Networks, defined as a series of points or nodes interconnected by communication paths, form the backbone of the Information Highway. The most common topology or general configurations of networks include the bus, star, Token Ring, and mesh topologies, but networks also can be characterized in terms of spatial distances such as local area networks (LANs), metropolitan area networks (MANs) and wide area networks (WANs). 

The IT networking world is set for another evolution as the technologies behind unified communications - which includes three or more of elements such as voice, unified messaging, video, Web/data collaboration and conferencing - prepare to make their mark on the sector. 

Hamid Abdollahian, director of the Cisco Technical Training Institute at the Cuyahoga, Community College in Cleveland, says the level of expertise an IT network professional needs depends on the type of network they work with, and its complexity level. When you connect multiple computers to a network, you¿ve formed a LAN - for Local Area Network - but once the LAN is connected to a Wide Area Network, or WAN, the network specialists will need a different skill set since WANs involve different routers and higher bandwidth performance levels.

Although in the last several years most colleges and universities experienced a decline in the number of people taking computer science and engineering classes, some are starting to see a comeback, Abdollahian says. Emerging technologies such as cloud computing, green technologies and unified communications will all impact network infrastructures. For instance, Abdollahian estimates there are 490 million land-based, legacy phone systems and, as of today, only about 18 to 23 percent have been converted to VoIP. That means there's plenty of room for the market to grow for voice and wireless network specialists and storage network specialists. Demand for network security expertise also is likely to grow as the threat of cyber-attacks increases.

Networking is the most democratic expertise in IT, says Abdollahian. "It is wide open for a lot of people, people from all walks of life," he explains. "Those who are coming back from the military or those who are in a career transition. Aside from a bachelor's or master¿s degree, those who want to work in networking must attain certain certifications. The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE, is the most active certification, with 24,000 people certified worldwide.

Most companies with up to 100 employees need a network specialist with the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), one of the basic certifications. Most medium-sized companies need network specialists who have the Cisco Certified Voice Professional (CCVP) or the Cambridge Certified WAN Associate (CCWA) certifications. In June 2009, Cisco unveiled a new top-level network certification that could open a network engineer¿s career path straight into the executive boardroom, according to The Cisco Certified Architect program is a new certification that sits atop Cisco's most elite career certifications, the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) and Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE). The Cisco Certified Architect certification is about translating business requirements into technical specifications as Cisco Certified Architect candidates must go beyond demonstrating expertise with network architecture and show that they can communicate with C-level executives to understand business objectives and translate them into technological blueprints.

Roles and Career Paths

Those who choose to focus on networking can take advantage of established job opportunities ranging from network administrator or technician, analyst, and architect up to manager, then director, of network operations. Computer network technicians, which are also known as computer network engineers or network specialists, must know current standards and terminology used for local area networks (LANs) and larger wide area networks (WANs). They often help plan their employers' computer networks and then implement the planned networks. Most commonly, network technicians administer existing computer networks and troubleshoot problems as they arise.

Network analysts and network administrators are more intermediate-level roles. A network analyst is responsible for designing, installing and troubleshooting networks to make sure their systems perform to meet business objectives. This person is involved with configuration and maintenance of the physical network components, performs capacity and resource planning, and assesses network risks.

Administrators also monitor, troubleshoot and maintain the LAN, WAN and wireless multiplexers, hubs and routers that move traffic through the network. However, their duties may also include installing new workstations or other devices, along with overseeing password protection and monitoring usage of shared resources. The person in this role provides daily operations support, maintenance, and administration of network systems, working on one or more projects as a team or project leader.

The network architect is responsible for high-level network planning. This person, who defines the network designs for a company, works on multiple projects as a subject matter expert. Since network architects handle issues that are highly complex, they require an in-depth knowledge across multiple technical areas and business segments. They also approve and modify network design to ensure compliance with government regulations, while also configuring and maintaining routers, switches and hubs for the network systems.

Managers of network operations are mid-level mangers who typically are responsible for operations and service levels for data and voice networking equipment and software. They also develop and implements standards, procedures and processes for the network operations group, and plan and manage the support of new technologies. They generally work under the direction of senior management, which mentors project leaders and technical staff.

The director of network operations, generally a senior-level manager, has overall responsibility for department decisions and management. Reporting to the chief information officer or IT chief operating officer, they provide strategic direction, along with coaching and training more junior IT staff. On a more granular level, directors of network operations are responsible for all work on network operations, including the integration of new technologies, including wireless.

Skills and Qualities

  • Good communication skills
  • Ability to keep pace with changing technology
  • Good organizational skills