If you’re searching for a technology job that’s secure but never boring, there are numerous reasons why becoming a network administrator might be right for you.
For one thing, it’s a fairly recession-proof position, with consistent demand. Network administrators must ensure that networks not only stay up and running, but also evolve to incorporate new technology (and repel both internal and external threats).
Whether they outsource to a third-party provider (MSP) or employ in-house staff, practically every organization needs one or more network administrators. In fact, there are currently 503,319 network admins employed in the U.S., and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects about 23,900 openings for network and computer systems administrators annually over the decade, despite slower-than-average employment growth.
For another, every day brings new challenges and new learning. For example, today’s network administrators must manage everything from remote-worker connectivity and BYOD to cybersecurity, administration, backbone connectivity, availability, third-party cloud environments and more.
However, you don’t need to master all of those things to get started. Here’s how to land your first job as a junior or associate network administrator.
Focus on Fundamentals
Network technology moves fast, but at the same time, there are almost no new things on a fundamental level, noted network designer Jaap de Vos. If you master the fundamentals from the start, you will be able to understand and manage everything that comes along.
Be careful about picking a specialty too early, warned Steve Petryschuk, director for Auvik Networks, a provider of cloud-based network monitoring and management software.
“It’s best to start out as a generalist and gain exposure by saying ‘yes’ to as many things as possible early on,” he said. In other words, take some time to explore the profession before committing to a specialty such as wireless networking, network security, data storage, VoIP, and so on.
Many schools offer “fundamentally focused” bachelor's or associate's degrees in computer information systems, network and systems administration or information technology. You can also go the bootcamp route or attempt to teach yourself. Just know that 55 percent of network admins have a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent have an associate’s degree, according to Zippia.
No matter which educational path you choose, the coursework must cover networking concepts like the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) model. It should also teach you how to design, administer, manage and troubleshoot a network and provide hands-on experience with switches, routers, copper network cabling and fiber-optic network cabling.
It also helps to have a basic understanding of network security, which means mastering the various network operating systems in addition to the scripting languages used in network automation, including Python, Perl, Bash, Go, and so on. (Fortunately, there are lots of tutorials and documentation out there to give you a taste of what network security is actually like.)
The best college programs prepare students to earn crucial networking certifications from CompTIA, Microsoft and Cisco. Having entry-level certs on your résumé can help you get past the automated screening process and into a job interview.
Today, it takes a blend a blend of technical, communication and problem-solving skills as well as business knowledge to successfully manage a network. For instance, you may be required to train end users, define the requirements for a BYOD policy, or provide Tier-3 technical support, especially if you work for a company with less than 500 employees (some 38 percent of network admins do).
Finding a curriculum that gives you the opportunity to become a well-rounded professional will not only help you succeed as a network administrator but potentially help you advance to network manager, network architect, IT manager or even MSP founder down the road.
Combine Theory and Practice
Need to earn while you learn? Great! Generic tech-professional experience helps you put theory into practice, especially six to 12 months of service desk and six to 12 months of system administration work, noted de Vos.
The reason is that network technology is “further down the stack,” so consequently you'll need to become proficient at troubleshooting both networking and adjacent technologies.
Working as an intern or support tech in an actual network environment helps you develop a high-level awareness of adjacent technologies such as storage, databases, cloud technology, business applications and more. Other options for acquiring hands-on experience (some of which don't require an entire datacenter at home) include Cisco Packet Tracer, EVE-NG, Containerlab and the ipSpace.net virtual networking lab tool Netlab.
Volunteering to help configure or troubleshoot the network for a local non-profit, church or community organization is yet another way to use your skills for good, build your résumé and even earn a little extra spending money.
Make the most of a tech support job by offering to assist a network administrator with basic tasks. As de Vos pointed out, you never know when a help desk job in the right company may provide a springboard into an entry-level network administrator role.
Preparing for the Job Market
To stand out in a competitive marketplace, consider blogging about your experiences, thought processes and rationale during task-based training. Being able to understand and explain what happens when you troubleshoot, configure a device and so forth not only showcases your networking expertise but builds up valuable soft skills like communication and passion for learning.
Build your human network and networking knowledge simultaneously by participating in online and Slack communities and listing to podcasts from NANOG, Packet Pushers, RouterGods, The Art of Network Engineering and Network to Code. And never forget that employers are constantly posting new network administrator jobs.