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Career Spotlight: Network Engineer

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For today's organizations, network connectivity is essential. Network engineers have a vital role in establishing and maintaining this capability at corporations, hospitals and universities. And when the network is hobbled, everyone from the CEO to customers may be seeking speedy solutions.

"If there is a problem, you may have six senior managers behind you," says Marj Davies, director of Internet operations for San Francisco-based auto insurance company Esurance.

Needless to say, network engineers often work in high-pressure environments and are required to keep their cool when company executives, sometimes with scant technical know-how, want problems solved pronto. Network engineers must stay up-to-date on the latest technologies, from voice-over-IP systems to virtualization, even as they carry a beeper in case of weekend snafus requiring their attention. And they must balance these demands at a time when a glut of qualified networking pros makes moving up a challenge, even for candidates with certifications and experience, say industry professionals.

Job Basics

Network engineers are responsible for building, maintaining and administering computer networks. The role varies from firm to firm, but it often includes troubleshooting hardware and software, providing software support and performing system design and analysis. Other job titles with similar responsibilities include network administrator, security engineer and network architect.

James Belasco, chairman of the board of directors of the Network Professional Association, emphasizes the wide variety of responsibilities network engineers often handle, which include security and data recovery, license management and technical support.

Rob Taylor, branch manager for national accounts at Boston-based professional-services firm Aquent, concurs. "A lot of companies are hiring people to wear a bunch of different hats," he says. Network engineers must "have the flexibility to do more than they were hired to do." Customer support and other nonnetworking tasks may be required, even if a person's title is network engineer.

Education and Training

Tough competition for network-engineer spots means employers have their pick of candidates. Job requirements typically include a bachelor's degree, certifications and several years' experience working on a help desk or as a system administrator.

Certifications are often used as a "first check-off" to narrow the field, says Taylor. The certifications required by employers include:
  • A+, Network+ and Security+ from CompTIA
  • MCSA and MCSE from Microsoft
  • CNA and CNE from Novell
  • CCNA and CCNP from Cisco
Educational milestones, such as certifications and a college degree, demonstrate not only technology expertise but also characteristics such as commitment and follow-through, notes Davies. And while many techies without bachelor's degrees got jobs as networking professionals during the boom, requirements are now far more stringent: A bachelor's degree is now often necessary.

Breaking In

No matter how respected a certification is, it's not enough to land a job as a network engineer by itself. The typical career trajectory looks something like this: Several years as a help-desk professional, first fielding phone-support calls and then working one-on-one with customers at their workstations. This is followed by another stint as a system administrator, and then a transition to the network-administrator or network-engineer role. "You've got to build your chops, and you've got to pay your dues," says Taylor.

Telecom industry refugees can sometimes move into positions as network engineers due in part to "hybrid" positions blending telecommunications know-how with more traditional IT functions, notes Taylor.

What Employers Want

Technical skills and certifications matter to employers, but as Taylor notes, employers have their pick of resumes with a desired "laundry list" of skills. To succeed, you must:
  • Indicate you're willing to take on a variety of tasks.
  • Show a track record of working effectively with customers and teams of IT professionals.
  • Demonstrate that you're not just a problem solver, but that you can communicate solutions to nontechies.
  • Understand your employer's business and industry needs.
"Don't forget -- this is as much to do with customer focus and serving the needs of the end user as what you know about the technology," says Taylor.

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