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How to Become a Network Architect

become a network architect
Credit: Charlie's/Shutterstock

What does it take to become a network architect? The right combination of technical skills, professional experience, IT certifications and a college degree in the field could be the ticket to a successful IT career, with a network architecture role as your ultimate goal.

One of the bright lights in IT jobs is that of the network architect. Why? Thousands of network architect positions are typically available each day in the United States. Just check some of the popular job sites, like SimplyHired or LinkedIn Jobs, to see the actual numbers and to get an idea of the types of organizations that are looking to hire.

Network architects are also among the highest paid employees and consultants in the tech industry. According to Glassdoor, the average base pay of network architects in the U.S. is $103,901, with the high end of the scale around $143,000. PayScale reports the median salary for network architects as $113,500. And that's just salary. Total compensation packages climb much higher.

As a senior position in an IT organization, a network architect is responsible for designing computer networks, including local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), Internet connections, intranets and other data communications systems.

Often a step up from the network engineer role, which implements and tests networks, an architect looks at the big picture and what's needed over the next three to five years. This involves analyzing business requirements to develop technology roadmaps that point to solutions and their frameworks, as well as performing network modeling, analysis, planning and budgeting.

In a nutshell, the goal of a network architect is to design efficient, cost-effective network infrastructures that meet the long-term IT and business goals of an organization, while also permitting the organization to meet its short-term goals and financial obligations.

Most organizations require a network architect candidate to hold a bachelor's degree in computer science, engineering, mathematics, physics or a related field, although job sites are peppered with descriptions that call for a master's degree, MBA or even a Ph.D. A graduate degree will lead to a significant boost in salary, and make you more competitive in the job market.

Many network certifications are valuable to aspiring architects, but you may need to work your way up the certification ladder in most cases. For example, if you pursue Cisco certifications, it's best to start with lower level certifications – the Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA) and Professional (CCDP) – as they will lead you directly into the kinds of networking infrastructure jobs where experience will help you to make your way into architecture-level positions over time. Then earn the next level – Expert (CCDE) – which is a prerequisite for the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr). Some organizations also require their network architects to have the CCIE Routing and Switching and/or CCIE Data Center certifications.

Other more senior network architect credentials that may be of interest are:

With software-defined networks (SDNs) playing a significant role in today's networks, you might need a certification on at least one or more SDN controller platforms. A few noteworthy SDN-related certifications include the VMware VCP6-NV and Cisco Network Programmability Design and Implementation Specialist (NPDESI), and there are many more. Also, the PMI Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) appear in many enterprise architect job descriptions as preferred or required certifications, because either or both security and project management competencies fall within the core skill sets sought for such architect positions.

People who fill the role of network architect typically have 5 to 10 years of on-the-job experience in which they design, develop and implement large-scale enterprise networks, often with solutions from multiple vendors. Companies seek architects with SDN experience, as well as a deep understanding of network services automation, storage and server virtualization technologies.

The job requires a mix of hard technical skills and soft skills, and proven leadership as a team lead, manager or technical expert. For example, an architect should have recent experience leading a project in a large-scale environment that incorporates both data center and WANs.

Other skills that are often associated with the network architect role are the ability to:

  • Develop and implement test plans
  • Develop project timelines for projects
  • Contribute to budgeting for and understand the financial impact of technology decisions
  • Write functional requirements/specifications documents
  • Keep up to date on infrastructure technology
  • Assess competitors and the types of technology they use
  • Guide the selection, implementation and deployment processes for new technology roll-outs

Coming into the network architect role with a systems engineering background is also highly valuable because architects often need to analyze and engineer software functions. In that respect, having programming skills provides another layer of understanding critical to the role, such as knowledge of automation frameworks (Ansible, Puppet, etc.), JSON and coding languages like Python and Perl.

Because a large part of the network architect role involves presenting business cases, strategies and solutions to senior business managers and C-level executives, excellent communication skills are a must. They're also needed to properly interact with and manage technology vendors.

Although education and job experience figure highly in achieving a network architect job, getting training along the way can make the journey a little easier. Take advantage of the many training opportunities available, such as through Cisco Learning, VMware Education and other companies whose purpose is to prepare participants for the rigors of an IT environment or certification.

As valuable as training may be to furthering a career, so is the development (or fine-tuning) of interviewing skills and the use of professional networking. Work with placement and recruiting organizations, and field at least some virtual job interviews online. Even if you don't want the jobs you might interview for in that setting, show up for and go through the process, because it will give you the chance to develop and practice interviewing skills. Beef up your online professional profile, such as on LinkedIn, and reach out to current and former employers and co-workers to maintain those contacts. Their recommendations can prove invaluable during the lead-up to job interviews, and your professional network is often the best source of job opportunities that aren't publicly advertised.

With the right mix of education, experience, training and some certifications, we don't see how you can fail to reach the level of network architect. Build yourself a certification plan, and put some serious time and energy into developing your professional skills and knowledge. Everything else should flow from there, as you begin to climb the career ladder.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.