The meanings behind job titles can be an elusive thing in that they might only make sense to the people actually in the roles. Take networking jobs. It’s pretty common for people to think some titles can be used interchangeably, and that depending on where you work, a job may have a different name. In some cases, even IT professionals believe that the network specialist vs engineer are jobs are really the same responsibilities.

There’s no shortage of differing opinions. Some believe the different titles only “serve as a pretext to justify the difference in pay.” Others think that “job titles mean whatever the employer wants them to mean,” and that in reality there’s no real difference between the roles. And some think there’s in fact big differences that most people outside the industry overlook, that a network specialist and a network engineer should be treated like two different jobs with different sets of IT skills, because that’s what they are.

So let’s try and clear the air. Let’s look at why people think these might be two different jobs deserving two different titles, and what typically falls under their tasks and responsibilities. Because you really can’t have one without the other.

What does a network specialist do?

A network specialist’s role is to manage a network to ensure it is working efficiently, and that can require being well-versed in the physical and logical sides of your network. Like a networking jack-of-all-trades, it can involve maintaining hardware and software, monitoring systems for problems, analyzing and fixing technical issues, and more.

On the logical side, a person holding one of these networking jobs might be responsible for ensuring that sensitive data is encrypted and secured by conducting audits to assess possible vulnerabilities. They might also work with IT security specialists to help develop and enforce rules and procedures for things like data sharing.

As well, a network specialist can also work the service desk to identify and fix network problems that might occur for end users. Therefore, they need to have a pretty full understanding of the network’s software and hardware infrastructure.

Source: Redbubble

On the physical side, network specialists are also responsible for upgrading the network. This involves performing the upgrade itself, along with testing and evaluating any enhancements to ensure they are the best option, and won’t lead to any change-induced outages.

Some other tasks that normally fall under a network specialist include:

  • Administrating and setting up user accounts to access the network and email.
  • Setting up and supporting the network hardware, including workstations, servers, LAN equipment, and printers.
  • Maintaining regular server backups to ensure data integrity.
  • Installing voice communications systems, including phone lines, and fixing any issues.
  • Installing software on company computers and troubleshooting any problems that might arise.

As a network specialist, you’ll also want to stay on top of any updates in your field. It’s also wise to expand your knowledge and expertise by learning from IT networking books, through additional training, or by studying and getting certified.

How much do network specialists earn?

Based on medians taken from across the US, entry-level network specialists with less than a year of experience can expect to earn a total average wage of a little over $50,000 USD per year. This amount includes bonuses and overtime.

A mid-career network specialist, meaning you have between five and nine years of experience, can expect to earn an average of approximately $59,800 per year.

An experienced network specialist who’s held the role for 10 to 19 years will earn an average of $64,500, while more than 20 years of experience will result in and around $70,000 annual salary.

Where do I start?

A network specialist needs a wide range of skills. Most importantly, you must have an excellent base understanding of networks. You’ll also need to work well under pressure, because when the network goes down, you must be able to quickly identify the problem and develop and implement the most effective solution.

You’ll also be familiar with several common software tools, such as:

  • Access software.
  • Administration, network address management, shutdown, and documentation software.
  • Application server software.
  • Backup and disaster recovery software.
  • Configuration management software.

In terms of education, many employers require a bachelor’s degree in something like computer science, computer information systems, or computer networking. Some employers require certification. Even if it’s not a requirement, having any one of the top networking certifications will give you an advantage, which holds true for most IT jobs.

What does a network engineer do?

Network engineers are responsible for planning, implementing, and overseeing a company’s network. As a network engineer, your focus will be on delivering the network infrastructure necessary to ensure the company can conduct its online and internal IT activities.

At first glance, this might sound pretty similar to a network specialist.

However, a network engineer has other strategic responsibilities. Where a specialist deals with daily maintenance, management operations, and real-time troubleshooting, this position entails more of the planning, designing, and technical specification areas.

Source: Pexels

Network engineers design and implement network configurations, while also monitoring and configuring security systems. They’re also responsible for troubleshooting problems with the network’s overall performance, and identifying potential areas for improvement and optimization.

A network engineer’s job description might also include responsibilities such as:

  • Configuring the network, installing routers, proxy servers, and WAN accelerators.
  • Maintaining the network through updates, patches, and upgrades.
  • Improving performance and troubleshooting issues.
  • Developing and implementing network data security systems.
  • Optimizing network operation.
  • Training other engineers, specialists, and support staff.

Just like a network specialist, staying up to date with recent developments is essential. To maintain a competitive edge and expand your career options, you should also consider getting more certifications.

How much do network engineers earn?

Based on medians taken from across the US, a network engineer can range anywhere from $49,000 USD to over $132,000, depending on experience and seniority level. The average base pay for a network engineer in the United States is $85,745.

