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Computer Networking Career Guide

Computer Networking Career Guide

Diego Asturias

Are you starting with your computing networking career?

If you can leverage the many valuable certifications out there, if you can learn vendor-agnostic networking and its fundamentals, if you know how to design, build, and bring any network up when it fails, then you are well on your way to a successful career.

Although emerging technologies like automation, AI, and ML will likely replace the need for network support or admins, as machines will do the configuration, management, and monitoring, the network professional will always be in high demand. As a network professional, you will be needed to design, build, troubleshoot networks, and, of course, develop and manage the automation.

In this guide to a career in computer networking, you’ll learn about the job outlook, the education you need, working in the field, salary range, and the trends that are redefining computer networking careers.

Table of Contents

  1. The job outlook of a network professional.
    1. A promising outlook
    2. Experience vs. Innovative network professionals.
  2. Education in the Field of Computer Networking: Certifications vs. Career?
    1. University’s Degree
    2. Certifications.
    3. Practice with labs
  3. Working in the field.
    1. Get your hands dirty and do the work.
    2. Roles in Computer Networking.
    3. The typical tasks of a working network professional.
  4. The typical salary range of network professionals.
    1. An overview of the computer network’s salary.
    2. Location does affect salary.
    3. Experience and education level also affect salary.
  5. Trends: Redefining Computer Networking Careers.
    1. Network Automation.
    2. Software-based Networks.
    3. The Cloud.
    4. Wireless and Mobile.

1. The job outlook of a network professional

The outlook for new network professionals looks positive, as there is currently and will be a high demand for network professionals. According to a study from Burning Glass Technologies, there were 147,448 network professional job postings between 2019 and 2020. In addition (from the same source as 2021), there is a projected growth rate of 6.5% for demand in network engineers over the next ten years.

In addition, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also provides a similar forecast. According to BLS, network engineer employment is expected to grow 6% from 2016 to 2026 in the US.

A promising outlook

The number of network jobs in the field exceeds the number of prepared candidates.

So, if you are prepared and looking into the right places, you should land a good job opportunity.

But still, many companies and organizations are looking for highly qualified network professionals. They would often require (or desire) a handful of hard-to-attain certifications such as CCNP, AWS, VMware, plus a bachelor’s and sometimes a master’s degree and, on top of that, many years of experience in the field.

How to remain a qualified network professional

To remain a qualified network professional, you’ll need to be proficient with traditional network tools and practices. For example, you should know basics like:

  • Understanding network fundamentals.
  • Using packet analyzers like Wireshark or network mappers like Nmap.
  • Connecting to remote (or local) devices with tools like SecureCRT and PuTTy.
  • Monitoring a network with tools like PRTG monitor or SolarWinds
  • Knowing basic configuration of routers or switches.

But to thrive in the field of computer networking, you’ll also need to know the cutting-edge. For example, building a scalable network architecture in the cloud with services like AWS VPC and Route53, a resilient and flexible WAN with SD-WAN, or knowing how to automate a network with configuration management tools like Red Hat Ansible.

In addition, although cybersecurity is already a field by itself, it is still firmly bound to computer networking. Therefore, as a network professional, you’ll need to keep your cybersecurity skills up to date.

2. Education in the Field of Computer Networking: Certifications vs. Career?

Computer Networking Education

A University degree

The reality is that computer networking is more of a science than a vendor's specification or set of rules. Bear in mind that many of the certifications are vendor-made. They are created by the equipment/software manufacturers like Cisco, Microsoft, or VMware, which limits the scope to vendor-specific knowledge. For example, a lot of Cisco's certification focuses on their CLI or proprietary protocols.
An engineering degree will teach you the foundation of networking regardless of vendor. So, as a network engineer, you should be capable of using those fundamentals and building networks from scratch with whatever product a company is using.

According to Burning Glass, close to 85% of networking engineering jobs require a Bachelor’s degree, and a small percentage asks for a higher degree like a Master's or Ph.D.

Certifications

When it comes to learning your networking ABCs, basic certifications like Cisco CCNA and CompTIA Network+ can be all you need. Before going into a more advanced computer networking career, taking a few certifications under your belt, and practicing in the field, can be a good start for your career. But as you accumulate some experience and knowledge, getting a university degree can take you to the next level. In addition, difficult certifications like CCIE, CISSP, or CCNP-Security, can even replace your need to get a computer networking degree.

As you advance in skills and hands-on experience, specialization can be the key to thrive in this competitive IT industry. Specialty certifications may range from cloud, security, virtualization, wireless, UC, etc.

