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Navigating the Modern Network Engineer Career Path

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Network engineering as a discipline has always been in flux. As standalone devices gave way to networked machines and the applications of networked devices grew, more organizations onboarded network administrators and engineers. These professionals quickly went from nice-to-have to indispensable as employers realized just how difficult it can be to configure, troubleshoot and scale systems.

Today, network engineers are no longer just techs who configure routers, switches and firewalls to give employees server access, ensure bandwidth capacity and keep on-site data safe. They're highly trained specialists in a craft with fast-evolving requirements. Scripting has given way to programming. Physical LANs and WANs are giving way to software-defined networks and networks hosted in the cloud. And network engineers need more technical skills than ever before – not just to keep up with frequent infrastructure transitions but to lead their organizations through them.

"Networks are changing as rapidly as training material can be produced," asserts network engineer Kevin Blackburn in a Q&A with industry professionals. "The fastest way to get left behind is to stop focusing on training and personal development."

Networking professionals who can get ahead of technology disruptions and understand how to manage cloud-based, automated and virtual computer networks are more valuable than ever before – and employer standards are shifting. Network administrators, engineers and architects can no longer rise to the top of the field with a bachelor's degree and common networking certifications. Graduate degrees such as the 100 percent online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering are the new must-have credential for career advancement in the field.

This guide lays out what network engineers need to know to embrace the next chapter of networking. Our growing reliance on digital technology and the evolution of computer technology are two factors driving change in this discipline, but they aren't the only forces to consider.

Many Forces are Changing Networking

Networks need to do more than ever before, and they need to do it reliably in a technological landscape largely defined by rapid change. Modern network engineers have to be ready to approach their work with the agility of DevOps professionals. Rapid development, continuous innovation and application programming are all part of modern networking for several reasons.

Networks are Growing

Not only do we expect networks to do more, but we also need them to scale. According to a survey from NetBrain, 49 percent of enterprises with more than 1,000 employees also have more than 1,000 network devices, including routers, switches and firewalls, to maintain. The proliferation of internetworks within single organizations has increased significantly in the last 30 years. Consider large corporations with many different locations. Such organizations require massive private internetworks that connect LANs and secure multi-site networks against threats.

Complicating matters is the fact that thousands of workers employed by large corporations may work from thousands of different locations, using public and private cloud-based networks. "The enterprise IT world’s pivot from LANs to diffuse cloud-based, mobile-first networks has made it necessary to shift from port-based networking infrastructure to what might be called device-based networking infrastructure," writes Chris Voll in an article for Turn-key Technologies. Network administration is now a matter of overseeing and protecting these diffuse – often mobile – networks without sacrificing ease of access.

Businesses Rely on Networks

Customers demand more from businesses than ever before, including round-the-clock customer service, instant access to records and unassailable data protection. Network outages can cost organizations hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. In fields such as healthcare and finance, where companies handle large amounts of sensitive data, a breach in network security can not only ruin a company's reputation but also put its customers at risk.

Employees also demand a lot. Digital collaboration is now common, and modern workflows only work when there's bandwidth available on the network. The in-house networks of yesteryear have given way to the distributed networks that power distributed teams. Network engineering was once chiefly concerned with optimizing local network traffic and stability. Now it can encompass IoT connectivity, mobility, cloud services and more.

COVID Also Drove Change

As the pandemic shuttered offices, the number of virtual meetings jumped dramatically, pushing networks to their limits. According to the Verizon Network Report, the volume of data moving across its networks increased by 19 percent in April of 2020. Many telecommunication providers fast-tracked network automation adoption to keep up with the demand. AT&T, for example, developed its "Network on Demand," which allowed customers to configure Ethernet bandwidth via an online portal, doing away with the need for in-person configuration.

The large-scale shift to remote work across industries led to an increase in cyberattacks and network incursions made possible by simple oversights. Network security professionals couldn't have anticipated the work-from-home revolution would take place over a period of weeks, not years. There is still work to be done to secure networks in this new employment landscape. Larger networks, with more hub connections and more data stored in cloud-based systems, are more vulnerable to human error. Gartner predicts that 99 percent of firewall breaches in 2022 and 2023 will be due to misconfigurations by network engineers working manually.

The question network engineers face today is how to prepare to face the changes and challenges yet to come. Networks are evolving at all levels of the stack, and organizations want network engineers who can build networks that are automated, virtualized, programmable, secure and scalable to meet ever-increasing bandwidth demands. The old way of preparing to become a network engineer – e.g., taking an entry-level help desk job – is no longer sufficient.

The Traditional Network Engineer Career Path

In the past, network engineers might have bachelor's degrees, associate's degrees or no degrees at all. Training on the job was common, and many network engineers worked their way into more senior roles by pursuing professional certifications such as the CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ or Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) credentials.

