Be a Computer Network Engineer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Oct 24, 2019

Computer network engineers are responsible for designing and constructing the digital infrastructure that keeps companies connected. Find out the paths that can lead to a career as a network engineer in this step-by-step guide.

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What Does a Network Engineer Do?

Computer network engineers, sometimes also referred to as computer network architects, design and develop a variety of interconnected computer systems and data communication networks used by modern corporations. Their job is to design systems that are functional, secure, and stable, and they must also be able to explain their plans to management in an easily understood manner.

What Is Network Engineering?

The formal network engineering definition involves the creation and maintenance of computer networks. This includes local area and wide area networks (LANs & WANs), connections to other sites, and connections to the wider internet without exposing the internal networks that are meant to be kept private. Network engineers are distinct from network administrators and other information technology (IT) personnel in that they primarily work to upgrade, expand, and advance their network, while administrators are often concerned with preventative security, maintenance, and troubleshooting. While they may be considered part of the department for IT, network engineers often have very different responsibilities on a day-to-day basis.

Steps to Becoming a Network Engineer

If you're wondering how to become a network engineer, the process isn't as complex as you might think. While different companies will have different requirements and expectations of their network engineers, following these basic steps can set you on the path for success. How long it takes to become a computer network engineer can vary, but between earning a degree and gaining work experience, it is often in the area of eight to ten years. There are some companies who will offer entry level positions with on the job training or paid certifications to those with a solid background knowledge in networking in a shorter time frame.

Step 1: Earn a Network Engineering Degree

To work as a computer network engineer, companies generally prefer that applicants hold at least a bachelor's degree, although some higher positions in large companies may require a master's degree. Degree programs in network engineering are fairly common, often available at a variety schools and levels. Network engineer classes at the undergraduate level typically cover topics in:

  • Network structure
  • Designing networks
  • Cybersecurity
  • Windows or Linux-based networking
  • Wireless and mobile networking

Master's degree programs for computer networking typically cover more advanced and complex topics, as network engineers try to stay on the cutting edge of their field. They might take classes in systems architecture, data analytics, and systems engineering. Master's degree programs may also have more of a business focus, which could result in classes like supply chain management, financial management, and intellectual property law. Both graduate and undergraduate programs are likely to involve internships or another form of hands-on learning.

Step 2: Find Entry-level Networking Jobs

Computer network engineering jobs may require a fair amount of experience, since companies can't afford to risk downtime. As such, it's often best to start out with other IT or networking jobs to help gain that experience. Computer network technicians perform much of the hands-on installation and setup of network systems, often under the supervision of a more experienced network engineer. Certain types of computer systems analyst positions may also be available to you, where you will work on one area of networking, such as security or traffic.

Step 3: Earn Certification

As you work in these entry-level positions, take the opportunity to earn certifications whenever possible. Certifications are often offered through software vendors and other computer companies, such as Microsoft or Cisco. These certifications can serve as proof that you are familiar with a company's network infrastructure and that you have the recognized ability to maintain and expand it.

Step 4: Build a Computer Networking Career

With at least five years of computer networks engineering experience and proper certifications, you can begin searching for network engineer jobs. Companies will often list what certifications they are looking for, making it simple to apply only to those positions for which you are qualified. Even after becoming a network engineer, your climb up the corporate ladder won't have to stop. Positions such as network and systems managers, or even chief technology officer, could still remain ahead.

Expert Contributor: Allesha Fogle Allesha has graduate degrees in software engineering and computer science. She has over 15 years' experience in software and application development.

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