Your primary responsibilities tend to be monitoring, maintaining, troubleshooting, designing, and upgrading a company’s corporate wired and wireless network. What I explained is the Enterprise side of Network Engineering, there’s also the Service Provider side or being a Network Engineer for an ISP. I’ve never worked for an ISP but from what I have seen and been told, their structure is more siloed due to their national and/or global network infrastructure. Responsibilities can vary there as well depending on what team you’re on and what network engineer tier level you are (Tier I, II, III, or IV). Remember what I said about Company A and Company B being different about network engineer roles? Same concept to the degree of the extent of your capabilities. You can have a network engineer title and wear many hats or you can have the same title and do little to nothing or be reduced to a NOC Technician role.
Next, let’s get into another portion: Money
You’ve probably seen the common narrative in articles, reports, and especially on Twitter, “Get into IT and make six figures!” Welp…that’s half right. Yes, there’s money in IT and network engineers get paid well. Yes you can make six figures but not right away and typically takes time and most importantly, in-demand skills with experience. Pay range depends on factors for any job including this one but don’t make this career change if you have the notion that you’ll make six figures IMMEDIATELY. As far as pay, take into consideration your location, the company, the sector you’re working in, security clearance (public sector), experience (extremely important), certifications, etc. I’ve seen pay ranges from $35K-$200K+ and you can validate that on several job research sites and job boards. The average base salary is around $76K annually and maxes out at $113K annually per PayScale.
Now the juicy part: How to get there
There is no set path to become a network engineer so I’ll give you the general guidelines on what I believe is an effective path based on my experience and observations. I’m going to break this down into two paths: Whether you have a job in IT or not.
Ground Zero: You have a job in another sector and want to become a network engineer.
First things first, build up some basic IT skills. I tend to recommend the CompTIA A+ content. You don’t have to sit for the exam. With just this knowledge alone, you should be proficient enough to get a service desk or workstation role. Let me be clear on something, if you’re completely new to IT, it doesn’t hurt to get one or both of those roles but it’s also not required. I always respect and pay tribute to those two as you learn how to troubleshoot and gain soft skills with your end users. In addition, if you do start out at a service desk and/or workstation support role, you don’t have to stay in that role for a long time. Absorb everything, learn as much as you can, then you can likely move up or move out of that role within 6 months – 1 year max.
Next, set your sights on the CCNA and this one you’ll want to work hard in obtaining. If you’re in IT already, you can start here. Before going any further, ask around and do your research at your organization to see what they require in someone wanting to be a network engineer. This can be used as your map if you plan to stay with them. You can get a role without CCNA whether it’s an external or internal position. Not entirely impossible but may prove to be difficult. In addition, you want to ensure that your resume doesn’t get automatically declined if HR is specifically looking for those with a CCNA at bare minimum.
Why the CCNA and not the Network+? Both will teach you network concepts but where the CCNA shines is that it teaches you how to configure the routers and switches vs. soley the concepts. Both certifications do overlap quite a bit as they both teach you the fundamentals and build from there with the CCNA leaning to Cisco devices. In addition, the CCNA remains to be highly desired in new candidates seeking networking roles while also serving as a baseline to a candidate’s knowledge and skills. Learning and labbing the content of the CCNA sets the stage for other vendors such as Juniper’s JNCIA-Junos, Aruba’s ACSA, etc but I’ll go into that on another post. Make it a point to learn the technologies and lab them right after.
Finally, you have your brand new CCNA certification so what’s next? Job-hunting! If you’re in an organization already that has internal network roles, network internally and find out what you need to have to apply and if there are openings (remember my earlier point?). This actually sets you up to be an impressive possible promotion as you were previously asking questions to become a network engineer and you already proved your hard work and commitment by achieving your CCNA. Management will see that you really do put your money where your mouth is.
If you’re not at an organization that houses network engineers, start job hunting looking for CCNA roles. I’ll be honest, you might not find a network engineer role for just a CCNA unless the role is entry level with that title. Also being realistic, it’s a bit of a pain getting your first network gig in the beginning. It took me six months personally to get my first network gig but mileage may vary. Keep your skills sharp while you’re job hunting and even both lab and review topics job postings will list. Maybe even up the ante by dipping your toes in the CCNP pool and start learning the tech and protocols discussed. I can’t promise that you’ll get a network engineer role out of the gate unless you learn and practice topics beyond the CCNA level. It’s not impossible just difficult and don’t want to set the incorrect expectations. Here are some of the roles you may come across:
- NOC Technician/Engineer
- Network Technician
- Network Analyst
- Network Administrator
- Cisco Packet Tracer
- Create a free account and enroll into the free introductory course for Packet Tracer (or any other free courses, they’re pretty great)
- CCNA 200-301 Official Cert Guide Library by Wendell Odom
- CBT Nuggets
- Great CCNA courses and beyond
- Can also be used for learning A+ content
- Plus they have courses that cover other vendors and technologies
- CompTIA A+
- They have their CertMaster course and practice exams here but it’s $$$
- Exam Cram books (A+)
- Amazon has other books for the A+ content as well
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