Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

network engineering?

this question is probably not appropriate for this forum, but I'm posting it anyway, cuz there seem to be intelligent people here. I just turned 28 and i've been a programmer for about 6 years. mostly I have done J2EE stuff, but when I started out I did C++/graphics for an educational software company.

I'm bored with J2EE "enterprise" programming and am also guessing that if I remain a programmer of any sort, my salary is going to max out at about $85K USD. That's a pretty good salary, but it seems to be the max, and it seems to be highly variable on the economy, the weather, etc.

I'm also interested in doing something different and have recently looked into network engineering. A few friends of mine are the top ranked cisco certification (CCIE?) and make TONS of money. Like, $200K (I think?). Or, they are able to consistently bill $125+/hr, even now.

I was wondering, is this typical, or are my friends just savvy/lucky? Are there any network engineers reading this forum? Are there any software engineers who are also thinking about this?  Is network engineering potentially a "better" career choice when "better" == "more job security" and "more pay?"

network curious
Monday, January 13, 2003

MCSE salaries appeared to be a little lower than programmer's salaries. I'm sure you can get a much better idea just by doing a web search on Google.

Exceptionally high salaries for skilled workers are nearly always caused by shortage. Until the telcos crashed and realized they'd given away most of their money to the government in the 3G auctions, emmbedded programmers for mobile phones were making a fortune.

There is also another factior to consider. In general speciallized jobs can mean the best money if you are lucky, but they can also mean less career flexibility and the risk of long periiods of redundancy.

Stephen Jones
Monday, January 13, 2003

Network curious,
At the end of the day us network engineering types just lay the pipework. You programmer types provide the stuff that runs through it.

Both jobs are skilled ones, both jobs pay well at the top levels, both jobs have parts that make you feel great about your work, both jobs have parts that make you think about gouging your eyes out with a spoon.

Also, without wanting to sound like I'm putting you down, what makes you think you have what it takes to do networking at the sorts of levels that earn that kind of money?

I'm very well aware that there is a perception among programmers that networking is easy and most of us that do it are monkeys, but once we move beyond the basics of the job that just ain't true.

There is some crossover I know but I'm sure i'd get laughed out of the forum if i claimed i could do a job as a programmer, and produced my rather limited and rusty programming skills as evidence.

I'm not trying to put you off or have a dig at you or anything but you really need to think about this; if you have a deep seated interest to get into networking and get up to your elbows in a mess of routing tables and bugs in QOS implementations then by all means go for it.

If you are just mildly dissatisfied with your job at the moment and/or you think the grass is greener on our side of the fence then I think you'll hurt yourself by trying to cross over.

Robert Moir
Monday, January 13, 2003

I'm sure I don't have what it takes to become a CCIE at the moment, but was assuming that the skills could be learned. I was mainly wondering if the grass was greener on the other side of the fence.  ;-)  I'm wondering if the CCIE level really does pay $125+ an hour or if my friend's salaries are anomalies.

The cisco site says I would need CCNP + about 2 years of on the job experience to get to the CCIE level. If CCIE status really does lead to $125/hr bill rate, that seems much better than programming.  If I keep working as a programmer, I seriously doubt I will ever be able to charge $125 an hour, no matter how good I am. 

network curious
Monday, January 13, 2003

Skills can be learnt sure, and please don't think I'm discouraging you from trying if that is what you want to do, but beyond a certain point on large complex networks its less about skills and more about "grokking" the network, almost as an artform.

I think Joel, among others, has posted several times about how you can teach basic coding skills but there are certain things that you either "just get" or that you don't because that is how your brain is wired. I would have said that this is true to some degree of most things above a certain level including large networks, teaching, etc.

I am glad to see you've looked into the details of it all and appreciate that you won't be earning that CCIE sort of money out of the starting blocks. That tends to be my biggest fear when I speak to people, usually in interviews, who want a career change.

Robert Moir
Monday, January 13, 2003

J2EE programming maxes' out at 85k?  Where do you live? good J2EE programmers I know have an easy time finding 90k a a year jobs, and the really good ones (senior level architect guys) get contract offers for 100 bucks an hour quite often.  (and make more then 100k). 

