Networking was once a relatively simple field in which skill-building happened on the job. Today, network engineering is a branching field with numerous established and emerging areas of specialization, and becoming a network engineer involves a lot more than earning an associate’s degree and getting certified. Adapting to an ever-changing networking landscape where delay-tolerant networks, virtual computer networks, wireless networks, smart intent-based networks and software-defined data center networks are increasingly the norm takes a lot of work. The upside is that skill-building pays off—not only in increased opportunity but also in higher pay.
In fact, some network engineering skills correlate with compensation that’s much higher than the average networking salary. You can still become a network engineer with basic skills related to network fundamentals like switching, routing, TCP/IP, ARP, DHCP and DNS. However, if you want to work in niche areas of the field or to become one of the highest-earning network engineers, you will almost certainly need DevOps, programming, Infrastructure-as-Code, software-defined data center, high-level network security skills and more.
You can prepare for the future of networking and land a six-figure network engineering job by sharpening the network engineering skills outlined below and pursuing an Online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) from SMU Lyle School of Engineering. In 2021, nearly half of all network engineers had bachelor’s degrees and almost a quarter had master’s degrees. Top-paying technology firms like Amazon, Google, Cisco and Juniper Networks already look for networking professionals with leading-edge skills and advanced degrees. Given how quickly networking is changing, chances are it won’t be long before employers across the board follow suit.
Network Engineering Skills that Boost Salaries in a Big Way
1. Python Skills
People don’t usually associate networking and programming, but network engineers with coding skills can automate repetitive or time-consuming manual tasks with scripts. Python has largely replaced Perl as the language of choice for putting together networking scripts and automating complex network configurations and implementations. It’s also the most popular high-level programming language for software-defined networking applications.
Python programming is not a critical network engineering skill yet, but chances are it will eventually become one. As more organizations move their operations onto software-defined networks (SDNs) and virtual networks to make network management simpler, faster, and less expensive, more hiring managers will list Python as a requirement for network engineers. For now, Burning Glass reports that network engineers who know the fundamentals of this language (e.g., objects, variables, strings, loops and functions) can earn over $105,000 per year with a master’s degree.
2. DevOps and NetDevOps Skills
In networking, DevOps (or NetDevOps) refers to the use of code-controlled infrastructure, Network-as-API concepts, and agile methodologies to streamline and automate network upgrades and processes. Traditionally, network engineering existed in a silo, apart from other areas of information technology or operations. Executives and leaders often took a fear-based, reactive approach to networked computer systems in which unexpected issues and outages drove change. That made the average network engineer job fraught. Implementing upgrades was often costly and cumbersome because they happened so infrequently and involved a great deal of hardware.
NetDevOps is an integrative approach to network engineering based on the idea that it’s possible to design, deploy, and test network changes regularly and rapidly much in the same way software engineers design, deploy, and test new features. Software-defined networking, in which engineers control network behavior using software, and cloud networking, in which network infrastructure is a service, make NetDevOps possible. Because this approach reduces downtime and errors, engineers with DevOps skills can provide networking solutions aligned with business requirements faster. Consequently, median salaries for network DevOps engineers are around $100,000 annually.
3. Software Development Skills
It’s no longer a question of network engineering vs. software engineering. Networking professionals who want to stay relevant need to grow their programming skills and understand software development best practices to keep up with the changes happening in the field. Network engineers can’t get by writing bash scripts to automate processes on the fly when organizations increasingly expect network administrators, engineers and architects to operate as part of a continuous, well-defined upgrade schedule.
More importantly, the shift to SDN may prompt more network engineers to write not just scripts but software. The ad hoc approach to development that networking professionals traditionally used won’t cut it because it’s not as scalable or adaptable as the approach used by engineers.
“All these things that are standard parts of careful software engineering are not necessarily part of what we see is the practice in network operations,” computer scientist and researcher David Cheriton said on a panel at the 2017 Open Networking User Group conference. Processes are automated halfway, but organizations have to deal with “a big pile of Perl scripts that everybody depends on but nobody understands, because the guy who wrote it has left for Italy.” Good development processes in networking make network performance better and connectivity less expensive, and Burning Glass reports network engineers with development skills and master’s degrees can earn more than $106,000 per year.
4. Network Security Skills
Keeping sensitive information safe hasn’t traditionally been a goal of networking, but given how much data—especially sensitive user data—is stored on connected devices, it should come as no surprise that network security and information security skills are in demand. According to a report published by the Identity Theft Resource Center, publicly reported data breaches affect millions of individuals annually and those breaches cost companies millions. What may come as a surprise is that demand is slated to increase dramatically. Burning Glass predicts jobs for network security professionals will grow by more than 20 percent in the next decade, though be aware that network security may eventually look more like cybersecurity.
