As software integrates itself into every area of IT, the distinctions between different IT professions and responsibilities become unclear. Even as the worlds of networking and software merge, the roles of network engineers and software engineers overlap but largely remain distinct.
Aspiring IT professionals wondering how to choose between a network engineer versus software engineer career should weigh several factors, including the area of IT they want to focus on, their skill sets, and certifications they have or want to get, among other criteria. Network engineers and software engineers have different responsibilities, so aspiring IT pros should carefully evaluate each field before they decide their career paths.
Differences between network engineers vs. software engineers
Network engineer. A network engineer plans, designs and deploys networks and infrastructure for organizations. In addition to network implementation, network engineers also handle network maintenance. Teams manage and monitor the network along with its data and troubleshoot any day-to-day issues that arise. Network engineer positions can also require skills in other areas, such as security, automation, unified communications (UC) and cloud.
Software engineer. A software engineer designs, tests and deploys software systems and applications for organizations. The goal of software engineering is to improve efficiency in software development, and software engineers are often in charge of overseeing the overall project. Like network engineers, software engineering roles can encompass different concentration areas, such as development, maintenance and management. Software engineers often also need an understanding of networking and cloud.
Network engineers vs. software engineers skills, salaries, certifications
The comparison between network engineers vs. software engineers ultimately boils down to the difference between networks and software. Networks comprise various nodes or endpoints that send and receive data, while software is a collection of data used to operate computers or devices. Networking increasingly implements software-defined concepts, and software engineers frequently come across networking concepts, but the two fields are vastly different.
The key differences between network engineers vs. software engineers include the following:
- Areas of IT.
- Skill sets.
Areas of IT
The most significant difference between network engineers and software engineers is the area of technology they cover. Network engineers design, build and maintain enterprise networks. Software engineers write software for OSes, applications and programs.
The fundamental differences between networks and software mean their respective engineers require different skill sets. Regardless of which networking concentration they enter, network engineers must know network protocols, understand network topology and learn how to ensure network security.
For a well-rounded understanding of the field, network engineers should familiarize themselves with all areas of networking, such as cloud networking and wireless networking, even if the fields are outside their concentration areas. A large part of network engineering requires teams to monitor, maintain and troubleshoot the network, so network engineers tend to focus more on practical, analytic work in their roles.
IT pros interested in a more creative line of work might prefer software engineering. The process of creating software for enterprise use offers more flexibility than building a network. Software engineer teams can build and implement various types of software depending on the purpose of the system or application.
Automated and programmable networks that use software and code are more common, but network engineers don't require the same level of software expertise as software engineers. Software development skills can benefit network engineers in management or automation roles, while operations and UC roles focus more on daily activities within businesses.
Software engineer skills might seem synonymous with software developer skills, but the two tracks differ. Software development is part of the engineering process: While software developers create and build specific programs, software engineers focus more on building and maintaining the architecture. Modern software engineer skills include machine learning, cloud, and data science. Essential software engineering skills include software testing, programming and coding.
Network engineers and software engineers have different workday schedules, which differ even further depending on business size. Both network engineers and software engineers typically work the standard 40-hour work week, but network engineers typically work on call in addition to their regular schedules. Network engineers often need to troubleshoot connectivity issues that occur even after their shifts are over, especially in startups and SMBs.
Recent trends also suggest that remote and hybrid positions for network and software engineers are on the rise. While network and software engineers might have to work more than their allotted 40-hour weeks, they can complete this work on a work-from-anywhere basis.
All jobs have salaries that vary based on an applicant's credentials, their level of expertise and the business's location, among other factors. As of 2023, network engineers in the U.S. can earn salaries anywhere from $65,000 to $157,000, with an average of $82,245, according to Glassdoor. Salaries for software engineers in the U.S. range from $91,000 to $217,000, with an average of $110,012.
Many IT professionals go through the route of higher education. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that only a quarter of IT professionals in 2018 and 2019 didn't have a bachelor's degree or higher. Network and software engineers who choose to pursue higher education typically study computer engineering, information systems, IT or some other related area of concentration.
Outside of college degrees, IT pros can obtain certifications to study and prove their credentials in specific technology fields. Certifications are a feasible way to break into an industry and can help IT professionals stay up to date in their fields. Many companies require certifications for certain roles.
Many vendors and certification organizations offer certifications for both network and software engineers. Cisco, Juniper Networks and CompTIA all offer certifications for network engineers, although Cisco's are arguably the most popular. On the other hand, software engineers might go for Oracle's certification tracks or the vendor-neutral Certified Internet Web Professional certifications. Aspiring IT pros should evaluate the differences between network and software engineer career paths to determine the direction in which they want their careers to head.
Which job role is better?
Network engineers focus on networks, while software engineers focus on software. Both careers require IT professionals to design, implement and maintain their systems, whether networks or software.
Although both fields require an understanding of each other, several differences exist between careers in either, from a difference in skill sets to the types of certifications required to work in each field. Once prospective IT pros understand the distinctions between the two, they can choose which area of technology to pursue.
Neither role is better than the other. The choice between the two careers comes down to what IT professionals prefer to work on in their day-to-day activities. Network engineering might be the ideal choice for aspiring IT professionals interested in analytical work and troubleshooting. Aspiring IT pros with more creative mindsets might prefer to create and build software to support organizations and find more enjoyment as software engineers.