What Does a Network Engineer Do?

A network engineer wearing glasses works in a server room.

Network engineering is a thriving but evolving area of information technology. Careers in this sector are stable, opportunities are plentiful, and market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes hundreds of millions of job postings in real-time, predicts demand for network engineers will grow by 6.5 percent across industries over the next 10 years. It is also a field experiencing rapid upheaval because organizations are automating and virtualizing their networks, moving them onto the cloud, and integrating emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and Machine Learning into their networks.

'What does a network engineer do?' was once a simple question with a simple answer. Network engineers were techs who configured routers, switches, and firewalls to give employees bandwidth and server access and keep on-site data safe. Today, network engineers are highly trained specialists with programming experience, cybersecurity expertise, and a host of other technical networking skills. On top of it all, they have to be Jacks-of-all-trades. Many companies now rely on a mishmash of physical computing infrastructure and software-defined and virtual networks or are in the process of transitioning to cloud networks. Muddying matters further is the confusing array of titles in network engineering. The relationship between role and responsibility is still evolving in the field, and employers may use job titles like network administrator, network engineer, and network architect interchangeably.

What's certain, however, is that network engineers are no longer just techs. They're programmers, systems designers, data miners, and automation experts. They're also managers, directors, and executives because networking in a world where businesses have tens of thousands of connected devices requires strong leadership. This guide explores what it's like to become a network engineer in 2021, the growing list of more senior titles in the field, and why graduate degrees like the Online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) program offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering are the new must-have credential for career advancement in networking.

What Does a Network Engineer Do?

Network engineers are IT specialists who design, build and configure new network infrastructure and maintain and upgrade existing network systems—often traditional local area networks, wide area networks, wireless networks, and VPNs. They may also work with software-defined wide area networks, unified communication systems, and cloud networks. Smaller companies may employ one networking professional who serves as a network administrator, network engineer and network architect. However, network engineering jobs at mid-size and large organizations are often more specialized. A single engineer at an enterprise-level firm might focus exclusively on system design and upgrades, administration, network performance monitoring, virtualization, or hardware management.

A network engineer's duties can include:

  • Creating technology budgets
  • Designing network layouts
  • Overseeing capacity planning and scaling
  • Installing and configuring servers
  • Integrating new technology into existing networks
  • Investigating inefficiencies and faults in the network
  • Managing the physical tech in the network
  • Monitoring and enhancing network performance
  • Planning scheduled upgrades
  • Procuring network equipment
  • Testing network capacity and functionality
  • Troubleshooting network problems
  • Updating equipment with the latest firmware
  • Working with equipment vendors and subcontractors

Network engineering can be gratifying in more ways than one. The work pays well, though, of course, money isn't everyone's primary motivator. Some networking professionals enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their hard work pay off in the form of a system that hums along efficiently without significant issues. Others enjoy what they do because it's never dull. The challenges a network engineer tackles from week to week will always be different. Still, others are drawn to this profession by the thrill of the hunt. When networks aren't performing as they should, it's up to the network engineers of the world to figure out why—and fast, because unscheduled downtime can cost thousands or millions of dollars.

Where Do Network Engineers Work?

There are network engineers across industries. They work for companies, agencies, and organizations both in and out of the technology sector. People associate networking with telecommunications, computer systems design, and cloud computing, but many network engineers work in retail, entertainment, healthcare, finance, and even fashion. While it's true that the top employers hiring network engineers are companies like Amazon, Google, NVIDIA, and Verizon, some of the best-paying companies known for hiring networking professionals include VISA and Lockheed Martin. Network engineers in different industries may need domain expertise specific to that field to do their best work. Still, the typical networking engineering job description doesn't change much from industry to industry.

Neither do titles. There are more roles in this field than most people realize because organizations from the smallest startups to the most prominent global conglomerates have networking needs. Figuring out where you belong in the networking hierarchy is a matter of understanding what kinds of network engineering jobs are out there and what qualifications you will need to step into them.

Companies' increasing reliance on networked devices and advanced computer technology is changing requirements in the field. For example, network administrators typically don't have master's degrees, but in 2021 you might need an MSNE to become a network programmer or director of network engineering. You'll almost certainly need one to become a Chief Network Architect or to make it past the first round of automated resume filters at the FAANG firms. It's not just about adding one more credential to your resume, however. The skills you'll learn in a network engineering master's program will prepare you to step into more senior-level roles and work with the emerging technologies changing the networking landscape.

What Skills Do Network Engineers Need?

Network engineers use a broad range of cross-functional skills. Their work involves interfacing with people as well as with technology. Networking is a highly technical field but also one that takes strong communication skills, problem-solving skills, and analytical skills. The stereotype of the lonely network engineer who spends most days alone at a computer in their cube or the server closet is outdated. Networking professionals at smaller companies work closely with executives and other stakeholders, vendors, and colleagues from across departments. At large companies, they work on teams that can include IT help desk employees, admins, network operations staff, and developers.

