Network engineer vs. network administrator: What's the difference?

The difference between a network engineer and network administrator is an engineer is focused on network design, while an administrator is more focused on operations.

Network engineer and network administrator aren't simply two terms for the same role; they truly do perform different functions. Let's start by looking at networking job functions and how they translate into education, training, certifications and salary.

The most senior role is the network designer. It requires advanced knowledge of protocols, network addressing, good design principles and advanced network diagnostic capabilities. This role may also be responsible for top-tier trouble ticket escalation. Higher-level certifications are often required, usually identified as internetwork expert, design expert or design professional. Some organizations include operational responsibilities for network designers, while others strictly separate design and operations.

The next role is in network operations, which requires familiarity with common network problems, knowledge of troubleshooting techniques and tools, and experience with network management systems. Typically, this role handles mid-tier trouble tickets. Common certifications include network associate and network professional.

Network certification programs

Vendor certification programs are generally a good way to measure a candidate's knowledge and understanding of networking. These programs test a candidate's knowledge of network configuration, network protocol functionality and troubleshooting.

Certifications can be vendor-specific, technology-focused or both. For example, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) Enterprise Infrastructure certification is a vendor-specific program that covers routing, switching and other concepts, while Certified Information Systems Security Professional has a vendor-neutral focus on IT security.

Certifications are frequently arranged in tracks by technology. The most common is an enterprise routing and switching track with a focus on routing and switching protocols. Other technologies include design, data center, network automation, security and service provider. Each track may have multiple levels, ranging from entry or associate level at the low end to a professional designation at the midlevel and expert status at the high end.

The combination of all these certifications is best viewed in a matrix with certification level on one axis and the technology focus on the other. Below is a brief example from Cisco. Other vendors have similar offerings.

Certification Level
Associate Professional Expert
Technology Design Cisco Certified Network Associate Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
Automation DevNet Associate DevNet Professional DevNet Expert
Security CCNP Security CCIE Security

What is required to be a network engineer?

The network engineer title most accurately matches the network designer role. It's analogous to a civil engineer who designs bridges.

A good network engineer typically has some level of college education. The key traits are curiosity about how things work, the ability to understand the complexity of networking and the interest to pursue the education that's required to become a network engineer.

A person with the right traits will have acquired one or more advanced certifications. The vendor focus doesn't matter because the advanced certifications require a significant element of education to solve real network problems.

What does a network administrator do?

The network operations role best matches the title of network administrator. It involves implementing a network design, maintaining the network, and performing moves, adds and changes. The specific tasks may be the result of network changes or troubleshooting.

The network administrator should have good knowledge of hands-on administration of the network's equipment through courses and vendor documentation. The education provides a foundation for understanding the objectives of the network design and the knowledge to quickly diagnose problems.

A candidate in this role should acquire at least the midlevel certifications from the vendor whose equipment is being used. General networking knowledge is helpful to support the operational role that requires extensive knowledge of the specific equipment's configuration mechanisms.

Network engineer and administrator salaries

When comparing a network engineer vs. network administrator, salary expectations depend on geographic area, work environment and nonsalary benefits. Depending on geographic location, base salaries could differ as much as 10% or 20%. In general, the annual salary for a network administrator is in the range of $65,000 to $100,000. The network engineer annual salary is more likely to fall between $75,000 and $110,000.

What about the difference between a network engineer and network administrator when other factors are equal? The higher-level responsibilities of the design function, higher certification and top-tier troubleshooting skills create an annual boost of $5,000 to $10,000 for the network engineer. Of course, the specifics of the position's responsibilities and the candidate's relevant experience can result in variations of that differential.

Regardless of what you call these positions in your organization, they have distinct roles that complement each other.

How many engineers and administrators does an organization need? It's advisable to have at least two staff members in each of the roles so the organization's operations are supported when one person goes on vacation.

Plus, the perspectives of two staff members could be helpful when they need to solve a challenging network problem. A viable alternative is to have an external consultant provide that second perspective.

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