How to Become a Network Engineer

A young network engineer at work.

There's very little consensus when it comes to how to become a network engineer. There are elements of the work network engineers do that you can learn in a classroom but network engineering skills are best perfected through real-world experience. When computer networks were straightforward—with relatively simple setups of routers, switches, cables and connected devices—engineers often picked up the skills and knowledge they needed to grow in their careers on the job. Today, network engineering is a lot more complicated—and so are the educational and experiential requirements network engineers have to meet to advance.

A Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) from SMU Lyle Online can help you meet those requirements whether you're new to network engineering or looking to transition out of network administration into engineering. The program combines a didactic curriculum designed by leading experts such as Bhalaji Kumar and Dr. M. Scott Kingsley with extensive hands-on work made up of labs, industry projects and research—all of which can give you the skills, knowledge and experience to excel in this rapidly changing field. Is it the right program for you? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Network Engineering?

Network engineering is a technical discipline concerned with the systems that allow devices to communicate and share data. It's an older discipline than most people realize. AT&T built one of the very first computer networks for the U.S. Military in 1958. Just two years later, the first commercial airline reservation system went online. Research into the potential uses of networked computer systems drove rapid innovation in the 1960s and 1970s, and it didn't take long before corporations began setting up local intranets so colleagues could share data in a single office and large telecommunications networks capable of connecting many offices. In the later 1980s and through the 1990s, smaller businesses explored the applications of networked computers.

As computer and internet use grew in the early 2000s, there was a boom in demand for computer networking professionals. Businesses and organizations were using more connected devices and their bandwidth requirements were increasing year over year. Today, large enterprises may have thousands of connected devices operating on their networks, tens of thousands of employees who rely on stable networks for instant access to data and computing power, and hundreds of thousands of customers who tap into those networks to do things like pay bills, buy snacks and stay in touch with loved ones. Network engineers are responsible for deploying the computer technology that makes it all possible.

What Does a Network Engineer Do?

A network engineer's duties may change based on the size and focus of their organization, but most people with this title are IT professionals who design, configure and maintain the computer networks that companies, higher learning institutions, nonprofit organizations and individuals rely on day in and day out to get things done. Some network engineers work with routers, switches, hubs and other technologies used in traditional LANs and WANs. Others work with the technology underlying cloud networks and distributed networks. Still others work with 5G architecture, large-scale Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), controller-led networks, municipal networks and optical networks.

That makes the question 'What does a network engineer do?' challenging to answer. A network engineer's primary responsibilities will be very different depending on whether they work for a medium-size retail business or a global telecom company.

A network engineer might be responsible for:

  • Creating and implementing protocols to protect networks that handle sensitive data
  • Designing intent-based controller-led networks
  • Enhancing the performance of physical and virtual networks
  • Ensuring businesses have enough bandwidth to support and scale operations
  • Expanding systems that power applications mobile banking, online gaming, and electronic health record sharing
  • Maintaining the networked data center systems that make cloud computing possible
  • Monitoring and maintaining global streaming video delivery networks

Automation and technologies like artificial intelligence are further changing the scope of this role, as is the need for more robust information security in certain industries. A growing number of network engineers are also programmers, systems designers, data miners and automation experts.

Why Become a Network Engineer?

People are drawn to this field because it offers good money, flexibility, a chance to play with technology and new and different challenges every day.

Average salaries in network engineering (discussed in more detail below) are much higher than the U.S. average, and the ROI of a network engineering degree is hard to dispute. While some people are still inclined to treat network engineering like a trade, there are clear wage premiums associated with advanced education in networking. Demand for network engineers is relatively high and organizations across industries have networking needs, which also means network engineers can often find work in the fields that interest them most.

Networking professionals are responsible for keeping their organizations' networks up-to-date through upgrades and overhauls, so they have opportunities to work with new technologies regularly. And because network engineers play a vital role in ensuring smooth and uninterrupted back-end and client-side service, they handle everything from equipment failures to network attacks. It's crucial but challenging work and very interesting to those with aligning aptitudes and interests.

What Skills Does a Network Engineer Need?

Networking professionals use a range of technical skills, and many network engineers have backgrounds in IT, computer science, computer engineering, information security or information systems. Most employers expect engineers to have a comprehensive understanding of standard network protocols and services like TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP, as well as emerging technologies like software-defined networking. Some of the top skills requested by employers include VPN, wireless networking and information security, and increasingly, job listings for network engineers ask that applicants understand how automation, virtualization and Desktop as a Service (DaaS) are changing the field.

People seldom associate soft skills with success in networking engineering, but they're almost as important as hard skills. Network engineers take on the trickiest networking challenges and handle troubleshooting when things go wrong, so robust critical thinking and problem-solving skills are a key part of the network engineering toolkit. Communication skills are also important in this field because network engineers have to both explain architecture and infrastructure requirements to executives and managers and understand the business and operational requirements those stakeholders bring to the table.

Some network engineering skills are more valuable than others. Network engineers with experience and knowledge related to Python programming, software development, DevOps, network security and solution architecture, for example, may out-earn their colleagues by as much as $10,000 per year. Network automation skills are also in demand, and networking professionals who are comfortable using Ansible and Kubernetes tend to earn more, too.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Network Engineer?