Vincent Marquez
Monday, January 13, 2003

vincent, I live in the boston area. I used to live in manhattan. It used to be the case that it was super easy in both areas to make $100K+, doing nearly nothing, but it isn't easy anymore. Over time the salary will adjust itself to be about $85,000, when you count in hours actually worked and being unemployed. Even if you are continually employed at say, $90,000, that still is ~ $45 hour, three times less than the $125/hr my friends are making as network engineers.

network curious
Monday, January 13, 2003

Network Curious,

As a senior IT manager, can I respectfully suggested that J2EE is a very narrow field and is "just technology".  It really isn't worth much to an organisation as a whole, and the skills are readily available in the marketplace.

Instead of "trading in" your current skills for networking, why not broaden them - this will make you far more valuable as an employee.  Build on something you know and have experience with, have more fun, and as a bonus get paid more.

I run a mentoring program within our organisation that is designed to do this for our employees.

For pure programmer our career path has 5 levels as follows:

Level 1: Doing
- Competent with 1 programming language, XML, HTML and an SQL dialect.
- Can be given tasks to be completed without supervision.
- Understands when additional help is required and asks for it.

Level 2: Supervision
- Competent with at least 3 programming languages - expert with at least 1.
- Able to provide technical direction to a development team
- Able to estimate time and resource requirements for particular tasks
- Able to allocate resources effectively to task at hand
- Able to complete tasks on schedule

Level 3: Systems focus
- Understand development methodologies, and able to adapt methodology to suit projects. 
- Understands basic project management
- Understands need for documentation
- Understands need for configuration management
- Understands need for design but not necessary a competent designer
- Able to determine best tools and technologies required for task.
- Focuses on minimising maintenance and rework
- Able to provide effective risk management for the development portions of a project.
- Keeps abreast of new versions of technology currently in use.

Level 4: Strategic Planning
- No coding work undertaken without prior design.
- Competent designer.  Has the ability to design flexible systems to maximise quality and minimise ongoing maintenance costs
- Understanding how to design and develop infrastructure within systems to protect against future requirements changes.
- Understands the impact of development tools and technologies on future development efforts.
- Keeps abreast of current technology trends and what the likely future impact of new development technologies will be.
- Understands the business environment in which development is being undertaken, and is able to recommend solutions to business problems.  As well as understanding pros and cons of any recommendation.

Level 5: Big picture.
- Understands how Perpetual IT compares to the IT industry as a whole.
- Understands general development trends with the IT industry as a whole, and can anticipate how these will impact software development at Perpetual.
- Understands the strategic direction of Perpetual from a business perspective, and how software development can support that direction.
- Able to provide a development “vision” (where we should be in 5-10 years) as a guide to strategic decision makers.
- Is pro-active in promoting organisational change related to software development.

There is really very little preventing salaries at level 4 and 5 being $200K+.  Most companies do everything possible to keep level 4 and 5 employees happy since they are the ones who actually add real business value to an organisation. 

And yes, level 4 and 5 can still cut code if they want to.

James Thorpe
Monday, January 13, 2003

One thing to remember is that the grass always seems to be greener but rarely is. Many times I've been confronted with the "I am a boss jock because I do X" attitude from others. It's rampant in this industry. There are no "larger tech weenies than the rest".

IE: temporarily an employer may act like some skill set makes those people who practice it "better" than anyone else, but those people will be out of favor later when that employer wishes to favor someone else to prove whatever point is supposed to be proven to their people at the moment.

Another thing - you need to distinguish between *billing* rates to the client company, and the actual salaries paid to the people doing the hands on work. $125/hr billing rates for *either* network infrastructure or high level programming is not inconceivable, when billed by a larger professional services organization. Receiving a large share of that rate is a TOTALLY different story and comes down to shrewd positioning and having *lots* of balls and tolerance for risk, as well as making the personal choice to go contract instead of full time salaried. IE: people being billed for $100/hr may only see a salary of 1/2 that figure or less, depending on the company they work for. The rest is overhead and profit for the contract organization.

Making tons of money as a technology person is much more about personality, ambition, and creating a perception in the minds of others, than it is about knowing a particular trick or widget.

An aside - James Thorpe's organization sounds unnaturally enlightened. Most companies have no real career track for technology people beyond palliative title promotions and they wouldn't recognizing 'adding value' if it bit them on the ass.

PS: The compensation levels that I am reading here sound like fantasy. Not everyone chooses to live on either coast or in a tech belt...

