Professional development

What is a network engineer and how to become one?

Ellen Pincus
December 14, 2023 by
Ellen Pincus

Network engineers are the backbone of the modern digital world. They design, deploy, manage and troubleshoot networks that connect people, devices and data. Without them, we would not be able to access the internet, stream videos, play online games, or communicate with anyone across the globe. 

But what exactly is a networking engineer, and how can you become one?


What is a network engineer? 

A network engineer is an IT professional who designs, configures and maintains the data, wireless, voice and video networks that enable communication and data transfer between computers, servers and other network devices. 

Network engineers differ from network administrators, who focus more on day-to-day network operations, user access, installing updates and solving problems. They also differ from network architects, who take a big-picture view to map long-term network strategy. Network engineers implement a network architect's plans, and network administrators manage the final product. 

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What should you learn next?

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Key responsibilities of a network engineer 

The responsibilities of a network engineer role may vary depending on the size, type and complexity of the network they work with, but some of the common tasks include: 

  • Designing and deploying networks: They create network blueprints, determine the technology and hardware platforms it will use and deploy the network to production. 

  • Maintaining and troubleshooting networks: They configure, monitor, test, optimize and ensure the reliability of existing networks regularly. 

  • Analyzing traffic and predicting future needs: By analyzing current bandwidth and usage metrics, a network engineer forecasts future trends to determine equipment, capacity and infrastructure needs. 

  • Working with leadership to plan networks: They ensure that leadership teams understand technical networking concepts, costs and benefits to make informed strategic IT decisions that align with business needs. 

  • Understanding how cybersecurity applies to networks: They build security controls into network infrastructure while balancing them with connectivity, policies and regulations. 

  • Staying up to date with the latest technologies: Continual learning is important for network engineers to learn new skills and harness the full potential of emerging solutions. 

How to become a network engineer 

Historically, network engineering roles often required a bachelor's or master's degree in computer science, information technology, cybersecurity, or a related field. While formal education still provides a strong foundation in network fundamentals and technologies, many organizations today are placing more emphasis on hands-on skills and on-the-job experience. 

Specifically for more junior-level network engineer roles, degree requirements have relaxed in recent years. However, those with degrees tend to progress faster early in their careers and become eligible for more advanced roles. 

While a college degree might get you a job as a network engineer, networking technology evolves quickly. Training on various network technologies and getting certified in their use will help prove to employers that you can work with their systems. 

Vendor-neutral certifications like these will prove your knowledge of general networking: 

Vendor-specific certifications like these demonstrate you know proprietary network technology: 

Network engineer vs network architect 

Network engineers and network architects are both involved in the design, implementation and maintenance of computer networks, but they have different roles and responsibilities. Here is a breakdown of the differences: 

Network engineer 

  • Focus: Hands-on implementation and management of network infrastructures. 

  • Responsibilities: Designing, troubleshooting and maintaining networks and ensuring seamless data flow. 

  • Daily tasks: Configuring routers, optimizing network performance and resolving connectivity issues. 

  • Salary range: According to Indeed, the salary range of a network engineer in the United States is between $62,233 and $146,726, and the average salary is $95,557. 

Network architect 

  • Focus: Strategic planning and high-level design of network architectures. 

  • Responsibilities: Creating blueprints for large-scale networks, envisioning long-term goals and ensuring scalability. 

  • Daily tasks: Developing network frameworks, collaborating with stakeholders and aligning technology with business objectives. 

  • Salary range: The average salary of a network architect in the United States is $126,967 and ranges between $87,865 and $183,469, according to Indeed. 

Many network architects start their careers as networking engineers and gain hands-on experience that informs their strategic planning. As network engineers' skills grow, they may take on hybrid engineer/architect roles before transitioning fully into an architect. Getting more certifications at this point can help with the promotion, including: 

What should you learn next?

What should you learn next?