There’s also more typical seniority levels in engineering roles vs. specialists, with a senior network engineer earning an average of $115,901 per year, while a lead can earn an average of $121,828.

In this role, you can also receive bonuses. Some companies even offer profit-sharing options, which can significantly increase your earnings.

Where do I start?

As a network engineer, you’ll need to have an in-depth understanding of complex networks, including design and development. You’ll also have first-class analytical, organizational, communication, and leadership skills.

For an entry-level position, some employers will require a bachelor’s degree in computer science. However, an associate degree might be enough in some cases, especially if you have multiple years of experience.

A network engineer should also be familiar with advanced concepts like virtualization, cybersecurity, hyper-convergence, containers, WANs and storage engineering.

Certifications are not mandatory, but they will offer you a career boost because they improve your professional credibility. In most cases, network engineers seek vendor-related certifications for the technology they use most frequently, such as an Auvik certification. However, it’s always a good idea to expand your horizons when possible.

What do professionals think these networking jobs should be?

It’s evident that there’s confusion, even among IT professionals, between network specialists and network engineers. Some feel that there really aren’t any differences, and it’s just a matter of what the employer chooses to call the position. Other people think that a network specialist has the same tasks and responsibilities as a network engineer, but companies prefer to use the network specialist title to pay a lower wage. Reddit has been ablaze with differing opinions.

One IT professional suggested that, while the responsibilities are the same, a company might choose to call a specialist an engineer because it’s a sneaky way to “project a false sense of skill and experience to outside parties.” They explained this would mainly apply to service providers.

Though not everyone agreed, several people suggested that the title of “engineer” is connected to a certain level of education and might require membership in an accredited body. As one IT professional explained, “I’m a network specialist at my organization because ‘engineer’ has certain connotations of having completed an engineering degree and being a member of the relevant accredited body. For all intents and purposes, I’m a network engineer anywhere else.”

However, that isn’t always the case. A network engineer explained that they moved from specialist to their current role, and the work was very different.

They said, “As an engineer I often start with a blank canvas and work with other civil engineers, systems engineers, and project managers to meet the client’s needs. Once my work is complete, I hand the documentation to the specialist and move on to the next project.”

Another network engineer agreed that titles could blur into one another, but what matters is where the job fits within a set of tiers they defined as:

  • Tier 1: Frontline Support/Helpdesk, consisting of entry-level positions with more hands-on and basic tasks, including troubleshooting and desktop re-imaging.
  • Tier 2: Senior Helpdesk/Field Specialists who handle more advanced tasks such as building images, deploying switches, conducting light design work. They have more experience than those in Tier 1 networking jobs.
  • Tier 3: Engineers/System Administrators who do deep design and layout, app setup, integrations, and train others in technical applications. These roles are considered the top of IT support team.
  • Tier 4: Specialized support, such as database administrators and Exchange admins.
  • Tier 5: Management

So where did we land? I guess you could say the industry is still sort of divided. While there’s some overlap between a network engineer and a network specialist, the roles are seemingly quite different on paper. However, in the real world, the lines have blurred so much between the two IT jobs that many professionals don’t realize the responsibilities should be different.

Network
Specialist
Network
Engineer
Responsibilities “Manage the network” “Plan the network”
Conduct security audits Design of network infrastructure
Develop and enforce rules
for data sharing
Outline of technical specifications for network design
Implementing physical upgrades
to the network
Monitoring and configuring security systems
Testing and evaluating hardware Configuration of network hardware
Assist with IT service desk duties Improving the overall health of a network’s performance
Administration of accounts Troubleshooting
Data backups Training of other engineers, specialists and support staff
Skills/Software needed? Wide range of skills, broad understanding
of networks
In-depth understanding of complex network designs
Understand software that provides access,
administration/network management, config/CLI knowledge, applications in use
Analytical, organizational, and leadership skills
Familiar with virtualization, cybersecurity, and other advanced
networking subjects
Education? B.A. in computer science, computer information systems, computer networking.
Some employers require certifications.
B.A. in computer science, coupled with several years of on-the-job experience.
Most employers will require certifications.

 


What do you think? Are the differences between specialists and engineers just semantic, or is there enough difference that they should rightly be seen as two separate roles all the time? Who is perpetuating the myth that these two networking jobs are the same? Or are the roles so similar in the real world that it’s an understandable mistake?

Editor’s note: in Canada, the job title “engineer” is actually a regulated term that can only be used by professions that fall under provincial or territorial engineering regulatory body. To date, none of these bodies recognize “network engineers” formally, so the term is not legally used. That’s why we don’t have any “engineers” working at Auvik in Canada.