What Is Network Engineering?

Skyline of a city with connecting dots in a network fashion.

The modern world runs on vast connected computer networks built, configured and maintained by network engineers. These behind-the-scenes tech experts play a critical part in the success of nearly all businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations, yet many people are unfamiliar with the role or assume network engineers are primarily responsible for setting up servers and creating new user accounts.

While network engineers do sometimes do those things, network engineering is far more complex and can involve:

  • Deploying and maintaining firewalls that keep hackers from breaking into servers
  • Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication protocols that protect networks
  • Expanding systems that power applications like mobile banking and electronic health record sharing
  • Ensuring businesses have enough bandwidth for live streaming and video conferencing
  • Maintaining data centers that make cloud computing possible
  • Gathering data intelligence generated by user actions for analysis
  • Enhancing the performance of physical and virtual networks

Network engineering is also an evolving discipline. The first networked computer systems were developed in the late 1960s and by the 1980s, large businesses were setting up wired telecommunications networks to share data between offices. Companies of all sizes began integrating the internet into their operations in the early 2000s, leading to a boom in demand for computer networking professionals—and for new tech that would let people send more information over networks more quickly. Even if relatively few people have heard of Radia Joy Perlman, they've still benefited in countless ways from her invention of the spanning-tree protocol. The same is true for the world-changing innovations dreamed up by networking pioneers like Vint Cerf, Robert Kahn, Jon Postel and Charles Hedrick.

Today, network engineers have to do a lot more than run wires and set up switches to keep organizations connected and running smoothly. If you want to join the ranks of network engineering innovators, earning a Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) from SMU Lyle Online is the first step. You'll study under industry experts like Bhalaji Kumar and Dr. M. Scott Kingsley and gain real-world experience working on projects for companies like CITI, AT&T, and Verizon. More importantly, you'll graduate with the skills and knowledge you'll need to succeed in this changing discipline that we explore in more depth below.

What does a network engineer do?

Network engineers are responsible for deploying the computer technology that forms the foundation of modern society. They configure the on-site physical and wireless networks organizations rely on to function and build:

  • 5G architecture
  • Large-scale Virtual Private Networks
  • Municipal networks
  • Optical networks
  • Private cloud servers
  • Secure WiFi networks
  • Wireless networks

Technologies like artificial intelligence and network automation will change the scope of this role but probably won't have a major impact on the overall demand for networking professionals. Current trends indicate that cloud providers, data centers and global conglomerates may employ the majority of networking professionals in the future. Network engineer jobs will grow at about the same rate as the average across fields over the next decade, but keep in mind that the demand for network engineers is already high. An average growth rate might not look exciting on paper but does suggest demand will stay high.

What may never change is the variety of titles computer networking professionals have. A quick search on LinkedIn will quickly show you that “Network Engineer” is just one of many. After earning an online MSNE, you might become a:

Some network engineers specialize in emerging areas of the field, like cloud engineering, software-defined networking, virtual networking or intent-based networking. Specialists in these fields may earn even more but be aware, however, that there's very little consistency when it comes to job titles in this field. Some companies treat network administration, network performance enhancement and network systems design as part of engineering, leading to positions like Network Engineer I, Network Engineer II, etc. Others employ help desk techs, operators, admins, engineers and architects—all of whom work in network engineering, but have very different job descriptions.

What skills do network engineers need?

Network engineers earn as much as they do—the average network engineer salary is about $99,000 with a master's degree—because they're continually updating their cross-functional skills.

Technical skills are obviously an essential part of a networking professional's toolkit. To become a network engineer, you'll need a comprehensive understanding of standard network protocols and services like TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP, as well as emerging technologies like SDN. You'll need to be familiar with various hardware and software configurations and implementations, as well as the protocol architecture of the internet and information systems. Increasingly, success in network engineering may require skills related to automation, virtualization (which is a core part of the SMU Lyle curriculum), cybersecurity and cloud architecture.

It's not unusual for network engineers to graduate from master's programs with one or more new certifications.

Network engineers also need soft skills. Communication skills are hugely important in this field because network engineers frequently report to executives and other stakeholders. You have to communicate architecture and infrastructure requirements and discuss high-priority IT incidents and their resolutions in ways less tech-savvy people will understand. Problem-solving skills are equally important. Network engineers frequently serve as a second level of troubleshooting support in organizations with admins and network operations staff, which means they're responsible for tackling the trickiest network problems.

