Small startups, enterprise-level companies, telecommunications firms, and towns and cities have very different networking needs, but all of them rely on IT professionals who specialize in building and maintaining computer networks. The demand for network specialists was already high in the early 2000s, and it has only gone up in the intervening years.
If you've been looking into IT careers, you've probably thought about becoming a network engineer or a network administrator. These roles are closely related but not the same. Engineers and administrators each play a role in making sure networks function efficiently and meet user needs. Sometimes their duties overlap. In general, however, network engineering is concerned with the technical specifications of computer networks, while networking administration focuses on the maintenance and management of them.
Choosing between these computer-focused careers can be tough when you're just starting out. You need less education and experience to join the ranks of network administrators, meaning you can get to work and start advancing faster. But if you're patient and want to earn more right out of the gate, you can also become a network engineer without becoming an administrator first.
Ultimately, the best way to decide is to learn as much as you can about the differences between network engineering and network administration—from the educational requirements to demand to earning potential. This article looks at the role of network engineer vs. network administrator and covers:
- Network engineer vs. network administrator job description
- Network engineer vs. network administrator career paths
- Network engineer vs. network administrator salary
- Top employers for network engineers and network administrators
- Best cities for jobs in network engineering and network administration
- Educational requirements for network engineers vs. network administrators
- Pros vs. cons for network engineers and network administrators
Network engineer vs. network administrator job description
Summing up what network engineers and network administrators do is relatively simple:
- Network engineers set up new networks based on user requirements
- Network administrators manage networks already in place
The problem is that the scope of work in engineering and administration depends mostly on employers. A smaller organization might employ a network administrator who handles everything related to that organization's network. Larger companies and municipalities, on the other hand, may employ teams of network engineers who spend most of their time working on existing networks.
As one commenter put it in a Reddit thread exploring the difference between these disciplines, "HR creates job titles, not IT." That said, it's not impossible to draw some broad distinctions between these roles and their responsibilities.
Network engineer job description
Network engineers implement new networks, handle capacity planning, and serve as a second level of support when complex networking challenges arise. In smaller organizations, engineers design networks, whereas network architects are usually responsible for creating network layouts in larger organizations.
The typical networking engineer's duties will include:
- Creating a technology budget
- Enhancing network performance
- Installing new servers
- Integrating new technology into the network
- Managing the equipment in the network
- Researching new technologies
- Testing systems for functionality
- Troubleshooting network problems
Average day in the life of a network engineer
Maybe you're wondering what a network engineer does on an average day—especially after a network is up and running. Let's look at how one hypothetical engineer spends their time. In the morning, they check their email, on the lookout for any new networking issues. Happily, there are none, so they spend the morning researching and planning future upgrades and expansions. Just before lunch, they meet with colleagues to discuss next year's budget for equipment replacement. Just before the meeting ends, they answer some questions about basic network usage, including account setup. After lunch, they begin a review of current network security measures but get sidetracked by a network outage the admin can't handle. Addressing it takes up most of the afternoon. Just before the day's end, our engineer starts jotting down notes about creating new procedures to track and report on network availability, reliability, capacity, and utilization.
Network administrator job description
Network administrators (sometimes called network operators) manage the day-to-day operations of computer networks. They share some duties with network engineers, but their responsibilities may be more immediate. Admins handle basic troubleshooting, routine moves/adds/changes/deletes, and basic configuration.
Their responsibilities include:
- Documenting systems standards
- Installing and configuring firewalls
- Monitoring LAN/WAN network devices
- Monitoring network infrastructure stability
- Operating network management systems
- Overseeing specific technology implementations
- Reporting on system performance
- Running security checks
- Scheduling network repairs
- Setting up VPN tunnels
Average day in the life of a network administrator
There's no such thing as a typical day for an admin because their job is to respond to issues as they arise (and hopefully catch problems before they appear). Like the engineer, a hypothetical network administrator's day might begin with email. A performance report indicating a possible network issue came in overnight, so the first thing they'll do is address that. It takes until lunch to uncover the problem, so the admin has to reschedule a training session they'd planned with a junior network administrator. After lunch, our admin meets with the network engineer to review plans for upcoming large-scale system security updates. The last thing they do is review some network functionality reports.
Network engineer vs. network administrator career paths
Network engineer is generally a more senior position than network administrator, but again, not always. A look at job listings for network engineers and network administrators will show you it's not unusual for employers to use these titles interchangeably.
