Are you interested in becoming a network security engineer? If so, you'll need to acquire the right certifications, skills, and experience.
- What Does a Network Security Engineer Do?
- What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Network Security Engineer?
- Paths To Becoming a Network Security Engineer
- Build On-The-Job Experience
- Obtain Advanced Certifications
- Prepare Yourself for the Cybersecurity Job Market
- Learn About Network Security Engineer Salaries, Bonuses, and Benefits
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
This guide aims to help jumpstart your new career and prepare for the job market.
What Does a Network Security Engineer Do?
A network security engineer is a cybersecurity specialist responsible for protecting networks from vulnerabilities, cyberattacks, data breaches, and unauthorized access. To excel in this role, network security engineers must have proficiency in both networking and cybersecurity technologies and protocols.
What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Network Security Engineer?
Here are four areas in which you will need to build your knowledge and skills.
Basic knowledge of computer science
A general understanding of computer systems is a must. Additionally, it’s important to understand the components of IT infrastructure and how those components work together.
You can acquire this foundational knowledge in various ways. For example, you can spend time at an IT service desk, take relevant courses, or obtain entry-level certifications.
Popular entry-level level certifications include:
- CompTIA’s A+, IT Fundamentals+, Network+, or Security+;
- Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA); and
- Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).
Working knowledge of networks, systems, and security
Networks: Basic proficiency includes understanding how networks work and the ability to build and troubleshoot networks. Candidates should also have practical knowledge of basic packet capture and analysis, as well as familiarity with TCP/IP or DNS protocols.
Systems: Systems knowledge includes an understanding of how operating systems work and the differences between various OSes.
Security: At a minimum, candidates should have experience with antivirus and anti-malware applications on endpoints. It’s highly valuable to have expertise in intrusion detection and prevention, data loss prevention (DLP), access management technologies, and security information and event management (SIEM) and/or security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) systems.
Experience with hardware, software, and coding languages
Hardware: Hardware experience includes familiarity with routing, switching, and firewall equipment.
Software and coding languages: Python is the de facto programming language for security professionals today. Python can be used for everything from scripting and penetration testing to SOC (security operations center) analyst tasks, including incident response. C++ is also a valuable language to learn.
Important open source tools include Wireshark and Zeek for real-time packet analysis. “If somebody comes to the table using debugging tools like Wireshark, that will put them ahead of other people who don’t,” noted Doug McLaughlin, principal information security analyst for Providence Health and Services, based in Renton, Wash. Before his current role, McLaughlin spent 19 years at Intel, where he served as senior network security engineer for 10 years.
Skills in troubleshooting, analytical, and problem-solving
Troubleshooting, analytical, and problem-solving skills are critical for anyone working in IT, including network security engineers. Seth Robinson, vice president of industry research at CompTIA, said that one of the best ways to develop these skills is through on-the-job experience in various IT roles, such as IT help desk, IT support, or entry-level SOC analyst positions. Additionally, aspiring network security engineers can test their knowledge through labs that offer simulated scenarios (commonly called virtual IT labs).
Paths To Becoming a Network Security Engineer
In the past, getting hired as a network security engineer typically required a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science. However, that’s no longer the case. Employers are more flexible today due to a significant demand-supply gap. There are a variety of paths to becoming a network security engineer, ranging from receiving military training to completing two-year degrees or obtaining relevant certifications.
Option 1: Get a Bachelor of Science degree
Having a B.S. in computer science is still a viable pathway to becoming a network security engineer, although it’s no longer a strict requirement. “Companies are recognizing that enforcing degree requirements may be limiting their candidate pool, so they are relaxing them in some cases,” CompTIA’s Robinson said. “But that does not mean they are relaxing the knowledge you need – just the degree requirements. We believe that the amount of knowledge [and skills] you need to gain … is roughly equivalent to a four-year degree.”
Option 2: Get a master’s degree
If your goal is to manage a team of network security engineers or become an expert in advanced network security architecture, go ahead and pursue a master’s degree. However, it’s often better to do so after gaining on-the-job experience or a Bachelor of Science degree in network security. Your decision on whether to pursue a master's degree may depend on the employer you want to work for, McLaughlin said. “At Intel, there was an emphasis on having advanced degrees that would translate into higher salaries, but it doesn’t work that way at some companies.”
Option 3: Attend a technical college or two-year community college program
There are plenty of programs available, offering beginners a solid foundation on their journey to becoming a network security engineer.
