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A Day in the Life of a 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.

Paying Your Dues

“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.”

Present and Future

Networks evolved along with teletype in the early 1970s when businesses started to connect to one another with things other than the telephone line. As teletype went back and forth, the first network administrators were responsible for managing the exchange of data between two offices, such as law firms or large financial institutions. Keeping those machines running was more of a systems engineering job, though it was still considered networking. The first wired networks evolved in the late 1970s and early 1980s among very large companies. Most engineers in that era came out of the phone company, which required extensive networking of wires and switches. Then the Internet was born in the early 1990s, and all sorts of people became network engineers. In the near future, networking is going to get more complicated because all the standards are new. Currently, there are so many advancements in hardware that companies are upgrading their networks every six months. “But in the next ten to fifteen years I see network engineering becoming more similar to your basic plumbing job,” says one engineer. “It’s a high paying job that’s pretty well defined and not particularly exciting or glamorous. But how often do you upgrade the plumbing system in your house? Hopefully only when it breaks. And you’re going to see networking get to that level. As more home users have broadband, the network is going to become very static.”

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

In an entry-level position, you’ll configure small routers at first and spend a lot of time tinkering. In dealing with hardware, you will be the person who’s actually sitting down and typing, getting the plan to work after it has been designed by the group. The demand for network engineers is currently high, but will probably correct itself in the near future as colleges churn out more computer science grads. Be prepared to work a lot in an entry-level position, and “tell your employer that you know how to do the work even if you don’t know how, and figure it out before they figure out that you don’t know what you’re doing,” says one engineer. “That’s mostly what network engineering comes down to. You say, ‘Yeah, sure I can set that up,’ and then you’re there all weekend getting it to work. Some of the technology is so new that there’s no way you could actually know it unless you were on the design team that built it. It’s all about being able to figure it out.”

FIVE YEARS OUT

As you grow into a networking position, you’ll work on more core and central systems, and larger portions of the network will come under your purview over time. Someone who’s a certified network engineer can earn $70,000 to $80,000.

TEN YEARS OUT

A network engineer at the top of the field never touches a keyboard. At this level, you can’t gain any more specific knowledge; you’ve mastered learning how to learn, and you can apply your knowledge to any task. Senior engineers are always in front of a white board teaching other network specialists how to do their jobs. After a point in this field, you either implement complex networks because you’re very efficient, or you mentor others. In the next decade, network engineers will work for large Internet service providers. Today this is a rock star position because so few people know how to do the hard stuff, like the complicated routing between ISPs. But “networking will become almost a position for a drone,” predicts one expert.