Job profile: Wireless network engineers keep everyone connected
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
I come from a family of excellent communicators. Most of us talked before we could crawl. Whether telling family stories, passing news along the party line, or spinning yarns about growing up in the depression, someone in my Scots/Irish ancestry obviously kissed the Blarney stone more than once, as communication has never been an issue around our family campfire.
Never has the ability to communicate and stay connected been more important than in this historic year of unprecedented events. We’re barely six months into 2020 and the world is still adjusting to quarantines, school closures, supermarket shortages, and a mass exodus from the corner office to the home office (shared with a spouse) or the kitchen table (shared with homeschooling children).
Across the United States and around the globe, professionals are adjusting to new ways to work remotely while educators are learning how to teach in the virtual world. Parents are developing a deeper appreciation for teachers as they navigate through a forced migration to homeschooling. We are all learning new ways to effectively communicate.
In this new “normal,” we must frequently juggle the challenges of multiple people all competing to be connected to the internet. In my household, we’ve had, at times, five people all trying to remain connected to work, suppliers, vendors, teachers, friends, and family.
To an increasing degree, wireless technology makes all of this connectivity and communication possible and, so far, has kept the world working, talking, and communicating. Now, more than ever, we all have a dependence on wireless networks and the wireless network engineers — the topic for this article — who make it all possible.
Keeping the world connected
When I think about wireless networks, I’m reminded of that iconic line from The Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” When it comes to wireless networks, it’s easy to become complacent.
Whether at home or work, most of us simply take certain facts of life for granted — the sun will come up, traffic will be bad, and a steady, reliable wireless connection to the internet will magically occur when I boot up my computer. We pay no attention to that wireless network engineer (WNE) behind the curtain.
WNEs are seasoned professionals who possess a both a breadth and depth of knowledge across multiple disciplines. They are experts in network hardware, routing protocols, software, tools, industry standards, monitoring tools, protocols, best practices, LAN, WANS, SD-WANS, VPNs, radio frequencies (RFs) and much more.
You’ll find WNEs designing, installing, configuring, and maintaining wireless networks. They are well versed in maintaining and troubleshooting wireless systems after implementation. WNEs understand the impacts of industry standards (such as 802.11) and are able to recommend and implement best practices for the wireless networks they support.
You’ll also find that WNEs possess an in-depth understanding of security risks and related issues. They are generally well versed in tools and techniques to recognize and mitigate security threats and vulnerabilities to wireless systems.
Most WNEs also possess an understanding of wired networking systems (hardware, cabling, routers, switches, virtual private networks or VPNs, and the like) as well as the infrastructure required to support a wireless LAN. In addition, WNEs possess the skills necessary to design and evaluate the performance of radio frequency (RF) links. WNEs also work with wireless telecom devices and VoIP.
Necessary training and education
The path to becoming a WNE takes preparation, time and commitment. Successful WNEs possess a combination of networking skills (wired and wireless), education, and experience. Formal training is an important component in preparing to become a WNE. Most employers seek employees who possess a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) in computer science, mathematics, engineering, or a related field.
Successful WNE candidates should also possess a thorough understanding of basic wireless networking concepts and skills, including implementing and maintaining networks, required hardware configurations, and security issues.
They should also be skilled troubleshooters, able to identify and resolve wireless networking issues. A knowledge of wired networks, as well as wireless network systems, is also useful and expected along with mastery of various wireless technologies and scripting languages (Perth or Perl, for example).
As with most IT job roles, practical hands-on experience is a huge plus for the aspiring WNE. A WNE typically has worked through five or more years as a LAN or WAN engineering professional before transitioning to a WNE role.
WNEs have keen analytical minds, which enables them to be excellent problem solvers. Good communication and customer service skills are also a plus, as WNEs are frequently required to support external customers and to work with network support personnel such as other network engineers and network technicians.
For WNEs who are just beginning their careers, or for experienced professionals who are seeking to take their careers to the next level, certifications can be a great way to incorporate new knowledge or validate existing skills. Certifications also demonstrate your commitment to an attitude of constant learning and a desire to stay on the cutting edge of wireless networking technology and innovations.
While there are numerous wireless certifications available, there are a few noteworthy certifications that are recognized industry-wide and well respected by wireless networking professionals and employers alike. If you’re looking for a place to get started with wireless networking, one of these credentials may provide a good foothold.
The certification you choose may vary depending on factors such as where you are in your career path (entry, professional, or expert, for example) or whether you have chosen to specialize in a particular vendor technology such as Cisco systems. The list below certainly isn’t exhaustive, but these are all worthy of consideration and provide a sense of what’s available.
Network+: Created and maintained by tech industry association CompTIA, Network+ is a vendor-neutral credential. An intermediate-level certification, Network+ is geared towards candidates with nine-to-12 months’ experience in networking.
The Network+ exam covers basic networking concepts along with implementation, network security (physical and types of attacks for wired and wireless environments), infrastructure, network troubleshooting, and network operations, policies and business continuity.
Cisco offers three vendor specific certifications geared towards networking professionals at the associate, professional and expert level.
Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA): Cisco’s CCNA credential is geared toward networking professionals with a minimum of one year experience implementing and administering Cisco solutions. A single exam is required, which covers network fundamentals, network access, IP connectivity, IP services, security fundamentals, and automation and programmability.
Cisco Certified Network Professional Enterprise (CCNP Enterprise):
As the name implies, this is a professional-level certification which targets professionals with at least three-to-five years’ experience implementing enterprise level networking solutions. Two exams (one core exam and one specialization exam) are required to earn the credential.
The core exam covers general enterprise infrastructure topics and serves as a qualifying exam for the more advanced CCIE Enterprise Wireless certification. Specialization exams include topics such as implementing advanced routing and services, SDWAN solutions, designing enterprise networks, designing enterprise wireless networks, implementing enterprise wireless networks, and implementing automation.
Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert Enterprise Wireless (CCIE Enterprise Wireless): The CCIE Enterprise Wireless credential is a serious credential for experienced, senior-level wireless professionals. Cisco recommends that candidates possess at least five-to-seven years’ experience networking experience before attempting the exam.
To earn the credential, candidates must first pass the CCNP Core exam and then pass a rigorous eight-hour practical exam focused on the entire lifecycle of enterprise wireless networks, including designing, deploying, operating, and optimizing.
Certified Wireless Network Professional (CWNP) Organization
Founded in 1999, the CWNP organization provides vendor-neutral certifications for wireless LANs.
Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA): An entry-level credential targeting professionals working with enterprise Wi-Fi technology. Candidates should be familiar with wireless technology fundamentals, along with installation, configuring, troubleshooting, and maintaining wireless deployments.
Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP): Geared to more experienced wireless networking professionals, the CWSP is all about wireless network security. Exam topics include WLAN discovery techniques, 802.11 protocol analysis, intrusion and attack techniques, wireless intrusion prevention systems (WIPS), Layer 2 and 3 VPNS as used over 802.11 networks, network security design models, endpoint security systems, authentication, and managed protocols.
While many factors (geography, company policy, and experience, to name just a few) may affect salary, WNEs are generally solid wage earners. Glassdoor reports average salaries for WNEs at $72,000 per year, with low earners at $51,000 and top earners coming in at $111,000.
Reported WNE wages at SimplyHired are slightly higher, with average earnings of $93,472. The bottom 10 percent came in at just under $60,000 annually, while the top tier reported earnings of $147,653.