What You Need to Know to Become a Senior Network Engineer
Network engineers go by a sometimes confusing array of titles, and it's not always clear how titles and responsibilities match up. A computer networking professional might do essentially the same work as a computer network engineer, system administrator, network manager, Local Area Network (LAN) engineer or Wide Area Network (WAN) engineer. Some companies hire network administrators, engineers and architects, while others have Engineer I, Engineer II and Engineer III positions.
This title ambiguity still holds even as you move up the network engineering hierarchy. Senior network engineers have plenty of authority and salaries to match, but whether they do primarily technical or administrative work differs from company to company. What you need to know to become a senior network engineer and thrive in this role may vary, too.
Today's networking landscape is competitive: nearly half of all network engineers have bachelor's degrees and almost a quarter have master's degrees. The smartest thing you can do if you aspire to climb the network engineering ladder is diversify your knowledge base, hone your soft skills and stay abreast of the latest innovations in computer networking. One way to upskill while also gaining the credentials you'll need to become a senior network engineer is to pursue a master's degree from a program such as SMU Lyle School of Engineering's 100 percent online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE). If you're still unsure you'll need a master's degree to advance in the field, keep reading to find out why it's easier to become a senior network engineer with advanced credentials.
What Does a Senior Network Engineer Do?
Some senior network engineers are responsible for designing network standards, implementing network infrastructure and resolving thornier support issues. Others manage teams of engineers and liaison with stakeholders to ensure organizational networks are running efficiently and meeting organizational goals. Still others spend the majority of their time overseeing complicated network migrations that can take anywhere from one to two years.
However, there's more depth to this role than the title applies. Senior network engineer is a technical position, but senior network engineers also:
Build infrastructure budgets
Create best practices for their teams
Guide cross-departmental communication
Handle high-level documentation
Interface with stakeholders and leadership
Mediate departmental conflicts
Mentor junior networking staff
Oversee help desk operations
Translate business objectives for technical teams
Senior network engineers may handle some day-to-day networking issues, but they're more likely to be responsible for making sure network engineering teams are doing things correctly and on time and ensuring information technology teams have the resources they need to deliver value.
The Most Important Technical Skills Senior Network Engineers Need
You can become a network engineer or network administrator with skills related to network fundamentals like switching, routing, troubleshooting, firewalls TCP/IP, ARP, DHCP and DNS, but to become a senior network engineer requires more. Some ambitious network engineers specialize and develop their DevOps, programming, Infrastructure-as-Code, software-defined data center, network security or cloud networking skills. Others opt to train as full-stack network engineers and learn as much as they can about as many areas of networking as they can.
Cloud architecture skills
Programming skills (Python and Perl)
Software-defined networking skills
Engineers who want to step into senior network engineer jobs should be familiar with these concepts and technologies at a minimum. They must also be comfortable adapting as new networking technologies hit the scene and mentoring their team members to help them learn network engineering skills. In fact, mentoring the next generation of engineers working their way up from help desk or admin positions is a big part of this role.
What Else Do Senior Network Engineers Need to Know?
Technical skills aren't all it takes to advance from network engineer to sr. network engineer. Soft skills and people management skills may also help ambitious engineers stand out as they apply for more senior or management positions.
Soft skills essential in network engineering include communication skills, problem-solving skills and leadership skills. Senior network engineers, in particular, also need to understand the business impact of the network and balance that against technical requirements. They need to be able to look at the big picture. They have to know how to resolve issues related to divergent goals in an organization. And senior network engineers must respond to any and all issues proactively – whether related to network performance, team performance or changing expectations.
Most importantly, they need to know where network engineering is headed. This isn't always easy to see because technology changes so quickly, but it's vital. Employers increasingly look for senior network engineers with not only broad practical experience but also a nuanced view of the future of network management. That means senior network engineers can't rely on outdated knowledge. They have to upskill and reskill regularly to leverage their organizations' latest technology and industry strategies.
