Professional development

Understanding the role of a network engineer in IT

Infosec Institute
December 19, 2023 by
Infosec Institute

Network engineers are the unsung heroes of IT who design, implement, maintain and troubleshoot the complex networks that power modern business. They are the designers of the digital highways that enable our daily tasks, from sending emails to holding video conferences to accessing cloud-based applications. 

Network engineers are also at the forefront of cybersecurity efforts, protecting networks from all types of threats, including malware, ransomware and cyberattacks. Let’s shed some light on everything a network engineer does to fulfill their role. 

Moving from networking to cybersecurity is a common career turn. Brad Pierce, director of network security for HORNE Cyber, is a former network engineer turned pentesting and security professional. He talks about the differences and similarities of skills needed for both jobs. 

Network infrastructure and cybersecurity 

Network engineers contribute to cybersecurity efforts by implementing security measures within the network infrastructure. They work closely with cybersecurity professionals to develop comprehensive security strategies customized to an organization's needs. 

What should you learn next?

What should you learn next?

From SOC Analyst to Secure Coder to Security Manager — our team of experts has 12 free training plans to help you hit your goals. Get your free copy now.

Some of the common tools and practices that network engineers use to secure networks include: 

  • Firewalls act as barriers between internal networks and the external internet, filtering incoming and outgoing traffic based on security policies. 

  • Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) monitor network traffic for suspicious activity. 

  • Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) actively block or mitigate attacks in real-time. 

  • Access Control Lists (ACL) define who can access specific network resources and enforce granular control over user permissions. 

  • Network segmentation divides the network into smaller, isolated zones that limit the spread of malware and restrict access to sensitive data. 

  • Vulnerability scanners regularly scan networks for vulnerabilities so that patches can be applied to minimize attack vectors. 

Skilled network engineers who use these tools correctly — or incorrectly — can help prevent or enable a potential data breach. Take the Capital One data breach, which revolved around a Service Side Request Forgery vulnerability and a web application firewall (WAF). 

In this case, a server was configured in such a way to allow the trusted WAF to do whatever it wanted, explained Keatron Evans, VP of Portfolio and Product Strategy at Infosec. Since the WAF was given more permissions than it likely needed, attackers "tricked the WAF into thinking that a specific request was good" and were to use that request to "query, decrypt, and eventually exfiltrate some data."

Infosec Skills Author Mike Meyers explains the basics of setting up a network firewall.

Essential skills for network engineers 

Being a successful network engineer requires a combination of technical expertise, problem-solving abilities and effective communication. 

Technical skills 

To excel, network engineers must possess a strong foundation of technical skills, including: 

  • Network protocols: They have a deep understanding of TCP/IP, networking protocols and switching protocols. 

  • Network device configuration: They configure routers, switches, firewalls and load balancers. 

  • Scripting and automation: They use languages like Python to automate repetitive tasks. 

Analytical skills 

Network engineers are not just technicians. They are also problem solvers. Necessary analytical skills include: 

  • Network troubleshooting: They identify and resolve network problems by using diagnostic tools, analyzing network traffic and applying logical reasoning. 

  • Problem-solving: They analyze network issues, identify potential fixes and implement fixes, often under tight deadlines. 

  • Pattern recognition: They identify patterns in network traffic, device logs and performance metrics to find potential problems and prevent disruptions. 

Communication and collaboration skills 

Network engineers must also interact with a diverse range of stakeholders to ensure effective network management and incident response. To do so effectively, they need these skills: 

  • Technical communication: They explain technical concepts to non-technical audiences to build understanding and gain support for network initiatives. 

  • Collaboration: They work closely with other IT teams like security specialists and system administrators. 

  • Documentation: They document network configurations, troubleshooting procedures and incident response plans so other team members can finish tasks quickly. 

Networking engineering vs. other IT roles 

Network engineering is one of the many IT disciplines that contribute to the development and delivery of IT services and solutions. Here is how network engineers compare to other IT professionals: 

Network engineers vs. software engineers 

Network engineers focus on designing, implementing and managing the physical and virtual infrastructure that enables communication and data transfer between devices. In contrast, software engineers develop software applications that run on top of this infrastructure, providing users with functionality and services. 

Network engineers vs. system administrators 

Network engineers concentrate on the overall network architecture, ensuring its performance, security and reliability. System administrators, on the other hand, manage individual devices within the network, including servers, workstations and mobile devices. 