The list of technical skills network engineers need is growing. Network engineers need skills related to standard network protocols; TCP/IP, DNS, and DHCP; switching and routing; firewalls and network security; VPNs; and wireless networking. Increasingly, employers look for network engineers with Python, Java, and SQL skills—suggesting that networking is moving toward a DevOps model that embraces automation and Infrastructure as Code/Network as Code.

As networking evolves, so too will the skills networking engineers need to stand out. These distinguishing skills will give you a distinct advantage when looking for work in the present and will likely be necessary for the future:

  • Ansible and Puppet
  • API
  • Cloud architecture
  • NetDevOps
  • Network automation
  • Programming
  • Software-defined networking
  • Virtualization

The more you know about and prepare for the future of networking—by, for instance, enrolling in a network engineering master's program like SMU's that emphasizes virtualization in the curriculum—the more likely it is you will be able to land one of the higher-paying positions described below.

Job Titles in Networking and How Much They Pay

Titles in network engineering sometimes reflect level and day-to-day responsibilities, but there are no standardized roles in this field. Some companies expect engineers to be architects and admins while others group networking professions into extremely granular silos (e.g., network programmer, NetDevOps engineer). The smartest thing you can do when launching a career in networking is to prepare to keep learning. You can be sure the skills associated with the titles below will change.

Chief Network Architect

Also known as Chief Infrastructure Architect or Chief Network Engineer, this executive position is one of the highest-paying in networking. Chief Network Architects earn about $143,000 and are responsible for providing strategic direction related to network infrastructure, including architecture, engineering, design, installation, configuration, and security compliance. Most professionals in this role have a decade or more experience working with physical systems, leading projects, and developing technology policies and procedures. They may also have some experience working with cloud-based IT systems, OS virtualization, VDI, Desktop as a Service (DaaS), and software-defined services. To become Chief Network Architect, you will need a master's degree in a related field—ideally, an MSNE—plus various industry certifications.

Cloud Network Engineer

This relatively new title typically is associated with salaries of about $106,000 or more for cloud engineers with master's degrees. Cloud network engineers configure and provide operational support for cloud-based services and systems. They also handle administration, remote access, application availability, patching, performance, scaling, security compliance, and backups. Employers look for engineers with experience running cross-platform cloud deployment and migration, addressing cloud security issues, and working with cloud management solutions like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Cloud network engineers often have skills related to hyperconverged infrastructure, cloud-native PCoIP technologies, and virtualization—plus three to five years of experience in an enterprise-level network engineering role and professional certifications specific to cloud networking (e.g., AWS Solutions Architect Associate credential).

Network Analyst

Sometimes called systems architects, network analysts design and deploy technical networking solutions to help organizations operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. They earn about $94,000, though salaries are higher at companies that treat this as a management position and may be lower at companies that use this title to refer to mid-level engineers. Employers usually expect network analysts to have advanced knowledge of networked systems plus domain-specific business knowledge so they can bridge the gap between IT and the departments that use technology to meet business goals. While analysts don't necessarily need graduate degrees, they can be an asset in workplaces where network analysts work closely with managers from other departments.

Director of Network Engineering/Network Manager

These senior-level networking professionals earn as much as Chief Network Architects because some employers treat network engineering directors as the top networking title. Directors and managers in network engineering oversee the teams of admins, engineers, and architects who design, configure, install, maintain, optimize and troubleshoot physical and cloud-based network infrastructure. They need deep knowledge of the managed sub-functions of networking and enterprise networking fundamentals to provide overall strategic direction, set protocol, and guide the direction networking projects take. Employers generally look for directors with 10 or more years of experience in complex global environments, including at least five years in managerial roles. They may prefer to hire applicants with master's degrees like the MSNE.

Network Security Analyst

Experienced network security analysts can earn more than $90,000. Responsibilities associated with this role include protecting on-site and cloud-based network infrastructure against attacks by creating security protocols, finding and minimizing vulnerabilities, monitoring network traffic for unusual activity, installing and maintaining security-focused software and investigating security breaches if they occur. Most network security analysts have bachelor's degrees plus IT certifications like the CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+, and CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst (CySA+) credentials. Some employers prefer to hire security analysts with graduate degrees.

Network Architect

Network architects earn about $122,000 and spend less time deploying and maintaining systems than admins and engineers. The primary responsibilities associated with this title include technical planning, architecture design, network optimization, interdependent technology integration and technical migration oversight. Network architects often work closely with managers and executives, creating networking and IT solutions based on functional user requirements, technology standards driven by business goals, and future strategies for enhancement. To become a network architect, you will need a broad understanding of everything from network topography and segmentation to network function virtualization and automation, plus a Master of Science in Network Engineering.

