Career: Network Engineer
A network engineer handles all of the “plumbing” for a company’s computers, connecting offices with T1 lines, hooking them up to the Internet, and configuring all internal systems such as net routers and firewalls. The position usually spills over into some Unix systems administration work, but “basically, it’s a plumbing job,” says one engineer. Configuring a start-up Web company is a pretty easy network design job; most of these companies have a small staff and only one location. But if you work for Citibank, for example, the network is incredibly complicated with tiers and tiers of network engineers. If you’re willing to wear a suit and tie every day, go to work for a bank where you’ll make twice as much as anywhere else. A network engineer needs to know how to use some basic network devices like “packet sniffers,” but the work itself doesn’t utilize a lot of tools. “It’s a ‘noodly’ job; you have to be able to think your way through problems and understand how stuff works,” says one professional. You don’t spend a lot of time typing, but rather in front of white boards (like a chalk board you write on with markers) drawing pictures to visualize your solutions. A typical day demands atypical hours; network engineers usually work off-hours when they’re tinkering with something, otherwise they’ll interrupt everyone else’s work. It’s the earmark of techies to show up later, often around 10 or 11 a.m., but they’re usually there until 7, 8 or 9 p.m. And most likely they’re wearing a pager and are always on call. Networking has a culture unto itself, and a subculture among those who work on the Net. But networking is really only glamorous to people in the field. “Anyone in the general public would not be like, ‘cool, you’re a network consultant,’” says one insider.
“I took one networking class in college and everything I know about modern networking I learned on the job,” says one engineer. Today there are certifications, like CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts), and the classes are quite difficult. “But from a manager’s perspective, it seems as though the people who are certified aren’t actually very smart. They’ve spent two years studying for this test, but they’ve never actually set up a router before. I look for intelligence and enthusiasm, because you’re going to learn it all on the job anyway.” Routing and networking is a mindset—understanding how stuff flows from one place to another—so it does help if you studied math, computer science, or engineering as an undergraduate. “However, one of the best network engineers I know was a literature major in college. So your actual background really means nothing. It’s all about tenacity—being able to sit in front of a problem that you have no idea why it’s doing what it’s doing until you solve it, which is usually at 2 or 3 a.m., because you have to do this stuff when no one else is around so you don’t interrupt the company’s work.”
“I started out as a systems Unix administrator, then moved to network engineering, then switched to being a programmer, and now I’m managing a company and handling business development,” says one former network professional. The same thinking that makes for a talented network engineer applies well to programming, systems administration, and other sorts of fields employing logic, like engineering. However, the skills themselves are very specific, narrow, and vertical. “There aren’t really any industries where parallel skills would be appropriate. It’s not like you can say, ‘oh, I see how this could apply to being a chef,’ for example.”