How to Become a Network Architect
No matter at what stage your career is, all roads lead to the job of designing and planning network infrastructures to meet business needs.
Aligning business needs with technology acquisition and deployment make architecture a vital discipline in IT. For you and your company, starting down the networking technology path is bound to produce a better ROI, if you can be sure these steps will help you meet business goals, today and in the future. As an employee, you can be confident that your perceived worth only increases as the value and opportunities you deliver to your employer(s) multiply. As you look through the career path that follows, simply slot yourself into your current career stage and start moving forward (though an occasional remedial step or two backward may be required).
Basic Educational Background
The basic foundation for a long-lived career in IT is to pursue a bachelor's degree in something computing related. This usually means a degree in computer science, management information systems (MIS), computer engineering, informatics or something similar. Plenty of people transition in from other fields, to be sure, but the more math and science under one's belt when making that transition, the easier it will be. Given projected shortages of IT workers, especially in high demand subject areas — which not only include networking, but also security, software development, big data and analytics and more — it's hard to go wrong with this kind of career start.
Early Career Work Focus and Experience
Traditional paths into networking may start directly in that field, though many IT professionals also cross over from help desk or support positions, or from systems administration roles (if not a two-step progression from the former to the latter). Early stage career IT pros will usually wind up focusing on local area networking, often with one eye on wired networking infrastructures (Ethernet) and another on wireless (usually Wi-Fi, or 802.3, in one of its numerous manifestations such as 802.3g, 802.3n, 802.3ac, and so forth).
Exposure to basic TCP/IP protocols and services is a must, as is a strong and expanding base of implementation, installation and troubleshooting experience. Development of basic soft skills in oral and written communications is a good idea, as is some exposure to basic business principles such as operations, budgeting and principles of management.
Early-Career Network Certifications
Basic networking certifications include the CompTIA Network+, a fundamental building block credential for aspiring network experts. Many colleges and universities offer Network+ as part of or alongside IT-focused college degree plans nowadays, so you may even be able to knock this off before you ever join the workforce full-time. If you don't already have one by the time you develop an interest in networking, it should be on the first rung of your certification ladder. Another alternative is the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician, or CCENT, which is itself also a first step to the incredibly popular and much-sought-after Cisco Certified Networking Associate, or CCNA credential. By the time one gets to the CCNA, however, there is already a sizable list of specialties to consider, so I'll return to this in the mid-career certifications section later.
Mid-career Work Focus and Experience
By the time you've spent 3 to 5 years in the workforce, you should start narrowing in on one or more networking specialties, such as infrastructure, wireless, wide-area, cloud computing, security, the Internet of Things (IoT) and more. Any or all of them can lead to a job in network architecture, though you'll want to keep abreast of general advances in networking tools and technologies, even as you narrow your focus on the job. This is the career stage at which you'll develop increasing technical skills and knowledge, as you also start to gain more seniority and responsibility among your peers. Soft skills become more important mid-career as well, because you'll have to start drawing on your abilities to communicate with and lead or guide others (on technical subjects, at least) during this career phase.
Mid-career Network Certifications
Networking related certifications can really help develop more focused and intense technical skills and knowledge, but will require some careful research and consideration to choose and pursue. Thus, for example, one person might decide to dig into certs related to a particular networking vendor's offerings — such as Cisco, Juniper, Ciena, Avaya, Extreme Networks, and so forth — while another may wish to pursue a program with a technical focus such as wireless (through the Certified Wireless Networking Professional certification program or CWNP, with an entire family of credentials) or a deepening and intense interest in TCP/IP (through Wireshark University’s Certified Network Analyst or WCNA credential).
This is a point at which one might choose to specialize more in network design and infrastructure on the one hand, or in network deployment and maintenance on the other. There are at least one hundred networking certifications available today, so you’ll have to follow your technical interests and proclivities to learn more about which ones are right for you.
"At the senior level career step one typically climbs near or to the top of most technical certification ladders."
Expert or Senior Level Work Focus and Experience
After 10 to 15 years in the workforce, it's time to get serious about networking. You should start reaching for the higher rungs in the job ladder. Such titles as Senior Network Analyst, Senior Network Designer, IP Network Specialist, Software Defined Networking Specialist represent the kinds of positions that networking pros are likely to occupy. Expert or senior level IT pros will often be spearheading project teams of varying sizes by this point as well, even if their jobs don't carry a specific management title or overt management responsibilities. Soft skills are even more important with an increasing emphasis on leadership and vision, along with skills in people and project management, plus oral and written communications.
Expert or Senior Level Networking Certifications
At the senior level career step one typically climbs near or to the top of most technical certification ladders. Many of these credentials — such as the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) or the Juniper Networks Certified Internet Expert (JNCIE) — actually include the term "expert" in the certification moniker. Others get their cachet from sitting atop a well-defined certification ladder, such as those from VMware, Brocade, Ciena, and others.
The term "architect" starts to appear in certification programs now, as it does for the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr), Brocade Distinguished Architect, and so forth. This is the penultimate step before becoming a Network Architect, per se. Thus, this is where deep understanding of the principals of networking and IT architecture must begin to combine. It is also where people must focus on their soft skills at the highest level, because architects must be able to lead teams of high-level individuals in the organizations they serve, including top executives, high-level managers and technical experts and consultants. It can require convincing people to agree on a business vision and how networking technologies can realize that vision.
Continuing Education: Master's or PhD?
It may be worth considering a Master’s degree with a focus on architecture and networking as a profound developmental step for aspiring network architects. Or, if network architecture is a stepping stone to Enterprise IT architecture, a broader program of study might be in order. For most working adults, this will mean getting into a part-time or online advanced degree program. Many such programs are available, but you'll want to consider the name recognition value and the cost of those offerings when choosing a degree plan to pursue.
A PhD is probably only for someone with strong interests in research or teaching, and will not be an option for most unless they plan and budget for a lengthy interruption in their working lives. Nearly all PhD programs require full-time attendance on campus, and take from 3 to 6 years to complete.
Making the Leap into Network Architecture
Please see our stories "Best Enterprise Architect Certifications for 2016" and the section in "How to Become an Enterprise Architect" labeled "On Becoming an Enterprise Architect" for a view of how one takes responsibility for architecture at the enterprise level. A Network Architect will usually work for an Enterprise Architect and only assumes responsibility for the networking part of the overall architecture vision. Even so, there's a lot of overlap between the two roles, and the same basic knowledge I recommend that Enterprise Architects develop about IT architecture will also serve Network Architects equally well. In particular, basic architecture credentials from The Open Group, IASA, and the EACOE (see "Best Certifications") will serve aspiring network architects well. Ditto for architect level certifications from Cisco and other platform providers.
Another important must-have for network architects is leadership and communication skills. In "How to Become an IT Architect," (Artech House, October 2016), author Cristian Bojinca devotes nearly one-quarter of the book to describing and discussing the importance of soft skills as crucial to success in the architect's role. That's why you'll want to understand the full panoply of such skills and start developing them well in advance of any planned or wished-for transition into a network architect position.
With proper education, certification, planning and experience, working as a network architect is an achievable goal. It will take at least 15 years for entry level IT professionals to work their way into such a position (less for those with more experience), but it’s a job that offers high pay and one that is expected to stay in high demand for the foreseeable future. Even better, network architects can usually see the fruits of their labors helping to reshape and improve their companies or organizations. IT doesn’t get any better than that.