Starting or building a career in computer networking

How to Become a Networker
Starting or building a career in computer networking
Many view computer networking as one of the best and "hottest" career fields available today. Some claim that a serious shortage of qualified people to fill these networking jobs exists, and these claims may lure some people into the fray hoping for an easy position with a fast-growing company.

Job Titles

Several types of positions exist in networking, each with different average salaries and long-term potential, and one should possess a clear understanding of these. Unfortunately, job titles in networking, and in Information Technology (IT) generally, often lead to confusion among beginners and experienced folks alike. Bland, vague or overly bombastic titles often fail to describe the actual work assignments of a person in this field.
The basic job titles one sees for computer networking and networking-related positions include
  • Network Administrator
  • Network (Systems) Engineer
  • Network (Service) Technician
  • Network Programmer/Analyst
  • Network/Information Systems Manager
The Network Administrator
In general, network administrators configure and manage LANs and sometimes WANs. The job descriptions for administrators can be detailed and sometimes downright intimidating! Consider the following description that, although fictitious, represents a fairly typical posting:
"Candidate will be responsible for analysis, installation and configuration of company networks. Daily activities include monitoring network performance, troubleshooting problems and maintaining network security. Other activities include assisting customers with operating systems and network adapters, configuring routers, switches, and firewalls, and evaluating third-party tools."
Needless to say, a person early in their career often lacks experience in a majority of these categories. Most employers do not expect candidates to possess in-depth knowledge of all areas listed in the job posting, though, so a person should remain undeterred by the long, sweeping job descriptions they will inevitably encounter.
Comparing Roles and Responsibilities
The job function of a Network Engineer differs little from that of a Network Administrator. Company A may use one title while Company B uses the other to refer to essentially the same position. Some companies even use the two titles interchangeably. Firms making a distinction between the two often stipulate that administrators focus on the day-to-day management of networks, whereas network engineers focus primarily on system upgrades, evaluating vendor products, security testing, and so on.
Network Technician tends to focus more on the setup, troubleshooting, and repair of specific hardware and software products. Service Technicians in particular often must travel to remote customer sites to perform "field" upgrades and support. Again, though, some firms blur the line between technicians and engineers or administrators.
Network Programmer/Analysts generally write software programs or scripts that aid in network analysis, such as diagnostics or monitoring utilities. They also specialize in evaluating third-party products and integrating new software technologies into an existing network environment or to build a new environment.
Managers supervise the work of administrators, engineers, technicians, and/or programmers. Network / Information Systems Managers also focus on longer-range planning and strategy considerations.
Salaries for networking positions depend on many factors such as the hiring organization, local market conditions, a person's experience and skill level, and so on. (Links to more in-depth information on networking salaries appear in the box at the top of each page.

High School and College Education Those interested in networking careers can benefit greatly from earning a college degree. Most university programs don't offer a degree in Computer Networking per se, and the precise name of the degree varies significantly from institution to institution. Four-year degree programs suitable for the computer networking field usually involve a variation on one of the following:

  • Computer Science
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Information Systems
  • Communications Science
  • Telecommunications, Telecommunications Management
  • Telecomputing
As an alternative to a general four-year degree (that covers a variety of technical subjects besides computer networking), some institutions offer shorter-term programs focused specifically on networking topics.
Until recently, computer networking courses were only found in post-secondary education. Nowadays, though, high school students have the opportunity to take networking courses too. These classes can be quite substantial, involving among other things configuring routers and switches, installing wire, network diagnostics, monitoring network activity, and working with various network protocols and operating systems.
Which Program Is Best?
Is a college degree worth the investment, or is a shorter, more focused curriculum the way to go? Opinions vary. A four-degree can demonstrate to prospective employers a level of dedication and long-term flexibility that a short program cannot. On the other hand, a more focused program can teach the basic networking skills quickly, and allow more time for on-the-job experience.


Network administrators and managers in particular have grown fond of networking-based certifications like Microsoft MCSE and Cisco CCNA. In general, to gain and keep a certification one must pass a lengthy (usually multiple-choice question) paper exam, then pass re certification exams at periodic intervals (usually every two or three years). A person has the choice of preparing for the exam through self-study or by enrolling in a certification course or "program" run by a training organization (sometimes within high-tech companies themselves). Taking any certification exam involves paying a test "sitting" fee (usually in the range of $100 to $300 USD), and employers sometimes reimburse their employees for this cost.
Certifications are designed to accredit someone for a certain amount of industry experience that they've already gained. Some of the programs will even make recommendations to this effect, typically one to two years of prior background for the entry-level certifications. However, experience is not strictly required. Some have criticized the entry-level exams for being too "bookish" in this respect, too easy to pass without prior hands-on experience.
Which certification is best? MCSE? CCNA? Something else? Again, the answer depends on the individual's interests and also the preferences of hiring companies. Some ambitious students of networking avoid this problem by acquiring multiple certifications... sometimes as many as five or more! Be aware, though, that certifications are an incomplete substitute for formal education and industry experience. Ideally, one will acquire a few certifications as part of a balanced overall mix of education and career experience.
Many companies, particularly larger ones, offer their employees ongoing training opportunities. The employer will either build their own courses or will bring in an outside company to hold the training. These courses are typically focused on a specific product technology or tool, or on the specific technical information needed to pass a certification exam. One could argue it is preferable for the beginning networker to focus on general technologies at first rather than certifications, as companies in these case likely prefer to train employees "their own way" anyhow.

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