I’ve been an IT professional for more than 20 years now. I was a network engineer only briefly, but I’ve worked virtually all of my career with network engineers. You can have a long career as a network engineer, make good money, and possibly even enjoy it. Even if you don’t, it’s not hard to step from the role of network engineer into security. So here’s how to become a network engineer.
Education to get to become a network engineer
Some of the first questions my local school district asks on its annual career day is what education or training is necessary to get your job. I recommend getting at least an associates degree in something related to IT, or be working on one. Many colleges will let you specialize in networking. Do that if you can. Some companies will gladly hire talented people who are still working on their degrees. But many HR departments are too gun-shy to be willing to take a chance on someone they consider unproven.
Getting the degree proves at least two things that employers value. It proves you can finish something you started. It also proves, in their mind at least, that you have some book knowledge relevant to the job. Whether the second thing is actually true is debatable. Getting a job is a game in some ways, and I’m just telling you how to play the game. Having a college degree is important.
I can tell you from my own experience that in spite of having 20 years of experience in IT and having graduated college in the 1990s before modern IT had existed long enough to be able to teach it, not having some degree in IT has kept me from getting interviews. Had I gone back to school early in my career and gotten an associates degree in IT, even if it was from a crummy rocks-for-jocks school, my career would have turned out differently.
Get an internship
One advantage to getting a degree is it can put you in position to get an internship. The hands-on, real-world experience of being an intern can really position you to get a job once you graduate. The interns I’ve met who worked on projects, listened in on conversations and went out of their way to ask questions of the smartest people in the room got jobs quickly, and got better jobs than people who didn’t intern.
Certifications to get to become a network engineer
I resisted certifications for half my career, because my early-career supervisors didn’t assign any value to them. Having certifications definitely helps you get through HR, and if you do it right, it helps you in the interview too. If you want to go beyond knowing how to become a network engineer and actually become one, certifications can jump start that process.
I really recommend Network+ certification, no matter what. The reason for it is because it teaches you the fundamentals of networking, and any other certification you get will build on it. Without that fundamental understanding, you’ll lose the respect of your peers very quickly. You can learn those things on your own, of course. But training for Network+ is a fast way to get it, and cheaply.
It wouldn’t be bad to follow it with Security+. Security+ is, obviously, security-related, but you’ll spend a lot of time talking to security folks, so having Security+ will help you relate to them better and understand why they’re asking what they’re asking. It also helps you decide whether you might want to pivot over into security, or stay in networking.
I’ve heard people belittle CompTIA certifications like Network+ and Security+, but I think they are misunderstanding them. Having those two certifications doesn’t make you an expert. But the training is cheap and so are the tests, and if you learn the material and apply it to what you see in the field, you become a competent generalist. That gets you in the door. You can become a superstar later.
If you want to progress beyond being your team’s utility player, go after a vendor-specific certification like Cisco’s CCNA. But get the entry-level certs from CompTIA first and get right in the game.
Practice networking at home to become a network engineer
How do you get experience without the opportunity to get professional experience? Set up and run some stuff at home. Set up a home server. Stand up a web server. Stand up a cheap secondhand enterprise managed switch and set up some VLANs.
A good job interviewer will ask about your home network. Don’t sell it short. I used to make that mistake because using consumer gear at work can cause outages. But having an above-average home network sets you apart from candidates who just come home from work and veg out. Talk about what you’ve set up, and what you’d use if you had a bigger budget to work with. If you’ve run up against the limitations of consumer-grade hardware, talk about how you reached that conclusion.
This is one of the best kept secrets behind how to become a network engineer.
How to become a network engineer: Move onward and upward
If you can’t land a job as a network engineer right out of the gate, get into IT somehow. Even if you have to work on someone’s help desk, you can get real-world IT experience while you pursue certifications and build a home network worth bragging about. Watch for opportunities. If jobs open within the company, apply. If nothing materializes inside the company, start looking for opportunities elsewhere after about a year. Stay in touch with colleagues who move on. IT tends to be a small world.
Take the entry level job, be the best you can be, and watch for network-related issues. Make it your goal to keep network-related issues from getting past you. Learn to use troubleshooting tools like ping and tracert and netstat, and how to telnet directly to specific ports to test connectivity and watch behavior. Then you can spin your helpdesk experience as network experience.
Polish up your resume. Your resume isn’t just a list of places you’ve worked and assigned job duties. The only things worth mentioning on a resume are the things you did at that job that prepared you for the job you’re applying for now, and what you did at your previous job that makes your ex-supervisors miss you. Everything else is a single bullet point: Other duties as assigned. If you need to save a line somewhere, leave that one off.
Remember one thing: HR is ruthless. Hiring managers are ruthless. If they see one thing on your resume they don’t like, they’ll toss it. If you want to know how to become a network engineer, getting past HR and past that first weed-out is key. Fortunately, it’s something you only have to get right once per job search.
What to do if you don’t get an offer
If you don’t get an offer, or can’t get an interview, learn what you can from it and keep trying. When I look back on the times I didn’t get an offer, the reasons vary. In 2005, I interviewed at a company and thought it went extremely well. What I didn’t know was that as I was standing in the parking lot talking to a former coworker who had landed there, the hiring manager was getting laid off. That’s an outlier. But the common thread in most of the other interviews I’ve had that didn’t result in an offer was that I didn’t work a good war story into it. Usually the interviewer was fishing for a war story and I didn’t bite.
Find a time in your experience, whether it’s at work or at home, where you solved a problem that sets you apart from your peers. Practice telling that story. And the next time an interviewer asks you a question you don’t have a very good answer for, try to segue into one of your best war stories instead.
And make sure you know the common ports and protocols, can explain the differences between a Class A, B, and C network and how to subnet. Interviewers love to use those as weed-out questions. I had one interviewer, many years ago, relish explaining to me the intricacies of FTP and how it uses two ports, not just port 21. So go in knowing your ports and stuff like that. And if you don’t know FTP also uses port 20, at least be ready with a comeback like FTP being obsolete and you really need to use SFTP for secure file transfers, which is port 22 if you’re wondering.
And that, in a nutshell, is how to become a network engineer.