Network Automation Engineer

Network automation engineers help organizations automate network functions like resource and security provisioning, network mapping, and network testing to continuously maximize network efficiency and functionality. They work in traditional business settings, data centers, and cloud environments, replacing manual, command-line instructions with scripts and API-based instructions. Network automation engineers earn about $116,000 because they have additional skills and experience related to Python, asynchronous programming, database scripting languages, cloud automation, cloud security, Ansible, and Restful APIs. It's not uncommon for these networking specialists to have master's degrees and specialty certifications. Employers look for hands-on experience plus two years of automation engineering experience.

Principal Network Engineer

Principal engineers are the highest-ranking network engineers, and more than a quarter of these networking professionals have master's degrees. The average salary associated with this title is about $122,000, though principal network engineers in managerial roles can earn more. Principal engineers in technical roles work with large, complex networks, massive data centers, or specific leading-edge technologies. Those in managerial or supervisory positions oversee projects related to establishing new networking environments or large-scale migrations. In both cases, an M.S. in Network Engineering from a reputable university like SMU can be a significant asset.

Principal Network Architect

These networking professionals earn as much as they do—close to $160,000—because they have network design expertise very few engineers possess. They lead teams that design and deploy global production infrastructure, design large-scale networks capable of controlling power grids and public utilities and create new networking standards. Principal network architects have advanced technical knowledge of telecommunications technologies, experience working in large enterprise environments, and a thorough understanding of the kinds of emerging technologies that will shape the future of networking, like Machine Learning. Many have at least five years of experience in network architect roles, plus a bachelor's degree or a master's degree relevant to the field such as the MS in Network Engineering from SMU Lyle.

Senior Network Engineer

Senior network engineers manage junior engineers in team-based work environments while also configuring, maintaining, and updating physical and cloud-based network infrastructure. They may also resolve advanced support issues and do some kinds of design work usually handled by network architects. Senior network engineer salaries average out to about $101,000, though engineers can earn more at companies that treat this as a managerial role. Senior network engineers need enterprise networking skills, high-level leadership skills, and project management skills.

Senior Network Manager

Networking professionals with this title may do less hands-on technical work and spend more time training and overseeing the teams that work directly with key network resources. They also work closely with vendors, suppliers, and consultants to ensure that network updates and migrations happen in a timely way. When senior network managers tackle tech problems, they are more likely to work on asset management, performance enhancement, and capacity tuning than on deployment. Senior network managers usually have at least five years of experience, if not more, and earn about $122,000.

Virtualization Engineer

Virtualization engineers are responsible for everything related to the virtual provisioning of networks. They make about $114,000 to programmatically create, provision, and manage networks using software instead of physical resources like switches and routers. Sometimes they work in hybrid environments that use hardware for Internet Protocol packet forwarding and software for other functions. Because this role is so new, employers' expectations are high. They look for engineers with significant education and in-depth, hands-on experience designing, developing, and deploying technology with virtual platforms.

Wireless Network Engineer

These engineers can earn $100,000 or more implementing high-density WIFI solutions that go beyond basic WLAN and WWAN branch systems. Wireless network engineers need hands-on experience working with common wireless networking technologies. They also need to be familiar with software-defined networking principles, 5G and 6G, LIFI, and other emerging technological trends in networking.

What Network Engineers Do Is Evolving

The future outlook for network engineers is strong, but the landscape in which employers will create new jobs is changing rapidly. Networking professionals still need to know about routing and switching, firewalls, and traditional LAN/WAN configuration—but now also need skills related to automation, virtualization, the cloud, advanced cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, data-driven networking, and more. The gulfs between computer science, information technology, and networking are narrowing rapidly.

The most straightforward answer to the question 'What does a network engineer do?' is 'They learn and adapt.' As computer technology evolves, so do the network engineers of the world. What the marketplace expects from networking professionals has changed dramatically in the past two decades, and network engineer jobs will likely change just as dramatically in the coming years.

The network engineers with the longest, most lucrative careers—irrespective of titles—are those who make a concerted effort to avoid obsolescence. The easiest way to keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date in this field is to pursue advanced education. With an online M.S. in Network Engineering from SMU Lyle Online, you will have the skills, knowledge, and credentials to not only step into the highest-paying roles in networking but also adapt as this ever-shifting field undergoes its next transformation.

If you're still unsure if the MSNE is right for you or you have questions, read up on SMU Lyle Online's admissions and application requirements, tuition, and the online student experience before you apply. Multiple application deadlines make it easy to grow in your current networking career or launch a new one in just 20 months.