To be a successful network engineer you need to be a confident communicator and possess excellent attention to detail, analytical and problem-solving skills

Network engineers are responsible for implementing, maintaining, supporting, developing and, in some cases, designing communication networks within an organisation or between organisations.

Their goal is to ensure the integrity of high availability network infrastructure to provide maximum performance for their users. Users may be staff, clients, customers and suppliers. 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 to refer to this kind 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 or city;
  • 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

Duties will be influenced by the size and sector of the employing organisation. For example, in a large investment bank you may have specific responsibility for one area of the system. In a small company, the engineer may need to trouble-shoot for any IT-related problem that arises.

General tasks include:

  • establishing the networking environment by designing system configuration, directing system installation, defining, documenting and enforcing system standards;
  • the design and implementation of new solutions and improving resilience of the current environment;
  • maximizing network performance by monitoring performance, troubleshooting network problems and outages, scheduling upgrades and collaborating with network architects on network optimisation;
  • undertaking data network fault investigations in local and wide area environments, using information from multiple sources;
  • securing network systems by establishing and enforcing policies, and defining and monitoring access;
  • the support and administration of firewall environments in line with IT security policy;
  • updating job knowledge by participating in educational opportunities, reading professional publications, maintaining personal networks and participating in professional organisations;
  • reporting network operational status by gathering and prioritising information and managing projects;
  • upgrading data network equipment to the latest stable firmware releases;
  • the configuration of routing and switching equipment;
  • the configuration of hosted IP voice services;
  • the basic configuration of firewalls;
  • remote support of on-site engineers and end users/customers during installation;
  • remote troubleshooting and fault finding if issues occur upon initial installation;
  • capacity management and audit of IP addressing and hosted devices within data centres;
  • liaising with project management teams, third-line engineers and service desk engineers on a regular basis;
  • speaking with customers via email and phone for initial requirement capture.

Salary

  • The average salary of an entry level network engineer is £19,000.
  • With experience, you can expect to earn around £35,000 to £55,000+.
  • Senior network engineers can earn £50,000 to £100,000+ a year.

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.

Other factors that contribute to salary include the value of the IT infrastructure, so network engineers in the City of London, for example, can be paid considerably more. This also applies if you work as a contractor too, where rates from £175 to £700+ day.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Network engineers normally work 37 to 40 hours per week, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. However, engineers are often on call outside office hours, at weekends or in the evenings, and need to be flexible in case of major technical problems. This responsibility is usually shared out on a rota basis. Some employers expect you to do shift work, although this is less likely at a more senior level.

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

What to expect

  • Jobs are available throughout the UK in organisations with large, sophisticated IT systems or with consultancies providing support to clients.
  • The job may be stressful and pressured, particularly when things go wrong, as companies are so dependent on their computer networks.
  • Women are underrepresented in this profession and gender imbalance across the IT industry as a whole is a recognised issue. Steps are being taken to redress the balance. Women who want to work in IT and technology should visit Women in Technology and BCSWomen for information and jobs.
  • If you work as a consultant, you may spend a lot of time at clients' offices and, on large installations, this may mean spending several weeks away from home or your usual work base.
  • If you work in-house for an organisation, travel away from your work base is unlikely, although you may not spend much time at your own workstation as you will be dealing with problems throughout the organisation.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, a degree in the following subjects is likely to increase your chances of getting a job as a network engineer:

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

While it is possible to get a job with an HND in a related subject, entry requirements typically include a Bachelors degree with an expectation to study for professional qualifications.

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

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 are not 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 is beneficial, including experience gained through vacation work and summer placements. Being on the user end of IT systems is useful, too, as it gives you an idea of the types of problems that may arise.

Employers

Network engineers can find work in any organisation with large, sophisticated IT systems. Examples of 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, now 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:

There are many recruitment agencies specialising in IT careers. These are usually more useful once you have built up some solid work experience.

While large companies usually have a structured graduate recruitment procedure, you should approach small businesses and IT consultancies on a speculative basis, ensuring your CV stresses your personal, as well as technical abilities. See how to create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

With more emphasis being placed on experience, recruiters increasingly demand evidence from candidates of skills developed through project work and placements. Get more tips on how to find a job.

Contracting may be an option once you’ve got substantial experience. Most job sites cover contractor roles as well, see:

Professional development

In this rapidly-changing industry with its many and frequent advances you will need to make training a constant part of your career development.

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

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

Relevant qualifications include:

  • Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA), Cisco Certified Networking Professional (CCNP), Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA) or other vendor specific courses, such as Juniper Certified Internet Expert (JNCIE);
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) and/or Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA);
  • CompTIA A+ and CompTIA Network+ certification;
  • Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) and other Novell certifications.

Courses can be expensive and you may have to pay the fees yourself, so make sure they're relevant by checking they cover the topics most frequently mentioned in job vacancies.

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, network engineers can progress to network management positions or, with additional training, transfer into other IT roles, such as project management.

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.

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.

Another alternative could be working as an employed network engineer for five to ten years and then moving into IT contracting and self-employment.

There are also some opportunities to teach evening courses, although this may only provide part-time work.