A network engineer handles all of the “plumbing” for a company’s computers, connecting offices with T1 lines, hooking them up to the Internet, and configuring all internal systems such as net routers and firewalls. The position usually spills over into some Unix systems administration work, but “basically, it’s a plumbing job,” says one engineer. Configuring a start-up Web company is a pretty easy network design job; most of these companies have a small staff and only one location. But if you work for Citibank, for example, the network is incredibly complicated with tiers and tiers of network engineers. If you’re willing to wear a suit and tie every day, go to work for a bank where you’ll make twice as much as anywhere else.
A network engineer needs to know how to use some basic network devices like “packet sniffers,” but the work itself doesn’t utilize a lot of tools. “It’s a ‘noodly’ job; you have to be able to think your way through problems and understand how stuff works,” says one professional. You don’t spend a lot of time typing, but rather in front of white boards (like a chalk board you write on with markers) drawing pictures to visualize your solutions.
A typical day demands atypical hours; network engineers usually work off-hours when they’re tinkering with something, otherwise they’ll interrupt everyone else’s work. It’s the earmark of techies to show up later, often around 10 or 11 a.m., but they’re usually there until 7, 8 or 9 p.m. And most likely they’re wearing a pager and are always on call. Networking has a culture unto itself, and a subculture among those who work on the Net. But networking is really only glamorous to people in the field. “Anyone in the general public would not be like, ‘cool, you’re a network consultant,’” says one insider.