There was no universal standard educational pathway, and many employers thought of network administrators and engineers as tradespeople, not IT experts. Job titles in network engineering were limited and generally reflected different levels of seniority or varying day-to-day responsibilities only very broadly. For example, someone with the title Network Engineer III might have the same day-to-day responsibilities as the Lead Network Engineer or Senior Network Engineer at a different organization. And a Chief Network Architect with a bachelor’s degree at one company might be doing the same job as the Director of Network Engineering with a master's elsewhere.

Many network engineers learned the ins and outs of their organizations' networked systems gradually as they worked to meet employer demands. Network engineers who spent their careers working on legacy systems at organizations that didn't prioritize tech might never need to update their skills.

The Modern Network Engineer Career Path

Today, about 62 percent of network engineers have bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, information technology and computer information systems. Fewer organizations develop network specialists in-house. Instead, they hire already skilled and credentialled network engineers who can manage complex networks, assist automation and adapt networks to the demands of the cloud.

Granular segmentation is a defining feature of the modern network engineer career path. As computer networks have grown more complex, new specialty areas and new roles for network engineers have emerged. These include automation engineer, cloud network architect, mobility solutions architect and wireless network engineer. Some network engineers train in many specializations to become full-stack network engineers (FSNE) – a smart move, as many employers prefer to hire networking professionals with broad, cross-functional skills that let them deliver value at all levels of organizational IT.

The most important skills for modern network engineers are increasingly multidisciplinary. Some of the top-paying skills for network engineers include Python programming, software development skills, DevOps skills, cyber security skills and solution architecture skills. Network automation skills are also in demand, and professionals who can use Ansible and Kubernetes tend to earn more money. One recent job listing for Senior Network Engineer at Microsoft requires that applicants have a "proven track record with network automation tools like Python and Ansible." Whoever lands that position will likely earn around $160,000 and may earn as much as $190,000.

Modern network engineers who reach the top of their earning potential in tech-focused roles may transition into sales or technology management. Non-technical roles for network engineers include network sales specialist, network program manager and technology manager. Some network engineers are able to advance into these specialty- and management-focused network engineering roles because they're in the right place at the right time. Many more, however, prepare to transition into senior positions by pursuing specialty certifications and learning new network engineering skills in programs such as SMU Lyle's online MSNE.

Will Network Engineers Become Obsolete?

The simple answer is no. Jobs for network engineers won’t disappear just because technology is changing, but they will change shape. Network engineers, like all tech professionals, have to keep their skills sharp to meet evolving demands.

Network engineers will need a comprehensive understanding of standard network protocols and services like TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP for many years to come because these technologies are still in use and organizations are slow to upgrade functional systems. Likewise, they must be familiar with troubleshooting methods, legacy computer systems, various hardware and software configurations and implementations, as well as the protocol architecture of the internet and information systems. Increasingly, however, network engineers also need skills related to automation, virtualization, software-defined networking, data center networking, SD-WAN, network security and cloud architecture.

Forward-thinking network engineers are becoming software fluent and can code in languages such as Python. They know how to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict network behaviors and make changes in real time to keep networks stable. They are picking up skills related to security so they can secure the entire IT continuum when new devices connect to the network. They have the skills to help their organizations move to public cloud infrastructure to reduce costs, increase scalability and ensure business continuity. And they're learning all they can about cloud computing, distributed computing and edge computing — three paradigms that network engineers need to understand to stay current now and in the future.

How to Prepare for the Network Engineer Jobs of the Future

For entry-level network engineers, the changes taking place in the field right now are likely exciting, if a little intimidating. But for old school network engineers who launched their careers when learning on the job was the norm, the disruptions reshaping network engineering may feel overwhelming. They have to adapt not only to new technologies but new paradigms in the field. In Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce, author David W. DeLong posits that technical disciplines are becoming increasingly specialized and complex and that professionals in disciplines such as network engineering need expertise across a wider range of subjects than in times past.

Rapid innovations in computing – e.g., fog computing, mist computing, multi-cloud computing – are prompting sweeping transformations in networking. The upside of the ongoing evolution of the field is that there is more room for career advancement than ever before. Modern network engineering is multidisciplinary, and there are numerous emerging subfields for dedicated administrators, engineers, architects and other IT professionals to explore. Moving successfully along the modern network engineering career pathway may involve more frequent reskilling and more advanced education, but successful network engineers have always understood that the future of the field is difficult to predict. The best network engineers never stop learning.

The SMU Lyle online MSNE program acknowledges that adaptability is key in an industry that’s constantly evolving and prepares graduates to adapt to both changing technologies and employer expectations with leading-edge coursework, labs and project work. The online network engineering master's curriculum developed by experts including Bhalaji Kumar and Dr. M. Scott Kingsley teaches real-world network engineering skills that meet today's needs while also giving students skills that align with shifts taking place in the industry. MSNE graduates exit the program equipped to continue growing and learning throughout their careers.

Ultimately, it's impossible to predict with 100 percent certainty where computer networking is headed but increasingly, network engineers have to do just that to stay competitive. A master's in network engineering from SMU won't teach you everything you will need to know in the future but it can teach you how to plot a course that leads to success. Apply now.