These are the top 14 certifications that tend to pop up in the job listings:

  1. Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
  2. CompTIA Network+
  3. Wireshark Certified Network Analyst.
  4. Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
  5. Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
  6. IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Certification
  7. SolarWinds Certified Professional (CDP)
  8. CWNP Certified Wireless Technician (CWT) certification
  9. CompTIA Security+
  10. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
  11. Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  12. VMware Certified Professional – Network Virtualization
  13. Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)
  14. Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA)

Although earning a degree in computer engineering can make you stand out from the crowded job market, certification is one of the only ways an employer can guarantee you fully understand a specific technology.

Practice with labs

To gain some experience, you can try free online projects and lab sources such as:

  1. CSE Final Year Projects
  2. CCNA, CCNP, CCIE labs
  3. Free CompTIA Network+ Labs.

Get a router emulator, such as Cisco Packet Tracer or GNS3, in addition, Visio to create your diagrams, notepad++ to create your configurations, etc. The whole idea is that once you get the relevant skills, you can go and look for more advanced networking positions.

3. Working in the field

Computer Networking Field Work

While CCNA and CCNP certifications might get you through an interview screening process, these won’t guarantee to get your feet on the door. An employer might want to bring you in for the added value you can provide, not precisely for your certifications and diplomas. For example, a seasoned network professional without a career and certifications may be more suitable for designing networks and putting out fires than a triple-certified professional.

Get your hands dirty and do the work

As you start with a career in computer networking and land your first job, you’ll likely start as a support level one. The key here is to gain experience, find your area of interest, and shape your skillset. And, if you are unable to land a job because of a lack of experience, you can volunteer, try internships programs, or help out in open-source projects.

A position and career will inevitably vary according to the industry and technology. For example, working as a Full Stack Engineer (FSE) can be good for finding your niche. But remember, specialization is what will set you apart from the rest. Areas of specialization may range from routing and switching, security, wireless, service providers, Unified Communications (Voice and Video networks), mobile networks, or data centers.

Roles in Computer Networking

The type of roles includes network support technicians and administrators that support and troubleshoot networks. On the other hand, network engineers take on more challenges and responsibilities, such as implementing and maintaining networks.

Other roles like network manager might include overseeing the entire network, personnel, and capacity planning. The last more advanced role is the network architect, which deals with design and testing in advanced and large-scale networks. The level of expertise in these roles can be sorted from entry-level to senior.

The typical tasks of a working network professional

  1. Maintain and monitor a computer network The primary responsibility of the computer network professional is to ensure that the communications across resources and users work. These resources may vary from workstations, servers, remote devices, printers, or any device with Internet (IoTs). A network professional must also ensure that access to these resources is reliable and fast and still works as the company grows. In addition, maintaining a network sometimes entails dealing with third-party providers such as Cloud, ISPs, CDNs, VPNs, mobile networks, etc. Also, as most servers and networking equipment runs on Linux, learning how to install, update, and configure Linux using CLI is vital for any network professional.
  2. Design a network A higher-level network engineer or architect can be responsible for designing a new or updating an existing network. Network designers must consider the physical attributes and layout of a building, plan for capacity, and adjust to the budget. This network design will also drastically change if wireless, voice or WAN considerations are involved.
  3. Project implementation and management This is the role when a network professional is appointed to oversee a networking project. A network manager may participate in anything, from designing, dealing with providers and personnel, managing hardware and software deployment, and doing testing procedures. Certifications like the PMP (although not easy) are optimal for such cases.
  4. Innovation and migrations The field of computing networking is constantly evolving and changing. Network professionals must find and integrate new technologies to protect and maintain the networks more efficiently. In addition, they should find the right balance between what's new and well-established. On the one hand, a next-generation network might be more efficient, faster, flexible, and cheaper, but probably less secure (more zero-day vulnerabilities). On the other hand, a well-established network might be convenient, easier to use, more secure, but probably a lot more expensive and rigid.

Other qualities that employers value highly (and sometimes even more than your technical skills) are your ability to communicate, how you work with others (teamwork), how you collaborate, and your critical thinking skills. A study in 2015 about soft skills found that over half of employers believe that skills like communication and teamwork were more important than academic results.

4. The typical salary range of network professional

Computer Networking Salary

“Work to become, not to acquire.” —Elbert Hubbard

There is a strong demand for network professionals, making the job offers better than in many other IT fields. A quick look into the computer networking job market might give you an idea of the average salary for a network professional.

The salary of a computer network professional is affected by various factors, including:

  1. Your education level The more prepared you are to undertake a computer networking job with certifications and degrees, the higher salary you can expect.
  2. Your experience level The pay is not the same for an entry-level “junior” networking support for an experienced “senior” networking engineer. However, as your responsibility within an organization’s network gets higher, your salary will be.
  3. Job location The salaries will vary according to the geographical location of your employer. The economy of a country plays a critical factor in the expected salary.
  4. Employer Salary will vary according to who is paying. Is the employer a startup, a well-established enterprise, are they in the public or private sector? These factors will inevitably affect the capabilities of an employer to compensate you.