The Education Required to Become a Senior Network Engineer
The most common educational requirement for network engineers at all levels is a bachelor’s degree in a discipline such as IT management, computer science, information systems management or computer engineering. For senior network engineering positions, educational requirements vary. A bachelor's degree may be all it takes for a network engineer to advance into senior positions in United States firms. However, some companies look for senior network engineers with non-technical graduate degrees such as the Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) and many prefer that senior network engineers have advanced technical education in network engineering such as the MSNE.
Because roles in network engineering are becoming increasingly specialized, some network engineers eyeing senior-level or management roles choose graduate degree pathways that allow them to specialize in cloud networking, network security, telecommunications or network design. Some programs, including SMU Lyle's online MSNE, let students build a custom course of study around electives.
Many aspiring senior network engineers wonder whether they genuinely need a master's degree. In the early days of computer networking, the answer was usually no, but today, more than 65 percent of senior network engineers have bachelor's degrees and more than 11 percent of senior network engineers have master's degrees. It may not be long before a network engineering master's degree becomes the base educational requirement for senior engineers in networking.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Senior Network Engineer?
According to ZipRecruiter, most senior network engineers have five to 10 years of experience. However, there's no strict timeline from admin to senior engineer in networking because advancement along the network engineering career path is often based on what you know, not the length of your resume. Senior network engineers typically have experience, education and certifications – all of which take years to accrue.
A networking professional might start with a four-year bachelor's degree in IT or systems engineering and land an entry-level network technician or network administrator position. They work in that role for three years, earning one or more certifications in the process before they're promoted to engineer. Then they decide they want to advance more quickly or earn more money and enroll in a master's degree program such as SMU Lyle's online MSNE. Most students can complete the 30-credit program's four core network engineering courses and seven advanced network engineering electives in just 20 months while working full time. They graduate in about two years, prepared to earn additional certifications and transition into senior network engineering positions soon after.
All told, this hypothetical engineer took nine years to qualify to become a senior network engineer. Some extremely driven networking professionals earn this title faster by enrolling in graduate school right after completing a bachelor's degree program, while others take a roundabout path and spend more time accruing experience before moving up the ranks.
Is This the Right Role for Me?
To answer this question, look into several senior-level network engineering roles – not just senior network engineer. You might become a director of network engineering, network manager or principal network engineer. You should also look into specialty roles such as senior cloud network engineer, senior virtualization engineer or senior wireless network engineer. Also, don't discount the idea that you might be happiest in a people management role, and don't hesitate to aim high. Some network engineers become Chief Technology Officers or Chief Information Officers.
Whatever your ambitions are, know that earning an MSNE is often what it takes to transition from entry-level network administrator and technician roles into more senior engineer positions. Researching the requirements employers have for networking professionals with the above job titles can be eye-opening and help you identify your career interests and pinpoint the skills gaps you'll need to address before you can advance.
Regardless of title, demand for network engineers is high and senior-level network engineers earn good money. Network engineer salaries are already higher than the national average, and senior network engineer is one of the highest-paying network engineering roles. Employment data aggregators such as PayScale, Glassdoor and Indeed report that average salaries range from just shy of $100,000 to $116,000. Senior network engineers can earn even more at companies that treat this as a managerial role and at technology firms that pay tech workers exceptionally well. A senior network engineer at Facebook, for example, can earn as much as $226,000, while a senior network engineer at Netflix earns about $242,000.
Just remember that becoming a senior network engineer involves more than just taking on new and greater levels of responsibility. Experience and the proper credentials will only get you so far in a field where the goalposts are constantly shifting. Senior network engineers have to be able to adapt to expanding networks, changing technology, evolving requirements and more. Most master's programs teach network engineers advanced technical skills related to network operating systems and network architecture. Only some, such as SMU Lye's MSNE, teach network engineers how to anticipate the future of network engineering and keep pace with transformations in computer networking and related fields.
Still have questions about whether a master's in network engineering is worth it? Connect with an enrollment advisor today to find out more about the ROI of an MSNE, admissions, application deadlines, tuition and more.