5 Surprising Truths About Network Engineering Careers

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Network engineering is a discipline in transition. Changes in networking technology coupled with changing industry expectations have rendered the traditional advancement pathway obsolete. In the past, demands on networks were relatively simple, and an aspiring network engineer might start at the help desk – with or without a degree – and then gradually work their way up into architect positions over time. Today, a single network outage can result in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in lost revenue. Companies are appreciably more selective about who they put in charge of their internal and enterprise data center networks.

If your goal is to get your first network engineering job or advance in network engineering, it's in your best interests to get ahead of the new challenges professionals in this industry face and address them head-on. This guide explores five facts about network engineering that typically don't make it into articles about what network engineers do, network engineering degrees or how to become a network engineer. It also looks at why the Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) is becoming the gold standard credential in networking and how Southern Methodist University's Lyle School of Engineering can prepare you for an uncertain future.

What New and Established Network Engineers Need to Know

1. Job titles never tell a complete story

Network engineering job titles have never been standardized. Some employers used titles like network administrator, network engineer and network architect interchangeably. Others used leveled positions such as network engineer I, II and III or hierarchical titles such as junior network engineer and senior network engineer. Consequently, the responsibilities associated with very different job titles are sometimes nearly identical, making it challenging to determine an advancement pathway. Is a lead network engineer more senior than a senior network engineer? Is a director of network engineering less senior than a Chief Network Architect? The answers depend on whom you ask.

The advent of specialization in computer networking has complicated matters further. There are several new job titles in network engineering, such as cloud network engineer, network automation engineer, network security engineer and NetDevOps engineer. Additionally, salaries have little consistency across job titles. It's not immediately clear why a cloud network engineer earns less than a network architect at Amazon while the reverse is true at AT&T. Consider the following salary data from Glassdoor:

The takeaway is that you should never evaluate opportunities based on job title alone. Instead, read job descriptions carefully and focus on whether the skills employers require align with yours and whether the salaries they offer meet your needs. Additionally, never assume your network engineering job title accurately communicates what you do, describes the challenges you tackle each day, or illustrates your depth of functional knowledge and experience. Be sure your resume communicates your responsibilities, achievements and hard and soft skills.

2. STEM careers aren't immune to automation

Many people don't realize that tasks requiring highly technical skills are often much easier to automate than other kinds of labor because they involve, as economist David Autor puts it, "a set of formal logical tools." Network engineering has already undergone a considerable transformation driven by innovations related to automation and network infrastructure. For instance, artificial intelligence software can now predict network capacity and control network behaviors, making necessary changes in real-time to keep network infrastructure stable while giving users continuous access to the resources they need.

That doesn't mean the network engineer is in danger of losing their place in the IT landscape. Network engineers will always be in demand, provided they reskill to meet changing employer needs and keep pace with new technology. Employers in the United States now look for networking professionals with Python programming, software development and solution architecture skills – and pay a premium for them. It won't be long before new network skills related to virtualization, artificial intelligence and machine learning become part of the standard engineering toolkit. Top network engineering master's programs such as SMU Lyle's Online MSNE understand this and prepare students to both work with today's technology and reskill when necessary.

3. Technical skills alone won't cut it in the real world

The World Economic Forum anticipates that "many formerly purely technical occupations are expected to show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills." The McKinsey Global Institute agrees, asserting that automation in technical fields "will create an opportunity for those in work to make use of the innate human skills that machines have the hardest time replicating: social and emotional capabilities, providing expertise, coaching and developing others and creativity."

Given the inevitability of automation, network engineers may need to update their soft skills to stay competitive. Technical skills related to configuration, troubleshooting and network design will always be necessary in network engineering, but human skills – precisely the kinds of skills that AI can't replicate – will let engineers get the most value out of future technology. Unfortunately, full-time and part-time career-focused network engineering graduate programs with core courses that emphasize collaboration and soft skills are not the norm. SMU Lyle School of Engineering's network engineering master's program is one of the few that teach students how to work together to solve real-world challenges while developing crucial technical skills.

4. Your education doesn't speak for itself

Until fairly recently, many people learned how to become network engineers on the job. Today, nearly half of all network engineers have bachelor's degrees, and almost a quarter have master's degrees. Having an M.S. in Network Engineering on your resume will help you compete for the best network engineer jobs but your degree won't guarantee success. Employers look for network engineers who can respond well in highly ambiguous situations and demonstrate a firm grasp of initiative and resolve. The fact that you earned an MSNE will serve as proof that you are driven, intelligent and well-versed in network engineering skills. It will be up to you to show potential employers how the work you did in your network engineering master's program makes you a better engineer.

What sets SMU Lyle's part-time, online graduate-level program in network engineering apart is that industry needs shape the curriculum. Faculty members design courses around challenges they face every day in their professional lives, and students work on experiential projects. MSNE candidates gain hands-on experience with the latest software and strategies in labs and while completing group projects. Virtualization is a core focus of the MSNE curriculum. And students learn about new areas of e-technology, information engineering and knowledge engineering – ensuring they are prepared for the future of networking.

5. Nobody knows what the job market will look like in 10 years

Futurists estimate that up to 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. Given how radically changes in computer and telecommunications technology are impacting network engineering today, it's not unreasonable to assume that many of those jobs will be in or related to network architecture and engineering. This uncertainty shouldn't phase dedicated network engineers, however. Reskilling and upskilling have always been a part of this discipline, which evolves alongside information technology and computer science. SMU's online MSNE program is mindful that adaptability is crucial to success in an industry that’s constantly changing. It prepares students to adapt as the real-world need for specific network engineering skills and expertise shifts. Graduates are confident lifelong learners.

SMU Lyle Will Prepare You for Continued Change

Network engineers must never get too comfortable because the only constant in networking is change. To become a network engineer is to commit to a career defined by transformation and uncertainty. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't prepare for what's to come. Equipping yourself to meet future challenges head-on isn't easy, but it's not impossible when you choose a network engineering master's program known for giving students the tools to keep pace and adapt.

The courses in SMU Lyle's online MSNE program teach technical skills related to network configuration and connectivity, switching and routing, firewalls and network security, VoIP telephony, troubleshooting, network performance enhancement, LANs/WANs and wireless networking, as well as skills related to leading-edge technologies such as software-defined wide-area networks, unified communication systems, virtualization, artificial intelligence and machine learning. More importantly, the program will teach you how to stay current in a discipline where technological innovations are recasting what it means to be an accomplished network engineer and what it takes to achieve long-term success.

If you're ready to start updating your network engineering skills, check out SMU Lyle Online's admissions and application requirements and more information about the online student experience. Multiple application deadlines make it easy to grow in your current networking career or launch a new one in just 20 months.