How to Build a Career in Computer Networking and IT

New York Tech Companies Host Unconventional Job Fair (2013)
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Many view computer networking as an attractive career field. In the early 2000s, networking was one of the hottest fields around, and it has continued to be popular ever since. Some claim now as then that a serious shortage of qualified people to fill these networking jobs exists. On the other hand, some also view networking as a relatively easy way to land a good position with a fast-growing company.

Debates over the actual extent of any job shortages aside, networking involves mostly hard work, and competition for the high-quality positions will always be strong. Continue reading to learn more about beginning or expanding a career in networking, and pick up valuable job-hunting tips that also apply to many other types of technical careers.

Job Titles in Computer Networking

Several types of professional positions exist in computer networking, each with varying salaries and long-term career potential. 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

What Is a Network Administrator?

Network administrators configure and manage local area networks (LANs) and sometimes also wide area networks (WANs). The job descriptions for administrators can be detailed and sometimes even downright intimidating! Consider the following description that, although fictitious, represents a fairly typical posting:

NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR - HOBO COMPUTINGCandidate 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 Between Networking Jobs

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.

A 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.

Gaining Experience With Computer Networks

The common lament of job seekers, that "employers only hire people with experience, yet the only way to gain experience is to get hired" applies in the computer networking field as well. Despite optimistic statements that one hears frequently regarding the number of available jobs in IT, landing an entry-level position can still prove difficult and frustrating.

One way to gain networking experience is to pursue a full-time programming or help desk internship during the summer months, or a part-time work-study job at a school. An internship may not pay well initially, the work may turn out to be relatively uninteresting, and it is very likely one will not be able to finish any substantial project during the limited time there. However, the most important element these jobs offer is training and hands-on experience. Obtaining and doing well in these temporary jobs demonstrates the dedication and interest employers like to see.

Self-study in networking is an under-rated way to gain experience. Hands-on work can be turned into useful demonstrations for prospective employers. A person can start with a class project they recently completed, for example, and extend it in some way. Or they can create their own personal projects, experimenting with networking administration tools and scripts, for example. Business computer networks bring much more complexity and some different technologies compared to home networking, but spending time setting up and administering different kinds of home networks for friends and family is a start.

The number of different technologies involved in computer networks is large and can seem overwhelming. Rather than trying to study and master the hottest new trend or a laundry list of tools and languages, focus on basic technologies first. Technology fads in IT come and go quickly. Building a solid foundation in the core technologies of networks like TCP/IP enables people to more easily learn specialized new ones later.

Education vs. Experience

Many organizations seek IT professionals who hold four-year university degrees. They view it as an indicator of commitment to the field. Network technology changes very fast, so employers care both about a person's current knowledge and also their ability to learn and adapt for the future. Network certifications can help prove a person's basic knowledge base, but college degrees best demonstrate one's general learning ability.

The combination of both strong education and experience sets people apart from those who only possess one or the other.

Representing Your Skills and Abilities

One of the most overlooked skills in computer networking is the ability to explain and exchange technical information with others. Whether verbally, through email, or in formal writing, network professionals that communicate well enjoy a significant advantage in building their careers.

Job interviews are an obvious place where good communication skills are needed. Being able to have a relaxed conversation with people about technical subjects can be hard to do, but with practice, a person can handle even impromptu questions well. Practice communication skills by visiting local job fairs and discussing professional subjects with friends.