So You Want to be a Network Engineer. Here’s Where You Should Start!
First lets talk about what a Network Engineer is. According to The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing. Retrieved April 27, 2015, from Dictionary.com website a Network Engineer is:
“A high-level LAN /WAN technician who plans, implements and supports network solutions between multiple platforms. A network engineer installs and maintains local area network hardware and software, and troubleshoots network usage and computer peripherals.”
Network Engineers can wear many different hats. I believe the more “Traditional” Network Engineers mainly work on devices such as Routers, Switches, Firewalls, Wireless Access Points and Controllers, Load Balancers, Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems as well as some server maintenance involving virtualization and network management software. Next we should discuss the overview of the differences between Network Engineering and Administration. Keep in mind I am just talking from an industry general view/standpoint. Some companies may not differ between the 2 titles. Engineers and Admins tend to share a lot of responsibility when it comes to maintaining and troubleshooting a network. The dividing line seems to be in the design/installation area with the bulk of this work generally being done by the more “experienced” engineers. Admins usually fall under the NOC (Network Operations Center) which in large companies/agencies is usually staffed 24x7x365. I have also seen the difference broken down into tiers when it comes to troubleshooting escalation. Network Admins usually fall in the Tier 1-2 range with Engineers being considered Tier 3.
Network Engineering is a very exciting field to be a part of. I can honestly say that I love my job. If you love technology and can appreciate daily challenges and projects then this could be the perfect job for you. Some daily responsibilities include troubleshooting current issues and/or investigating past issues. Issues can range anywhere from a simple port configuration for a new PC install to routing changes/updates required for new sites or subnets. There is always something to work on. Whether it be designing, upgrading or maintaining the networks you work on. I talk to a lot of people about my career and they almost always ask me how I got started. My story is like many other Network Engineers. I was introduced to this career field courtesy of the US Air Force. I learned the fundamentals and theory behind IP Addressing and Networking. It was from there that I decided this would be my career path.
Network Engineering is a demanding field to work in. You have to be willing to devote a lot of time to this career as well as hit the books, videos and labs on your “off” time. You have to be willing to not just ask questions when you get lost but to have the ability and motivation to not give up on a topic and dive into it head on. This is a key factor/skill that sets some Engineers above the rest. If you are willing to constantly learn and improve your craft and knowledge then there will be nowhere for you to go but to the top. If you are reading this article then you are probably very aware of the fact that the technology changes rapidly and the if a person who is charged with maintaining these systems begins to fall behind on new trends then they will surely be left behind. You have to stay focused and be prepared to learn something new daily. Keep in mind that everyone has a different learning style. To find yours you have to experiment. If you do not currently work in the IT field I would recommend taking just about any “IT” related job in order to break into the field and company. Use this stepping point to learn about the companies’ procedures and infrastructure. Next step would be to work towards network administration and eventually into engineering.
My recommendation on where to start learning on your own would be to utilize a virtual lab tool such as Cisco’s Packet Tracer or VIRL (Virtual Internet Routing Lab). From there I would pick up some books such as the Cisco Press CCENT book. You should also look into purchasing a plan from an online video training vendor. There are so many great resources online to learn specific topics that tend to cause confusion or issues for entry-level Network folks. Some great focus areas tend to be subnetting IPv4 addresses, the OSI and TCP/IP models as well as understanding the differences between a router, layer 3 switch, layer 2 switch and hub. One of my favorite outlets is to connect with fellow-minded IT people online. Knowledge and motivation comes with no price tag from the online IT community as a whole. I would recommend joining forums such as Networking-Forums.com and connecting with people on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.