Network Administrator: How to Get Started in This IT Career
Network administrators are IT professionals that maintain computer networks and keep a company’s systems connected. From switches to routers to cloud computing to cabling, if there’s anything related to connectivity, network admins handle it. According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), the median annual salary of network and computer systems administrators was $82,050 in 2018. That number increases to $109,020 for computer network architects, a job title network administrators can progress into as they gain on-the-job experience. This is a popular career path for good reason.
If you’re looking to become a network administrator, but aren’t sure where to start, you’re in the right place. Here we’ll review the profession’s job outlook, degree and certification requirements, required skill sets, and day-to-day responsibilities.
Job outlook: Are network administrators in demand?
According to the BLS, network and computer systems administrators are projected to see 5% employment growth between 2018 and 2028. This number implies an average growth rate relative to all jobs within the economy. With over 383,000 jobs already existing in the field, these projections suggest another 18,000+ jobs are coming.
What education is required for network administrators?
A bachelor’s degree is the typical entry-level education for a network and computer systems administrator. However, on-the-job experience, associate degree programs with a networking focus, and technical certifications like Cisco’s CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) can help open the door to a network administrator job without a bachelor’s degree.
Top courses in Cisco CCNA
In fact, more and more organizations, including large enterprises like Apple and Google, are dropping specific degree requirements for potential employees. If you’re an aspiring network admin that hasn’t earned a bachelor’s degree, that’s good news. You’ll still need to validate your skills to prospective employers when pursuing these roles. Skill validation without a four-year degree means earning certifications, demonstrating experience, and showcasing a portfolio of completed projects.
What skills does a network administrator need?
Degrees and certifications are helpful, but real-world skills are what matter. This is part of the reason exam dumps — memorizing the certification exam’s questions and answers without understanding the concepts — aren’t a great way to study. Gaining practical skills and understanding the reasoning behind answers to exam questions will help you not only pass the exam, but also help you succeed in your future career.
So, what skills does a good network administrator need to have? Let’s take a look:
- Knowledge of LANs and WANs – LANs (Local Area Networks) and WANs (Wide Area Networks) are the responsibility of network administrators and network engineers. A robust understanding of how LANs and WANs work is a must if you want to become a solid network administrator. This means understanding everything from SDN (Software-Defined Networking) to TCP/IP stack to subnetting to IPv6 to network cabling.
- Knowledge of IT security fundamentals – Within an IT operations team, security is each team member’s responsibility. This is especially true when it comes to network administration. As a network administrator, you’ll need to install and configure network devices in accordance with cybersecurity best practices.
- Experience with networking hardware – Routers, switches, wireless access points, firewalls, cables, and other network hardware devices comprise the standard equipment that keeps a network running. As a network administrator, you’ll need to be able to install, configure, and troubleshoot these devices. While no single vendor controls the entire networking hardware market, developing familiarity with Cisco products is a good start since Cisco is among the most commonly used vendors for network hardware solutions. The ubiquity of Cisco solutions is also why the CCNA is one of the best certifications to pursue to jumpstart a career in network administration.
- Knowledge of computer hardware – While server maintenance may not be a network administrator’s primary responsibility, knowledge of computer hardware and operating systems is an important part of almost any job in IT. Understanding CPU, RAM, storage, and how compute devices work will help you understand how nodes within the network operate.
- Troubleshooting skills – “It’s a network problem” is one of the most common phrases in IT. It’s a network administrator’s job to sort out when that statement is and isn’t true. This means being able to isolate variables and apply your education to discover the root cause of issues with network connectivity.
- Programming and scripting skills – Programming isn’t typically a required skill for a network professional. However, it can be a valuable one. For example, as the DevOps movement gains momentum, infrastructure as code and network automation are becoming more common on technical teams. Additionally, scripting can make it easy for network administrators to automate routine tasks. Python is a good programming language to learn if you’re a network pro.
What are a network administrator’s day-to-day responsibilities?
Once you land a network administrator job, what can you expect a typical day to look like?
Generally, this role’s responsibilities will fall within a few categories:
- Installing and configuring network hardware and software
- Troubleshooting network problems
- Upgrading and patching network hardware and software
- Working with network engineers and architects on network design
- Securing network devices
- Testing network hardware and software
Exactly which tasks make up most of a workday will vary depending on the needs of the company. In a large enterprise, for example, network administrators and database administrators are separate roles that may work together on projects. However, the network administrator and database administrator may be the same person for small-to-midsize businesses.
Additionally, the network topology can vary greatly depending on a company’s size and infrastructure. Some businesses may have primarily cloud-based workloads and rely heavily on technologies like SDN and SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Networking) appliances. Other companies may have most of their networking gear on-premises, requiring admins to be more knowledgeable with hardware and cabling.
What does a network administrator’s career path look like?
While there’s no one single trajectory for the career of a network administrator, there is a general framework for a network administrator’s career path.
Typically, one’s first role within this IT specialization is as a junior network administrator or help desk technician. At this stage, professionals can expect exposure to many different network technologies and will learn how to troubleshoot many types of network problems. Since this role is more of a generalist, don’t expect to take deep dives into any one subject matter.
Within a few years, you’ll progress to a network administrator job. Here, you’ll likely carry out many of the tasks outlined in the previous section. This is a good time to start thinking about where you’d like to specialize. For example, do you want to become a wireless expert or focus on data center technology?
With experience at the network administrator level, the next step is network engineer, which is considered a senior version of a network administrator. At this stage, expect more responsibility and more complex problems to come your way. Advancing past the network engineer role brings us to the network architect, a role that dives deeper into network design.
As with any industry, the job titles, organizational team structures, and experience required for junior versus senior network administrator roles vary greatly depending on the company, its size, and its leadership. You may even decide to take a career detour into a management role. Regardless of the specifics, the outline above generally applies to many network administration career paths.
From a certification perspective, the progression from network administrator to network engineer is like Cisco’s certification track. It aligns well with the CCNA to CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional) to CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert) progression.
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