An overview of the computer network’s salary

We can compare computer network professional’s salaries based on these previous factors using Payscale. This online platform helps employers and employees understand the adequate salary range for every job position.

For example, to find out
the average salary for a computer networking engineer per year in the US, Payscale collected information from 2,921 US salary profiles (Jun 15, 2021) and computed a salary range:
the average salary is $74,948/year.

A Breakdown.

  1. Base Salary: from $51K to $109K
  2. Bonuses: Range from $793 to $12K
  3. Profit-Sharing: from $514 to $10K
  4. Commission: from $710 to $40K
  5. Total pay: from $49k to $113K

Location does affect salary

The average base salary for a computer network engineer would drastically vary from country to country. For comparison purposes, let’s use the US-based salary ($74,948/year) for a network engineer.

  1. In Switzerland, the average salary is Fr 93,495/year (roughly about $101,494.90/year as of June 2021). This information is based on 54 salary profiles.
  2. In Spain, the average salary is €31,559/year (roughly about $37,656/year as of June 2021). This information is based on 51 salary profiles.
  3. In Brazil, the average salary is R$80,889 (roughly about $16,410/year as of June 2021). The information is based on eight salary profiles.
  4. In India, the average salary is ₹341,615/year (roughly about $4,599.87/year as of June 2021). The information is based on 2541 salary profiles.

Experience and education level also affect salary

A network admin that implements software and troubleshoots will not be paid the same as a network architect who designs and upgrades country-wide networks.

If you are beginning your computer networking career journey, you’ll need to accumulate the right experience, earn a degree or a series of certifications. Then, as you advance, be ready to undertake more responsibilities like engineering, managing, or designing a network. According to Payscale, the salary range for different network roles do vary as well:

  1. A network admin’ salary ranges from $40k to $84k/year
  2. A network engineer ranges from $49k to $113k
  3. A network manager from $57k to $136k
  4. A network architect earns from $81k to $169k

Armed with all this information, you’ll know what to expect and what to demand. Having a good salary will help you be more comfortable and improve faster. But remember, on top of everything, always focus on becoming a better network professional, and the money will follow.

5. Trends: Redefining Computer Networking Careers:

“The best jobs are the ones you don't apply to. The best jobs are the ones that are created for you because they want you,” said Ivan Peppelnjak CCIE 1345 Emeritus, in David Bombal’s interview: “ Are there any future for network engineers?

Specialization is what sets you apart from everyone. Aside from the networking fundamentals and hands-on experience, like configuring routers, switches, firewalls, or installing infrastructure, new trends within the computing network industry are reshaping job requirements and expectations. So be on the lookout for any of these new specializations.

1. Network Automation

Network professionals are now strengthening their developer skills to help them automate networks. With new knowledge of programmable logic, network professionals can now automate the configuration, managing, protection, deployment, and operation of networks. Modern network pros are creating automated processes with network automation solutions like command-line scripting such as Python or Ruby and automation software such as Red Hat Ansible, Chef, or Puppet.

To get started on network automation development, you can check certifications such as Cisco DevNet.

2. Software-based Networks

Concepts like Software-Defined Networking (SDN), Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WANs), and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) are also starting to shape the entire networking industry. The concept of getting the software to do what hardware does in a network is closing and opening many doors. Companies show an increased interest in computer networking experts who know how to work with OpenFlow switches and controllers or Data Center solutions such as VMware NSX or < Cisco's Virtualized Multiservice Data Center.

A popular certification for this networking field is ONF Certified SDN Associate (OCSA).

3. The Cloud

As computing and storage resources are running in the cloud, incidentally networks are also required to run in the cloud, using models like IaaS, PaaS, or SaaS. Therefore, knowing when to keep networking resources running on-premises and when to migrate them to the cloud is critical. In addition, learning how to work in hybrid scenarios and multi-clouds is also essential. For example, network professionals that know how to implement and manage cloud resources using public cloud providers like AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud can have the upper hand.

A popular certification in this field is AWS Certified Advanced Networking.

4. Wireless and Mobile

The cutting-edge wireless and mobile wireless technologies like 5G and WiFi-6 are becoming popular. Although these two technologies are not exactly a trend, it is essential to consider them in your career more of an evolution. Many cellular and mobile operators are in the process or will start to roll out their 5G services soon. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) infrastructure is also beginning to be released. These technologies will help solve many challenges from cloud-native applications, VR/AR, or IoT/IIoT networks.

A popular certification for this field is Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA).

Where to start?

Don’t know where to start with your computer networking career?

Learn the fundamentals, work on those basic certifications (CCNA and CompTIA Network+ are good places to start), do some lab work, and test your skills. Getting hands-on experience is essential as well. And fortunately, there is more demand than there are candidates.

Also, be on the lookout for those new trends: automation, cloud, software-defined networks, and wireless and mobile. These are starting to reshape the whole networking industry.

Remember, specialization is key.