The skills network engineers use to prevent information theft and infrastructure tampering currently include private and public-key cryptography, encryption, perimeter security like firewalls and secure protocols. In the future, network engineers with security expertise may use automated software controls to specify the level of access and performance of every network session based on user identity. Many employers are willing to pay network engineers with security skills a premium. Network security managers, for instance, earn close to $100,000. The average network security engineer earns $115,000.
5. Kubernetes Skills
Kubernetes (also known as K8s or Kube) is a popular open-source platform for automating Linux container operations developed by Google and maintained by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. In a distributed Kubernetes network, the services comprising a cloud-native application are packaged in containers to make them portable across computing environments and quickly scalable to meet changing demand. Container boundaries are flexible, which makes container-based networking potentially less resource-intensive than virtualization, but information is just as secure.
Network engineers with Kubernetes skills can apply agile principles to deployment, engage in continuous improvement, and manage network applications dynamically—all of which can make networking more efficient and potentially reduce costs. Burning Glass predicts the number of jobs for networking engineers and other tech professionals with Kubernetes skills will grow by more than 67 percent over the next 10 years. Network engineers who hone those skills in the present earn about $110,000 annually.
6. Ansible Skills
To enable Infrastructure-as-Code, you have to automate the traditional network stack. Ansible is an open-source platform of tools developed by Red Hat that automates network configuration management, intra-service orchestration, network testing, and application deployment, substantially reducing operational costs and speed of deployment while boosting network stability. The Ansible framework can automate network security, integration, control, compliance, and delegation. It replaces proprietary vendor-specific networking tools that require significant training to use, scale, and upgrade.
The biggest benefit of Ansible may be that it doesn’t require the network engineers configuring and administering it to have programming or scripting skills. Professionals with foundational network engineering skills plus a little bit of Linux experience can use Ansible, and its resource requirements are basic whether it’s automating a physical network, a software-defined network, or a cloud-based network. Network engineers with Ansible skills can give their organizations more value for less and can earn close to $106,000. If they advance into a network automation engineer position, they might earn $116,000 or even more.
7. Solution Architecture Skills
In the past, many organizations took an if-it-isn’t-broken-don’t-touch-it approach to networking because change was expensive. When issues arose, network engineers and network architects could react, but a stable network could go untouched for years. Information systems specialists tailored IT solutions to the network; it was unreasonable to ask engineers to update the network to address those challenges. That has changed thanks to automation, software-defined networking and NetDevOps.
Today, a network engineer with solutions architecture skills can participate not only in problem-solving but also in the creation of architectural solutions to address specific enterprise needs—effectively changing networking from a reactive discipline to a responsive one that contributes to organizational goals. Updates and overhauls have to be cost-effective, address a real business need, and built around a larger technology strategy. Solutions architecture-guided networking results in IT solutions that make sense, which is why Burning Glass reports median salaries for network engineers with this skill are around $112,000.
Why the Above Network Engineering Skills Come with a Wage Premium
The short answer is because networking is evolving, but only some network engineers are willing to evolve along with it. Today, technical skills related to protocols, switching, routers, intranets, network security, IP telephony, LANs, WANs, troubleshooting, and wireless networking can only take a network engineer so far. Innovations like software-defined wide area networks, unified communication systems, virtualization, artificial intelligence, and Machine Learning are transforming networking, and the most ambitious networking engineers are learning things to keep up.
Why only the most ambitious? Reskilling (or upskilling) is the best way to ensure you’re able to advance in your career and earn top dollar as this field changes, but it’s not always easy. You won’t learn everything you need to know to become a networking engineer or advance in networking in an MSNE program—though you’ll learn a lot. The core network engineering curriculum at SMU Lyle Online, for instance, touches on emerging concepts like virtualization, and the department updates it regularly as network solutions, network systems, and networking standards change. Hands-on experience is a major part of the MSNE program, so graduates can step right into more senior networking jobs. The ROI of this degree is indisputable, but having in-demand, up-to-date cross-functional skills is equally important and takes lifelong self-study.
Keep in mind that this isn’t an either/or proposition. The key to earning more as a network engineer—potentially millions of dollars more over your career—is to both get the degree and build any additional skills you’ll need to specialize now and in the future. Doing both ensures you are prepared to work with today’s networking technology and to adapt to the technology you’ll encounter in the future.
Ready to learn more about SMU Lyle’s Online M.S. in Network Engineering program or to apply? Read up on our admissions and application requirements, tuition, and the online student experience. Multiple application deadlines make it easy to hone the skills you’ll need to earn more as a network engineer in just 20 months.