I’ve been in this industry a while now, and I’ve done a lot of jobs.  Certainly not every job, but a lot.  My first full time network engineering job came in 2000, but I was doing some networking for a few years before that.

I often see younger network engineers posting in public forums asking about the pros and cons of different job roles.  I’ve learned over the years that you have to take people’s advice with a grain of salt.  Jobs in one category may have some common characteristics, but a huge amount is dependent on the company, your manager, and the people you work with.  However, we all have a natural tendency to try to figure out the situation at a potential job in advance, and the experience of others can be quite helpful in sizing up a role.  Therefore, I’ve decided to post a summary of the jobs I’ve done, and the advantages/disadvantages of each.

IT Network Engineer

Summary:
This is an in-house engineer at a corporation, government agency, educational institution, or really any entity that runs a network.  The typical job tasks vary depending on level, but they usually involve a large amount of day-to-day network management.  This can be responding to complaints about network performance, patching in network connectivity (less so these days because of wireless), upgrading and maintaining devices, working with carriers, etc.  Larger scale projects could be turning up new buildings and sites, planning for adding new functionality (e.g. multicast), etc.

Pros:

  • Stable and predictable work environment.  You show up at the same place and know the people, unlike consulting.
  • You know the network.  You’re not showing up a new place trying to figure out what’s going on.
  • It can be a great chance to learn if the company is growing and funds new projects

Cons:

  • You only get to see one network and one way of doing things.
  • IT is a cost center, so there is a constant desire to cut personnel/expenses.
  • Automation is reducing the type of on-site work that was once a staple for these engineers.
  • Your fellow employees often hate IT and blame you for everything.
  • Occasionally uncomfortable hours due to maintenance windows.

Key Takeaway:
I often tell people that if you want to do an in-house IT job, try to find an interesting place to work.  Being an IT guy at a law firm can be kind of boring.  Being an IT guy at the Pentagon could be quite interesting.  I worked for a major metropolitan newspaper for five years (when there was such a thing) and it was fascinating to see how newspapers work.  Smaller companies can be better in that you often get to touch more technologies, but the work can be less interesting.  Larger companies can pigeonhole you into a particular area.  You might work only on the WAN and never touch the campus or data center side of things, for example.

Technical Support Engineer

Summary:
Work at a vendor like Cisco or Juniper taking cases when things go wrong.  Troubleshoot problems, recreate them in the lab, file bugs, find solutions for customers.  Help resolve outages.  See my TAC Tales for the gory details.

Pros:

  • Great way to get a vast amount of experience by taking lots of tough cases
  • Huge support organization to help you through trouble
  • Short-term work for the most part–when you close a case you’re done with it and move on to something new
  • Usually works on a shift schedule, with predictable hours.  Maintenance windows can often be handed off.

Cons:

  • Nearly every call involves someone who is unhappy.
  • Complex and annoying technical problems.  Your job is 100% troubleshooting and it gets old.
  • Usually a high case volume which means a mountain of work.

Key Takeway:
Technical Support is a tough and demanding environment, but a great way to get exposure to a constant stream of major technical issues.  Some people actually like tech support and make a career out of it, but most I’ve known can burn out after a while.  I wouldn’t trade my TAC years for anything despite the difficulties, as it was an incredible learning experience for me.

Sales Engineer

Summary:
I’ve only filled this role at a partner, so I cannot speak directly to the experience inside a company like Cisco (although I constantly work with Cisco SE’s).  This is a pre-sales technical role, generally partnered with a less-technical account manager.  SE’s ultimately are responsible for generating sales, but act as a consultant or adviser to the customer to ensure they are selling something that fits.  SE’s do initial architecture of a given solution, work on developing the Bill of Materials (BoM), and in the case of partners, help to write the Statement of Work (SoW) for deployment.  SE’s are often involved in deployment of the solutions they sell but it is not their primary job.

Pros:

  • Architectural work is often very rewarding;  great chance to partner with customer and build networks.
  • Often allows working on a broad range of technologies and customers.
  • Because it involves sales, usually good training on the latest technologies.
  • Unlike pure sales (account managers in Cisco lingo), a large amount of compensation is salary so better financial stability.
  • Often very lucrative.

Cons:

  • Like any account-based job, success/enjoyability is highly dependent on the account(s) you are assigned to.
  • Compensation tied to sales, so while there are good opportunities to make money, there is also a chance to lose a lot of discretionary income.
  • Often take the hit for poor product quality from the company whose products you are selling.
  • Because it is a pre-sales role, often don’t get as much hands-on as post-sales engineers.
  • For some products, building BoM’s can be tedious.
  • Sales pressure.  Your superiors have numbers to make and if you’re not seen to be helping, you could be in trouble.