How long it takes to become a network engineer will depend on the approach you take. Some people new to the field land entry-level network technician and administrator jobs in a matter of months after taking online courses and pursuing some very basic networking certifications. That means becoming a network engineer without experience (or a degree) is technically possible but network engineers with no experience face an uphill battle when it comes to advancement. They compete for every open network engineer position against professionals with degrees and experience.

Most employers look for network engineers with some combination of education, experience and certifications, and most aspiring networking professionals enroll in degree programs and spend a few years studying before joining the ranks of network engineers. It's common for networking professionals to have bachelor's degrees in computer science or engineering, mathematics or one of the sciences, or a B.S. in Network Engineeringbut networking professionals in higher-paying, more senior-level positions and in roles at notable technology and networking companies like Amazon, Google, Cisco and Juniper often have master's degrees along with certifications such as:

Aspiring network engineers who pursue an MSNE may launch their careers later, but they often earn multiple certifications before graduation and step directly into more senior-level roles afterward.

What's more important than how long it takes is that it's never too late to become a network engineer if you're willing to put in the work. Career switchers in their 30s, 40s and beyond often do best in flexible network engineering degree programs for distance learners. SMU Lyle's 30-credit Online Masters in Network Engineering is a highly technical program, and the admission requirements reflect that, but it's also one designed around the needs of working professionals. Most students can complete four core network engineering courses and seven advanced network engineering electives in just 20 months while working full time.

How Much Do Network Engineers Earn?

Pay in network engineering is based on several factors. There are some entry-level network engineer jobs like network implementation technician, network administrator and IT administrator that pay between $50,000 and $60,000 per year, or roughly the average salary networking professionals earn with an associate's degree. Meanwhile, the average network engineer salary is about $75,000 annually—assuming that the "average" network engineer has a bachelor's degree plus some professional experience in the field and one or more networking certifications. The average network engineer with an MSNE earns about $93,000, or as much as an experienced late-career professional.

There's no wage ceiling in networking, however. There are openings for network engineers across industries, and employers report that many of those roles are consistently hard to fill due to skill shortages. An experienced network engineer with leading-edge skills and a master's in network engineering can earn a lot more than the average salary at certain high-profile technology and telecommunications firms. Google, for instance, pays its network engineers about $132,000 plus bonuses and stock options. The typical senior network engineer at Netflix earns about $238,000 per year.

Network Engineering Career Paths

Network engineer is just one of many titles networking professionals hold. Some do the kind of general work described above but still hold the title network administrator, network analyst or network manager. Others do work that's very different in scope but are still called engineers because they work for organizations that treat network administration, network performance enhancement and network systems design as part of engineering.

Many network engineers use what they learn in SMU Lyle's Online MSNE to specialize in specific areas of network engineering such as:

  • Cloud engineering
  • Intent-based networking
  • Programmable network infrastructure
  • Network function virtualization
  • Software-defined networking
  • Virtual networking

They might transition into roles such as:

  • Cloud network engineer
  • Network automation engineer
  • Network security engineer
  • Virtual systems engineer
  • Wireless network engineer

Unsurprisingly, management-level networking engineers are both more likely to have master's degrees and command some of the highest salaries. Senior roles in networking include:

Is Becoming a Network Engineer the Right Move?

If you're tech-savvy and have established IT skills, you may be considering some very different career pathways. Perhaps you're comparing network engineering and software engineering or trying to decide whether you belong in programming, information technology management, networking, or cybersecurity. Choosing a career path isn't easy, but you may have some idea of whether becoming a network engineer is the right choice now that you know how to become a network engineer.

If you're still unsure, looking deeper into each of your options can help. Consider, for example, where network engineers generally work—in technology, telecommunications, and business services—and whether you'd be happy in those industries. Companies such as Amazon, AT&T, Cisco Systems, Facebook, Google, NVIDIA and Verizon hire a lot of network engineers, but many network engineers work in technology-adjacent fields. Companies in other industries also have networking needs, however, which means some network engineers work in entertainment, healthcare, manufacturing, education, finance, and retail.

That's part of why the future outlook for network engineers is so healthy. There's plenty of demand for professionals who can design, set up and support the increasingly complex computer networks that keep companies across industries up and running. Keep in mind, however, that computer technology is changing rapidly and network engineers must regularly update their skills or risk becoming obsolete. Lifelong learners tend to thrive in network engineering because advancement requires keeping up with new and emerging technologies. For example, today's network engineers need to be familiar with:

  • Airborne networking
  • Business-wide networking fabric
  • Edge computing
  • Intent-based networking
  • Mobile networking
  • Multi-cloud technology
  • Nano network technology
  • Network automation
  • Optical wireless networking
  • Serverless computing
  • Software-Defined Networking (SDN)
  • Wireless data linking

Ultimately, becoming a network engineer involves more than just learning on the job or earning the latest industry certifications because the nature of the work you do will change over and over again as technology evolves. Success in this field takes a willingness to adapt to change, an understanding of the impact emerging technologies like those above will have on the future of networking, and a knack for identifying what's just around the bend—all of which you'll learn in a network engineering master's program like SMU's.

The curriculum in SMU's online M.S. in Network Engineering will give you the tools to adapt to the changes taking place in networking right now and the knowledge to weather the changes yet to come. Multiple application deadlines and generous financial aid make it easy to grow in a networking career—or to take your career in a new direction. Apply today.