Network engineer common career paths
Many network engineers dream of becoming network architects—the professionals who design computer and telecommunications network infrastructure frameworks. It's a high-paying position and the logical next step. Some engineers advance into other areas of IT, infrastructure project management, or positions like:
- Lead network controller, managing complex data communication systems
- Network automation specialist, finding ways to automate physical and virtual devices
- Network consultant, analyzing networks for clients and suggesting improvements
- Network manager, overseeing everything related to an organization's computer network
- Network security manager, protecting an organization's network
- Network team leader, managing a team of network specialists
- Senior network engineer, overseeing all workflows related to network engineering
Network administrator common career paths
Some network admins begin their careers in entry-level IT system administrator, network analyst, or junior network administrator positions. Admins sometimes go on to become network engineers but can also advance into positions like:
- Cloud security engineer, providing security for cloud-based networks
- Cloud system administrator, maximizing the value of cloud computing systems
- Information systems manager, handling the tech needs of a department or organization
- Network architect, designing network infrastructure
- Network security engineer, installing and configuring protective software and hardware
- Senior network administrator, managing a team of admins and possibly also engineers
Network engineer vs. network administrator salary
Do network engineers earn more than network administrators? On average, yes, and that's at all levels because engineer is the more senior position. The typical network administrator salary is about $60,000. The typical network engineer salary is about $75,000.
There are, however, admins who earn more than engineers because some employers give the title network administrator to specialists doing engineering work. Others use titles like network engineer I, network engineer II, and network engineer III to refer to admins, engineers, and architects. Keep your job search parameters broad to find the best-paying positions.
Engineer isn't an entry-level position, but salary data for early-career network engineers suggest they're paid about as much as network administrators. Junior network admins fresh off the help desk earn about $48,000, which doesn't sound like a lot until you consider the role pays almost $50,000 but doesn't require a degree.
Salary with a bachelor's degree
The impact of undergraduate education is profound when you're a network administrator. Getting a bachelor's degree might boost your salary by almost $15,000. If you're already an engineer, however, going back to school may not affect your earning potential.
Salary with experience
Experienced network administrators earn about $66,000, which may be why many admins opt to transition into engineering positions or management. Experienced network engineers earn about $10,000 more than the average salary. It isn't a huge jump, but it is a solid paycheck.
Salary with a master's degree
Relatively few network engineers and administrators have master's degrees, and most employers won't require you to have one, but earning a master's in information systems, computer science, or information technology might boost your earning potential. Network admins with graduate degrees can earn $90,000, while engineers earn close to $100,000.
Top employers for network engineers and network administrators
Both network engineers and network administrators are employed by organizations in and out of tech. There are engineers and admins in big telecom, tech, and computer systems design firms, and there are engineers and admins in banks, healthcare networks, and government offices. Some do work for their employers, setting up the systems those organizations use. Others do work on behalf of their employers for clients who outsource their networking needs.
Top companies hiring for network engineer jobs
According to Glassdoor, highly rated companies that hire network engineers include:
- Cisco Systems
Top companies hiring for network administrator jobs
Glassdoor's list of highly rated companies hiring network administrators looks a little different:
- HCL Technologies
- Tata Consultancy
- US Air Force
- US Marine Corps
Best cities for jobs in network engineering and network administration
Networking specialists can find work anywhere because even small businesses have network needs. The best cities for network engineers and admins, however, are those with data centers, telecommunications companies, big tech firms, and research parks.
Some of the best cities for jobs in network engineering are:
- Baltimore, MD
- Dallas, TX
- Denver, CO
- San Antonio, TX
- San Francisco, CA
- Seattle, WA
- Washington, DC
The best cities for jobs in network administration include:
- Atlanta, GA
- Austin, TX
- Boston, MA
- Chicago, IL
- Cincinnati, OH
- Nashville, TN
- NYC, NY
- Salt Lake City, UT
Educational requirements for network engineers vs. network administrators
Many resource guides will tell you the minimum education necessary for admins is a bachelor's degree in a computer-related field, while the minimum for network engineers is a master's degree. That said, most employers value experience, skills, and certifications over degrees.
That's not to say you shouldn't pursue a degree. A bachelor's degree in IT systems, computer science, computer engineering, or network administration can help you stand out in crowded job markets, and a master's in network engineering can help you transition into executive positions. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports many employers prefer admins with bachelor's degrees. The same is probably true of engineers.
Pros vs. cons for network engineers and network administrators
These aren't entirely separate career pathways, but it's worth looking at the pros and cons of each individually.
Pros vs. cons of becoming a network engineer
- Pro: The pay is good and gets better as you advance
- Pro: You have a say in how the networks you work with are configured and built
- Pro: You'll get paid to learn about technology and expand your skill set
- Con: If the network goes down (costing your organization time and money), that's on you
- Con: You're always on call, so the hours can get weird
- Con: It's hard to focus on upgrades and enhancements when you're routinely pulled into support issues
Pros vs. cons of becoming a network administrator
- Pro: You can work for any kind of company, anywhere in the world
- Pro: The impact of your work is often immediate and obvious
- Pro: Many admins enjoy relative autonomy
- Con: Some issues can take weeks to resolve, driving you half crazy in the process
- Con: Colleagues may come to you with any and all IT issues
- Con: Admins have lengthy to-do lists that never seem to get any shorter
As to which role is right for you, there's no reason you can't do both if you're interested in and have an aptitude for networking. Many engineers start as admins. You might not have the necessary bona fides to step into a network engineering position right away, but the path from administrator to engineer is pretty straightforward.