Key Takeaway:
Pre-sales at a partner or vendor can be a well-paying and enjoyable job.  Working on architecture is rewarding and interesting, and a great chance to stay current on the latest technologies.  However, like any sales/account-based job, the financial and career success of SE’s is highly dependent on the customers they are assigned to and the quality of the sales team they are working with.  Generally SE’s don’t do technical support, but often can get pulled into late-night calls if a solution they sell doesn’t work.  SEs are often the face of the company and can take a lot of hits for things that they sell which don’t work as expected.  Overall I enjoyed being a partner SE for the most part, although the partner I worked for had some problems.

Post-Sales/Advanced Services

Summary:
I’m including both partner post-sales, which I have done, and advanced services at a vendor like Cisco, which are similar.  A post-sales engineer is responsible for deploying a solution once the customer has purchased it, and oftentimes the AS/deployment piece is a part of the sale.  Occasionally these engineers are used for non-project-based work, more so at partners.  In this case, the engineer might be called to be on site to do some regular maintenance, fill in for a vacationing engineer, etc.

Pros:

  • Hands-on network engineering.  This is what we all signed up for, right?  Getting into real networks, setting stuff up, and making things happen.
  • Unlike IT network engineers, this job is more deployment focused so you don’t have to spend as much time on day-to-day administrative tasks.
  • Unlike sales, the designs you work on are lower-level and more detailed, so again, this is a great nuts-and-bolts engineering role.

Cons:

  • As with sales, the quality and enjoyability is highly dependent on the customers you end up with.
  • You can get into some nasty deployment scenarios with very unhappy customers.
  • Often these engagements are short-term, so less of a chance to learn a customer/network.  Often it is get in, do the deployment, and move on to the next one.
  • Can involve a lot of travel.
  • Frequently end up assisting technical support with deployments you have done.
  • Can have odd hours.
  • Often left scrambling when sales messed up the BoM and didn’t order the right gear or parts.

Key Takeway:
I definitely enjoyed many of my post-sales deployments at the VAR.  Being on-site, and doing a live deployment with a customer is great.  I remember one time when I did a total network refresh and  VoIP deployment up at St. Helena Unified School District in Napa, CA.  It was a small school district, but over a week in the summer we went building-by-building replacing the switches and routers and setting up the new system.  The customer was totally easygoing, gave us 100% free reign to do it how we wanted, was understanding of complications, and was satisfied with the result.  Plus, I enjoyed spending a week up in Napa, eating well and loving the peace. However, I also had some nightmare customers who micromanaged me or where things just went south.  It’s definitely a great job to gain experience on a variety of live customer networks.

Technical Marketing Engineer

Summary:
I’m currently a Principal TME and a manager of TMEs.  This is definitely my favorite job in the industry.  I give more details in my post on what a TME does, but generally we work in a business unit of a vendor, on a specific product or product family, both guiding the requirements for the product and doing outbound work to explain the product to others, via white papers, videos, presentations, etc.

Pros:

  • Working on the product side allows a network engineer to actually guide products and see the results.  It’s exciting to see a new feature, CLI, etc., added to a product because you drove it.
  • Get to attend at least several trade shows a year.  Everyone likes getting a free pass to a conference like Cisco Live, but to be a part of making it happen is exhilarating.
  • Great career visibility.  Because the nature of the job requires producing content related to your product, you have an excellent body of work to showcase when you decide to move on.
  • Revenue side.  I didn’t mention this in the sales write-up, but it’s true there too.  Being close to revenue is generally more fun than being in a cost center like IT, because you can usually spend more money.  This means getting new stuff for your lab, etc.
  • Working with products before they are ever released to the public is a lot of fun too.
  • Mostly you don’t work on production networks so not as many maintenance windows and late nights as IT or AS.

Cons:

  • Relentless pace of work.  New software releases are constantly coming;  as soon as one trade show wraps up it’s time to prepare for the next one.  I often say TME work is as relentless as TAC.
  • Can be heavy on the travel.  That could, of course, be a good thing but it gets old.
  • Difficulty of influencing engineering without them reporting to you.  Often it’s a fight to get your ideas implemented when people don’t agree.
  • If you don’t like getting up in front of an audience, or writing documents, this job may not be for you.
  • For new products, often the TMEs are the only resources who are customer facing with a knowledge of the product, so you can end up working IT/AS-type hours anyways.  Less an issue with established/stable products.

Key Takeaway:
As I said, I love this job but it is a frenetic pace.  Most of the posts I manage to squeeze in on the blog are done in five minute intervals over a course of weeks.  But I have to say, I like being a TME more than anything else I’ve done.  Being on the product side is fascinating, especially if you have been on the consumer side.  Going to shows is a lot of fun.  If you like to teach and explain, and mess around with new things in your lab, this is for you.

It’s not a comprehensive list of the jobs you can do as a network engineer, but it covers some of the main ones.  I’m certainly interested in your thoughts on other jobs you’ve done, or if you’ve done one of the above, whether you agree with my assessment.  Please drop a comment–I don’t require registration but do require an email address just to keep spam down.