Network engineers don't necessarily need advanced computer science skills. Network engineers often have academic backgrounds in IT systems, communication networks, computer engineering, information security or information systems. Some networking professionals who enroll in the SMU Lyle Online MSNE program have computer science degrees, but that's not a requirement for admission.

What education is needed to become a network engineer?

There was a time when employers were happy to fill open network engineering positions with anyone with the right technical skills, but those days are over. Today, most employers prefer or require network engineers to have some combination of degrees and certifications. Many network engineering jobs—especially at the admin and tech levels—go to bachelor's degree holders, and bachelor's degree holders tend to earn about $74,000. However, it requires a master’s degree to make it into the top-paying network engineering roles or past the resume filter at notable tech companies like Amazon and Google or high-profile networking firms, Cisco and Juniper. After earning an online Masters in Network Engineering, you'll probably earn about $20,000 more than what's typical for network engineers because you'll be qualified to step into senior-level and management positions and advance more quickly.

Plenty of employers value certifications as highly as they value diplomas, and networking certifications can give you a salary boost on top of the wage premium associated with a master's. The most common certifications for network engineers include:

It's not unusual for network engineers to graduate from master's programs with one or more new certifications. The SMU Lyle MSNE program has partnerships with Juniper Networks and Amazon Web Services, and students who want to pursue additional certifications can do so.

What are the benefits of earning a master's degree in network engineering online?

Online Masters in Network Engineering programs are often identical to traditional on-campus programs when it comes to cost, curriculum and student outcomes (82% of Lyle students are employed at graduation), but online programs offer much more flexibility—plus the opportunity to connect with students and industry professionals from around the world. Distance learners in SMU Lyle School of Engineering's program can access lectures, notes and class materials any time, anywhere, which means they can keep working full time and earning an income while pursuing a degree. The program replicates the feel of the on-campus experience with weekly sync sessions with professors and hands-on, project-based learning experiences that help them build broader professional networks.

One other benefit of pursuing an MSNE online is that you can do it from anywhere. There's no need to move across the country to attend a great program when you can enroll as a remote learner. Even if there is a strong MSNE program nearby, you can save time and money by choosing an online program. You might not pay less in tuition for an online Masters in Network Engineering, but you won't have to pay for gas, meals on campus, parking passes, relocation costs or housing.

Where is network engineering headed?

Unsurprisingly, the industries with the fastest-growing demand for network engineers are technology, telecommunications and business services. The top companies hiring network engineers include:

  • Amazon
  • AT&T
  • Cisco Systems
  • Facebook
  • NVIDIA
  • Sprint
  • Verizon

The companies that pay experienced network engineers the most include:

  • Boeing
  • Facebook
  • General Dynamics Information Technology
  • Northrop Grumman
  • SAIC
  • USAA
  • Vectrus
  • VISA

Be aware that innovations in network engineering will change the way organizations meet their networking needs. The future outlook for network engineers is healthy, but professionals who want to stay ahead of the competition will need different skills. Specialization may become increasingly important, and these technologies should be on your radar if you're going to advance in this field:

  • 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

You won't need to be an expert in all of them to succeed in network engineering, but you will need to understand the impact emerging technologies like these will have on the future of networking.

Is network engineering right for me?

Only you can decide whether this is the right professional path and the most important factors you need to consider are your tolerance for change and your willingness to adapt to it. The technologies above will be commonplace before long. New networking technologies are emerging at a rapid pace, the telecom industry is undergoing sweeping transformations, and organizations of all sizes are modifying how they store and share information. Some sources predict that virtualization, simplification and automation will make network engineers obsolete, but there are two reasons that won't happen.

First, there's no way to automate the design and installation of requirements-driven network infrastructure. That means there will always be a need for qualified networking professionals, whether they work for one company or on behalf of thousands of companies as part of a cloud services firm. Second, the shape and scope of network engineering will change, but the demand for engineers won't. The cloud has made infrastructure-as-a-service and other off-site innovations possible, but you still need people to configure, run, maintain, and upgrade the servers that power the cloud.

The bottom line is that if you become a network engineer today, the nature of your job will probably be very different in ten years because the network engineering landscape is changing so rapidly. Pursuing an online M.S. in Network Engineering from SMU is one way to ensure you're prepared to face the changes yet to come, and multiple application deadlines make it easy to grow in your current career or launch a new one.