Network engineers vs. cybersecurity specialists 

Network engineers play an important role in implementing security measures, such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems, within the network infrastructure. Cybersecurity specialists focus on identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities, analyzing cyberattacks and developing security policies and procedures. 

Network engineering stands apart from other IT disciplines due to its focus on the foundational layer of the digital world. Without a robust and secure network, organizations cannot operate efficiently, communicate effectively or protect their valuable data. 

What should you learn next?

What should you learn next?

From SOC Analyst to Secure Coder to Security Manager — our team of experts has 12 free training plans to help you hit your goals. Get your free copy now.

The evolving landscape of network engineering 

Network engineering is constantly evolving, driven by technological advancements and the increasing demands of a data-driven world. Some of the technological advancements that are reshaping the network engineer's role include: 

  • Cloud-centric networking: While networks used to be only physical, network engineers must now also design, manage, and secure cloud-based networks. 

  • Software-Defined Networking (SDN): SDN decouples the control plane from the data plane, and network engineers must master SDN principles to automate network configurations, optimize traffic flow and centralize network management. 

  • Network Function Virtualization (NFV): Network engineers must understand NFV to manage and orchestrate software-based firewalls, load balancers and other network functions. 

  • Internet of Things (IoT): IoT is expanding the network landscape exponentially and network engineers must develop strategies to manage, secure and connect the massive influx of these devices. 

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML): Network engineers must learn to leverage AI and ML to enable predictive analytics, automated anomaly detection and self-healing networks. 

And while all these technologies are advancing, so is the sophistication of cyber threats. Network engineers must continue to collaborate closely with cybersecurity professionals to ensure the resilience and security of network infrastructures, as well as leverage new technologies like AI and ML to detect threats before they cause disruptions. 

Real-world applications

Kids and teacher in a library connected to other libraries through network engineer technology. 

Libraries, schools, hospitals and businesses all rely on qualified network engineers. 

Network engineering finds practical applications in just about any industry you can think of, and each has its own unique networking requirements and challenges. 

  • Finance: Network engineers support the functions of online banking, payment processing, trading and risk management. They also need to comply with various financial regulations like PCI DSS and SOX. 

  • Healthcare: Network engineers design and maintain networks that connect medical devices, patient records and telemedicine technologies. The healthcare industry also has regulations they must comply with, like HIPAA and HITECH. 

  • Manufacturing: In the manufacturing sector, network engineers design networks that connect sensors, actuators and control systems that play a role in optimizing industrial processes. 

  • Education: Network engineers design and manage networks that connect classrooms, libraries and research facilities to provide seamless access to education resources and enable collaboration. 

  • Government: Network engineers secure sensitive data and maintain the availability of critical public services. 

The relationship between network engineering and IT infrastructure management is symbiotic, with network engineers playing a pivotal role in maintaining the backbone of IT infrastructure. By effectively managing network resources, network engineers enable IT infrastructure managers to provide reliable and efficient IT services to end users. 

FREE role-guided training plans

FREE role-guided training plans

Get 12 cybersecurity training plans — one for each of the most common roles requested by employers.

The importance of network engineers 

Network engineers are the unsung heroes of the digital world. Whether architecting connectivity from scratch or optimizing established networks, these experts use their skills to construct the hidden pathways that carry innovation forward. They also play a foundational role in cybersecurity, deploying and configuring tools like firewalls and intrusion prevention systems that keep a network and its data secure. 

The field of network engineering offers a rewarding and challenging career path, filled with opportunities to make a real impact on the digital world. If you have an aptitude for technology, problem-solving and collaboration, networking engineering presents a promising future. 

If you're interested in pursuing a career as a network engineer, check out these resources to learn more: 

And read these articles to learn more about the certifications that provide network engineers a leg up when looking for jobs: 

Infosec Institute
Infosec Institute

Infosec’s mission is to put people at the center of cybersecurity. We help IT and security professionals advance their careers with skills development and certifications while empowering all employees with security awareness and phishing training to stay cyber safe at work and home. More than 70% of the Fortune 500 have relied on Infosec Skills to develop their security talent, and more than 5 million learners worldwide are more cyber-resilient from Infosec IQ’s security awareness training.