From SOC Analyst to Secure Coder to Security Manager — our team of experts has 12 free training plans to help you hit your goals. Get your free copy now.

The impact on cybersecurity careers 

Network engineering and cybersecurity are closely intertwined fields. Effective network security requires a strong understanding of network architecture, protocols and devices, making network engineers well-positioned to contribute to cybersecurity efforts. 

Here are some tools and strategies network engineers use to improve security: 

  • Firewall configuration: They enforce security policies, block suspicious traffic and monitor network activity. 

  • Intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS): They identify potential threats and take measures to stop them. 

  • Virtual private networks (VPNs): They encrypt and authenticate network connections to protect data transmitted over the network. 

  • Network segmentation: They divide networks into smaller segments to limit the potential impact of a security breach. 

  • Security patch management: They address known network software and hardware vulnerabilities and protect them from exploitation. 

As network engineers play an important role in securing an organization's network infrastructure, obtaining cybersecurity certifications can significantly enhance their skills and career prospects. Some relevant certifications include: 

An understanding of networking is essential to many cybersecurity careers. Networking engineers looking to move into cybersecurity may be great fits for roles like SOC analyst and security engineer.  

Job outlook and salary 

The network engineer career path is full of opportunities right now. As connectivity and bandwidth demands accelerate across industries, companies urgently need skilled network engineer professionals to design, integrate and manage both wired and wireless connectivity. 

According to Zippia, the network engineer job growth rate is projected to be 5% until 2028, which is lower than some tech occupations but higher than the average job growth across all occupations. 

According to Indeed, the average salary of a Network Engineer is $95,557 but can range from $62,233 to $146,726 depending on various factors, including experience, location and size of business. Here is a list of average network engineer salaries in various cities: 

  • Chantilly, VA: $133,691 
  • Washington, DC: $115,164
  • Chicago, IL: $103,419
  • Atlanta, GA: $94,630
  • Las Vegas, NV: $90,329 

Here is a breakdown of how years of experience can affect average salary based on data: 

  • 0 years: $89,059 
  • 3 years: $91,481 
  • 5 years: $93,987 
  • 10 years: $95,497 

Skills and qualities of a successful network engineer 

Network engineers ensure the seamless flow of information and communication across networks. To excel in this demanding field, a combination of technical expertise, soft skills and personal qualities is essential. 

Here are some of the important non-technical skills and qualities that set successful network engineers apart: 

  • Analytical thinking and problem-solving skills: They rely on data, testing, creative thinking and reasoning abilities to troubleshoot complex issues and restore connectivity and performance. 

  • Strong communication skills: Network engineers must clearly convey details, recommendations and plans to both technical and non-technical stakeholders across the business. 

  • Time management and organizational skills: Juggling multiple complex projects with tight timelines is standard operating procedure for network engineers. 

  • Passion for continuous learning and keeping up to date: From new protocols, hardware, virtualization platforms, automation capabilities and security controls, network engineers dedicate themselves to constant skill development. 

Is the network engineer career right for you?  

Skilled network engineering has become imperative to harness the full potential of emerging technologies. The expertise of network engineers now sits at the heart of innovation, enabling cutting-edge capabilities in cloud computing, Wi-Fi 6/6E, SD-WAN, 5G and beyond. They build reliable, scalable and secure infrastructures that empower digital transformation. 

Acquiring the necessary technical skills, gaining hands-on experience and obtaining industry-recognized certifications such as CompTIA Network+ and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) can significantly enhance one's prospects in the network engineer role. Combine this with a passion for learning as networking evolves, and you have a promising career path ahead of you. 

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Additional resources 

There are many paid and free resources to help you on your network engineer career path. 

Ellen Pincus
Ellen Pincus

Ellen Pincus is a communication and marketing professional with over a decade of creative experience helping innovative organizations differentiate their voice. As the content marketing specialist for Infosec, she enjoys empowering cyber professionals and students with skills and knowledge to advance their careers and outsmart cybercrime.