Option 4: Get certified
Even without formal education, aspiring network security engineers can get their start by obtaining certifications. Start with entry-level certifications, such as the following:
- GIAC Information Security Fundamentals
- CompTIA Security+
- ISC² Certified in Cybersecurity
- Cisco Certified Network Associate
- Microsoft Fundamentals
- AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner
- CompTIA Network+
- CompTIA IT Fundamentals
Afterward, advance your qualifications with the essential certification: Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).
“Don’t worry about what you think you don’t have,” said Keatron Evans, principal cybersecurity advisor at Infosec Institute. “A lot of people talk themselves out of [cybersecurity careers] thinking they don’t have the skillset, but I’ve taken people who know absolutely nothing about anything technical and helped mold them into very successful cybersecurity professionals in under a year.”
Build On-The-Job Experience
After acquiring basic skills, the next step in becoming a network security engineer involves honing your expertise in networking, cybersecurity, troubleshooting, and analysis. Evans recommended volunteering your skills and training to assist a nonprofit organization. This not only benefits the nonprofit but also offers you valuable hands-on experience.
Alternatively, you could seek a similar role, like network administrator or server administrator, as it can provide valuable experience in device administration. “At the end of the day, we want people who are effective,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of the time when they work the low-hanging fruit, it can become a stepping stone toward the longer-term goal.”
Obtain Advanced Certifications
In addition to enhancing your skills through practical experience, it’s important to continually pursue certifications that will contribute to your proficiency as a network security engineer.
There is a broad range of certifications to consider:
Umbrella certifications: These include Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), and CompTIA Security+.
Networking vendor certifications: Networking vendors like Cisco, Juniper, Palo Alto, and Fortinet offer certifications, such as certified network security architect, certified network security administrator, and certified network professional.
Don’t go overboard with certifications, however. Instead, focus on the certifications that align with your career objectives. For example, McLaughlin said he decided to earn his CISSP certification in 2010 after examining the choices made by his information security peers. “My strategy was that I was going to get the certifications my information security peers had, even though I was technically in a network engineering role,” McLaughlin said. “I wanted to be able to speak their language.”
Prepare Yourself for the Cybersecurity Job Market
Talk to people who already work as network security engineers and ask them how they got their jobs. While looking at desirable positions on job boards, you can make note of the job requirements. Additionally, a great way to professionally network and gain insight is to attend trade shows.
Furthermore, while on your job hunt, consider diversifying your skillset by acquiring expertise in related areas like cloud computing. “That will make you stand out,” Evans said.
Learn About Network Security Engineer Salaries, Bonuses, and Benefits
It’s important to stay informed about network security engineer salaries, bonuses, and benefits as you progress in your career. To gather this information, you can explore job boards like Indeed and Glassdoor to determine the compensation and perks offered by companies. Cyberseek.org is another valuable resource.
In general, network security engineers can expect the following salary ranges at different career stages:
- Early Career: $66,000 to $112,000
- Mid-Career: $85,000 to $141,000
- Advanced Career: $112,000 to $174,000
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: What is a network security engineer?
A: A network security engineer is a professional with networking and cybersecurity experience, responsible for safeguarding networks from vulnerabilities, breaches, and unauthorized access.
Q: What qualifications do you need to become a network security engineer?
A: Entry-level qualifications include a basic working knowledge of networks, security, and IT infrastructure, as well as skills in troubleshooting, analysis, and problem-solving. By mid-career, that knowledge should extend to advanced networking, security, and cloud computing.
Q: What certifications do you need to become a network security engineer?
A: For entry-level positions, you should focus on obtaining certifications that demonstrate proficiency in basic information security and networking. By mid-career, you should have CISSP certification, as well as advanced certifications in cybersecurity, networking, and cloud computing.
Q: How much does a network security engineer earn?
A: The annual salary of a network security engineer depends on the level of expertise and where they work. Typically, annual salaries range from $66,000 to $174,000, not including bonuses and other benefits.
Q: What is the job outlook for a network security engineer?
A: Network security engineer roles have an excellent future. As companies continue to pursue digital transformations, they will increasingly need qualified network security engineers.
About the authorKaren D. Schwartz is a technology and business writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has written on a broad range of technology topics for publications including CIO, InformationWeek, GCN, FCW, FedTech, BizTech, eWeek and Government Executive.