Successful network engineers are confident communicators and possess excellent attention to detail, analytical skills and problem-solving expertise

As a network engineer you'll have responsibility for setting up, developing and maintaining computer networks within an organisation or between organisations. You'll offer support to users, who can be staff, clients, customers and suppliers, and troubleshoot any problems that arise. You may, in some cases, also be involved in designing new networks.

Your aim is to ensure the integrity of high availability network infrastructure to provide maximum performance for your users. Networks can include:

  • computer
  • voice
  • firewall.

Network engineers may work internally as part of an organisation's IT support team, or externally as part of an outsourced IT networking consultancy firm working with a number of clients.

Other job titles used for this area of work include:

  • network/helpdesk support
  • support/security/systems engineer
  • IT/systems support engineer
  • network administrator
  • first/second-line support
  • network architect
  • VoIP/Cisco engineer.

Types of network

You could work with a variety of network types, such as:

  • LANs - local area networks, linking a limited area such as a home, office or a small group of buildings
  • MANs - metropolitan area networks, linking a large area such as a campus
  • WANs - wide area networks, which link nationally or internationally
  • WLAN - wireless local area network
  • GANs - global area networks, combining all of the above with satellite mobile communication technologies
  • SAN - storage/system/server/small area network
  • CAN - campus/controller/cluster area network
  • PAN - personal area network
  • DAN - desk area network
  • VoIP - voice over internet protocol network.

Responsibilities

As a network engineer, you'll need to:

  • establish the networking environment by designing system configuration, directing system installation and defining, documenting and enforcing system standards
  • design and implement new solutions and improve resilience of the current environment
  • maximise network performance by monitoring performance, troubleshooting network problems and outages, scheduling upgrades and collaborating with network architects on network optimisation
  • undertake data network fault investigations in local and wide area environments using information from multiple sources
  • secure network systems by establishing and enforcing policies, and defining and monitoring access
  • support and administer firewall environments in line with IT security policy
  • report network operational status by gathering and prioritising information and managing projects
  • upgrade data network equipment to the latest stable firmware releases
  • configure routing and switching equipment, hosted IP voice services and firewalls
  • provide remote support to on-site engineers and end users/customers during installation
  • provide remote troubleshooting and fault finding if issues occur upon initial installation
  • undertake capacity management and audit of IP addressing and hosted devices within data centres
  • liaise with project management teams, third-line engineers and service desk engineers on a regular basis
  • speak to customers via email and phone for initial requirement capture.

Your role will depend to a certain extent on the sector you work in and the size of your organisation. For example, in a large investment bank you may have specific responsibility for one area of the system, whereas in a small company you may need to troubleshoot for any IT-related problem that arises.

Salary

  • Salaries at entry level start at around £19,000 to £20,000.
  • With experience, you can expect to earn around £35,000 to £55,000 plus.
  • Senior network engineers can earn from £50,000 to in excess of £70,000 a year. Salaries for experienced contract workers may be higher and rates can vary from £175 to in excess of £500 per day.

Benefits can include a pension, car allowance, private health insurance and a bonus scheme.

Salary depends on the size, type and sector of the organisation you work for, and the size and scope of its computer and network installations. The value of the IT infrastructure also affects salary, so network engineers in the City of London, for example, can be paid considerably more.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll typically work a standard week. However, you may be on call outside office hours, at weekends or in the evenings, and need to be flexible in case of major technical problems occurring.

Self-employment and freelance contract work are possible with experience.

What to expect

  • The work is office-based, although you may need to work across different sites depending on the size of the organisation and their network.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK in organisations with large, sophisticated IT systems or with consultancies providing support to clients.
  • The job can be challenging, particularly when things go wrong, as companies are dependent on their computer networks.
  • Women are underrepresented in the job and gender imbalance across the IT industry as a whole is a recognised issue. Steps are being taken to redress the balance. See Women in Technology and BCSWomen for more information and job vacancies.
  • If you work as a consultant, you may spend a lot of time at clients' offices and on large installations, which may mean spending time away from home or your usual work base.