Fly on the wall
Monday, January 13, 2003

Another thing to think about:  Most organizations have the need for some software development.  It could be basic database programming, a web precense, or the company's app, but companies always need development.  The need for network architects on the other hand, is much rarer indeed.  Where you may have a team of 10 high level java programmers all making 100k plus on a large project, very rarely will you have more then one "network engineer" to design a large network.  For every 40 large scale, million dollar j2ee projects, I'm guessing that there is one large scale network project (such as designing a datacenter etc.)

Vincent Marquez
Tuesday, January 14, 2003

James, I'd be interested in learning what organization you work for. As someone else pointed out, that is a rarity. I have plenty of architectural and "big picture" skills (beyond just J2EE hacking), and am well respected, but am not worth more than $85K.

Fly on the wall, in regards to compensation. I am originally from NORTH DAKOTA. I went to college in Minneapolis and immediately moved to NYC after college graduation. Then I got involved with a start up in Cambridge, MA. I was recently back in north dakota  (grand forks) and thought I might want to stay awhile, cuz I like it there (uh, in the summer.) However, the highest paying salary I could find as a programmer, without an hour commute to Fargo, was $26,000 a year. And that was architecting and building out some huge hairy system. (?!) Now, even living with my parents I would be able to save less on $26,000 after taxes than having a $750/m rent and a $75K job in Boston, so I moved back to boston.

that is one other reason I am sort of interested in the network engineering thing. My friend in Manhattan, basically works for some networking firm (i don't know which one.) He has a CCIE. He sits in his apartment and draws up some networking proposal, then sends it off somewhere. Then, he gets flown out to Houston, or wherever, for 10 days to supervise a build out. Then gets paid a huge sum, then repeats this process.  this sounds like a much cooler lifestyle than mine. In theory, I could live somewhere like minneapolis, and do the same thing.

The other thing that attracts me to networking, is that it actually seems IMPORTANT. It is a big deal if the network doesn't work. Most enterprise software projects I have been involved with ultimately seem like a waste of time.

anyway, thanks for the comments. Maybe I will just try to do the testing up through the CCNP and see if I'm still interested in the field.  One last, random comment: if you want to join the FBI as a CS specialist, you either need a BS in CS (i have a BS in Math and Physics) or else a BA in anything, and a CCNP or CCIE certification.

network curious
Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Network Curious,

Company is Perpetual Trustees (Australia). 

Couple of other comments.

1.  Contractors don't get the top level jobs - you need to be an employee to be able to contribute to a project from its conception.  Contractors are brought in later to fill skill shortages at the most competitive rates we can negotiate.

Contracting is really attractive in the short term, but my experience is that employment is better career and salary wise in the long term.

2. Level 4 is a senior architect, Level 5 is an IT strategist.  There is only 1 or 2 of each of these in a large company.  I fulfill both roles at Perpetual.

3. To get these roles you need to have an industry profile.  Presenting at conferences is great way to become a "name" (present on big-picture issues).  I goes without saying that you need the appropriate experience as well.

I was fortunate enough to be the Product Manager and Tech Support Manager for Borland Australia in the early 90s and was relatively well known as a result

4. You need to join a larger company, or a company that undertakes high worth projects.  In a multi-million dollar project a single decision can save or cost $100,000.  It is easy to justify a high salary if you demonstrate that your decision making or advice saves this kind of money.

There are at least 3 IT staff at Perpetual who earn $150K base + bonus.

As a final note.  As a employee or contractor you earn a $1 for each hour worked.  You have 2 choices to increase your salary.  Work more hours or increase your rate.  There is natural cap to salaries since there is a limit to what people will pay, and how many hours in a day.  This is true regardless of the field you work in. 

If you want to earn more than salaries can provide then you need to find a way of multiplying your effort.  One way is to have a product you can sell - earn money multiple customers simultaneously.  The other way is to employ others and have them work for you - earn money from someone elses labour.  Pay them $60 per hour and charge them out at $100.

James Thorpe
Tuesday, January 14, 2003

An addendum to my last reply.

<soapbox on>

Networking may seem important but it is not.

Very little we do work-wise is really important.  Family, friends, health, the way we treat our staff, etc - those things are important. 

If the network goes down, or the even if the Company fails, that's just an inconvenience.  I am pretty certain the sun will still rise the following day.

<soapbox off>

James Thorpe
Tuesday, January 14, 2003


You might also want to post the current Aussie-to-Yank exchange rate. (~0.60?)

Dunno Wair
Friday, January 17, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home