Network Engineer vs. Software Engineer

This topic came up recently at a forum a frequent. And I took the time to write out a fairly long winded response to a question that realistically has no definitive answer. And that question was (I’m going to paraphrase):

What career will generate a higher salary: network engineering or software engineering?

I notice these questions frequently and each time I write up a post that more or less boils down to the same thing: there are too many variables that will determine your salary; comparing two fields or just coming up with an average salary for a single field is far from an easy task (or even possible in all reality). Regardless, I’ll copy-paste my response to that thread here for future reference.

There is no cut or dry answer to this. Factors that play into it include, but are not limited to:

  • Where you live? Do you live in a city where there exist some large name companies? If so then you can expect to be paid more.
  • What company do you work for? The more success the company the more competitive the salary. But at the same time if you go into a very large company the entry-level positions might be paid substantially less than elsewhere just because their more senior positions carry potential to offer a lot more money than other companies. Thus people will take the pay cut at the entry-level just to get ahead of the game in a few years.
  • How much experience do you have (not schooling, but hands on experience)? This is the critical factor for any company. It’s more important than your degree when discussing salary.
  • What school did you go to? If you went to an Ivy League school then you have a bartering chip to play during the negotiation phase of the hiring process. If not then this won’t factor in.
  • How are your social skills? Many people sell themselves short on the negotiation table because they don’t negotiate hard enough. That’s usually because they lack the social skills to push confidence in themselves. A lot of people even get intimidated by the thought of asking for more money out of fear due to believing it will cause the employer to change their mind about hiring them. That isn’t true. Everything is negotiable until both parties sign the employment contract.

That said, the average salary between the two (at least in the San Francisco are) is hardly distinguishable. We’re talking a delta of less than $5,000 in either direction. I can’t say with any first-hand experience how it is elsewhere in the United States but I would wager it’s the same. Far from enough to make the money a deciding factor. What is an extra (or less) $2,500 year going to do for your quality of life? Not a whole lot; it’s what, $35 a week?

Does every company require a network engineer?  Or should every company have a network engineer?  The short answer is: no.

Software engineers, for example, are largely limited to development-based companies or those with more comprehensive-than-most IT departments (banks are infamous for this). The latter is largely limited to metro areas (where most corporate headquarters are going to be).

As a network engineer you’re primarily limited to working for larger companies that have a complicated IT (telephone, network, etc.) infrastructure. You may also find work in a data center or IT services organization.  If you go smaller than that then you’re going to see your title change from “network engineer” to something along the lines of “network administrator” or “network technician.”  And if the title doesn’t change, the pay will.  Both of those titles carry with them a lower salary in most organizations.

Network administrators are about as common as system administrators. Those positions can be found more readily across the country.  And ultimately, title really doesn’t matter.

I’ll use local car dealerships as an example, just because I am very familiar with them. Most dealerships belong to a larger family. Your local Honda dealership, for example, might be owned by the same person/group that also owns the local Toyota and Hyundai franchises. Because the owner has multiple sites and multiple locations (whether they’re physically separate or just different buildings on the same property is a moot point) them hiring a third party consulting firm to do all of their networking maintenance can be very expensive. Thus they might have an in-house administrator (or department if they’re large enough). However the title given to that person/department is not important; whether it’s “system administrator” or “network administrator.” If they’re labeled a system administrator they’ll still be responsible for maintaining the physical portions of the network infrastructure (routers, switches, cables, etc.). That’s on top of having to maintain the internal systems, such as the dealership’s DMS (Dealer Management System).

TL;DR: Salaries are just about the same. Both jobs change depending on where you live and the organization you work for.

Bob Hensley

IT Manager | Webmaster | Social Media Strategist | SEO Specialist | Copywriter at Fairfield's Auto Group
Bob Hensley is an IT Manager, Webmaster and all-around advertising guy by day; database theory junkie by night.Born and raised in New England, he lives just a couple hours outside of Boston with his lovely wife and one year old son.He's a technologist, and thoroughly enjoys finding new ways to use technology to better efficiency and work flows.

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