Qualifications

You'll usually need a degree in a subject such as:

  • computer science
  • computer software/computer systems engineering
  • computer systems and networks
  • electrical/electronic engineering
  • mathematics
  • network security management
  • physics.

Employers may also accept candidates without a degree if they have significant experience.

Apprenticeships in network engineering are available at Level 4.

Large companies, such as retailers and banks, recruit graduates directly into their IT departments, and some smaller businesses may also be willing to consider people straight from degree courses.

Employers will usually expect you to do further study to get professional qualifications (if you don't already have them). For example, many colleges and private training organisations participate in the Cisco Networking Academy programme, which provides certification at several levels for students and network professionals.

Skills

You will need:

  • an up-to-date knowledge and understanding of your employer's business and industry needs, as well as the technical demands
  • to recognise the importance of customer focus and/or of serving the needs of the end user
  • excellent communication skills, particularly the ability to communicate with staff who aren't technically trained
  • the skill to take on a variety of tasks and pay attention to detail
  • analytical and problem-solving ability
  • teamwork skills and the ability to feel comfortable working with different teams, clients and groups of staff across an organisation
  • organisational skills and the ability to prioritise your workload.

Work experience

Relevant work experience, for example through vacation work and summer placements, is useful as recruiters often look for evidence of skills developed through project work and placements.

Experience in related areas such as IT support, service and repair can be useful if you want to move into network engineering.

Being on the user end of IT systems is also helpful as this will give you an idea of the types of problems that may arise.

Employers

You can work for any organisation with large, sophisticated IT systems. Typical employers include:

  • banks and building societies
  • retail groups
  • large government departments
  • schools, hospitals and local authorities
  • utility companies
  • transport providers
  • management consultancies.

Some organisations, including many local authorities and other public sector bodies, outsource all their IT systems to specialists, so these specialist companies often have vacancies for people with networking skills.

Network engineers can be employed by a large IT company to manage the firm's own systems or work in their contract services.

Large companies, such as Microsoft, provide an extensive range of installation and customer support services and they recruit graduates and experienced staff into all areas of IT support.

There are also many small consultancies that work by setting up and managing systems for organisations that are too small to warrant full-time IT support.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies specialising in IT also have vacancies, although these are more useful once you've built up some solid work experience.

While large companies usually have a structured graduate recruitment procedure, you can approach small businesses and IT consultancies on a speculative basis, ensuring your CV stresses your personal, as well as technical, abilities.

Contracting may be an option once you've gained substantial experience - visit Contractor UK for more information. Most job sites include contractor roles as well.

Professional development

Due to the rapidly-changing nature of the industry and the skills needed, you'll need to make training a constant part of your career development.

Large companies may send you on training courses and will provide training as they introduce new systems or expand their IT facilities.

However, you'll often have to seek out appropriate training for yourself, especially if you're seeking promotion, a career move or are self-employed.

Relevant qualifications include:

Courses can be expensive and you may have to pay the fees yourself, so make sure they're relevant to your career development aims.

Career prospects

Your career path will depend, to a certain extent, on the size of the organisation you work for and the scope of its IT systems.

Having gained experience, you can progress to senior network manager and network management positions. Some network engineers choose to broaden their careers into other IT, customer-related or management functions. Technical or infrastructure project management and network architecture are possibilities.

Those who start as help-desk technicians can sometimes progress to network engineer posts, then on to senior network support and finally network controller (mainly involved in decision-making, staff management and advice on future strategy). This may be the typical route in an organisation such as a large bank or a major government department. If you work for a small company, you may be the network controller from day one and also have many other IT and technical support-related responsibilities.

Network engineering and network support roles tend to move you away from programming, so if this is something you enjoy and want to keep up, you need to be aware of this before you commit yourself to a systems support role.

With experience, there are opportunities to move into IT contracting and self-employment.