Job designing massive networks?
January 27, 2009 8:02 PM   Subscribe

What are the qualifications companies look for in a designer of large-scale networks (e.g. Google's network, or bank financial networks, etc.). What's the career path, from likelist educational degree and entry-level job onwards?
posted by Malad to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Career experience is the ultimate qualifier for such work.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 8:23 PM on January 27, 2009

Probably someone who has a history of working as a network admin or systems admin with a similarly large company background. And with networks of that size, you're not talking individuals, you're talking teams of dozens of people, or even outsourced to a firm that specializes in those needs.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 8:25 PM on January 27, 2009

Even a CCIE requires a couple of years of professional experience in the position these days, and that's gonna be almost required in enterprise neteng and architecture.
posted by rhizome at 8:55 PM on January 27, 2009

Undergrad degree in CS, ECE is pretty likely although of course not required. Almost certainly a comfort with basic sysadmin type tasks. You would get a job in an area called something like "technical infrastructure". Hiring for these groups tends to be from pools of people with either degree experience (masters degrees with concentrations in networks or information networking, say) or some work experience in a sysadmin type role. You might also move into it from a position of technical generalist/software developer but if you don't have the background to do the nitty gritty work of setting up and debugging all the various hardware and software components that is going to be a hard move to make.

None of these companies have a single person in charge of their whole network, but you might manage to work yourself up to the position of the overseer of the group that designs one of the larger sub-networks. You would have to prove yourself both extremely good at designing these systems, working with the "customers" of the systems (the groups with the network need/problems), and debugging problems with these systems. This takes quite a bit of time to work up to, and you are going to have to be in the very top percentile of your cohorts in all of these areas to be given this sort of responsibility. It will probably require at least some late nights/weekends of handling meltdowns and unexpected problems. I would say that most of the people in a role like that at the large financial firm I work for are 10+ years into their career and very, very hard workers. It is unlikely you would be hired into that role directly unless you were known to someone inside the firm, and I would bet that is true for the Googles of the world as well.

A lot of the expertise here is familiarity with the limitations of the hardware available (and the ability to evaluate the capabilities of a brand new setup), and of course really detailed understanding of the fundamentals of networking. You get the former from working your way up in a company, and the latter from school. While I am making this sound intimidating it is quite doable, and even if you aren't ambitious enough to pull up to top dog you can do some pretty cool stuff as a technical specialist in this area, evaluating new products and debugging system problems.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:56 PM on January 27, 2009

Maybe it would help to know that we call that role an architect, not a designer.
posted by smackfu at 10:21 PM on January 27, 2009

Another avenue is to work in pre-sales for a telco/ISP/router vendor/systems integrator/outsourcer(like EDS).
In this sort of route I would say some sort of technical degree and a simple Cisco certification like CNA would get you employed, then experience moves you up the ladder in complexity.
Do some more certifications on the way, but successful projects are what gets you promoted.
And I disagree that a business like a national bank does not have somebody ultimately individually responsible for the network design, I think that is actually the norm. They will have helpers for the actual implementation/running/maintenance.
posted by bystander at 11:24 PM on January 27, 2009

I do this for a living.

CCIE or JNCIE are useful certifications depending on where you are going to work. At my employer, CCIE was not required, although it's encouraged. I have neither and do very well in my field of choice. Practical experience got me into the field I am today - it took about four years to learn most of the basics and another six to be termed an 'expert' in most of the technologies, but that was all OJT and I had some stops along the way. Network implementation, architecture, and engineering is an incredibly broad field and there are a wide variety of technologies to be conversant in. Most network engineers I know do not have computer science degrees; a few have math degrees but those degrees, while helpful, were not what I would call required.

Your entry level jobs can vary widely. Some people take technical support roles, but in my experience these days, that's a much harder path than, say, an internship. Tech support people in some ways are looked down on (but when I started, that was the path). I've known people who have been outside plant (cable, fiber, copper) technicians, people who had CS backgrounds, or people that even came from totally unrelated fields (web design). I'd say the critical element that's really necessary for these jobs is strong problem-solving technique. This is one thing that is really hard to teach, and while you can do a rigorous "differential" on networks, I find the smartest people (those I tend to want to hire) have a unique knack for having the "whole network" in their head and understanding what i'd phrase as the interaction boundaries, e.g. where the two pieces of a network path meet.

Basic knowledge can be self-taught in the field. Issues that come up when you start scaling are not immediately obvious, so the larger the networks get the more rigorous the knowledge of scale has to be. Also, it's not as simple as merely knowing "how to do it", but knowing "how to make it easy for other people to do it" is just as important. There are lots of people who call themselves network engineers but would have no clue what they were supposed to be doing on a "service provider" network, but can run "enterprise" networks very well.

HTH. Mefimail me if you have any questions.
posted by arimathea at 2:50 AM on January 28, 2009

Well, Amazon's new VP and Distinguished Engineer on the Amazon Web Services Team used to work as a sports car mechanic. Oh, he also has a BS in Computer Science and an MS in Computer Science from a good program.
posted by Good Brain at 8:38 AM on January 28, 2009

career experience, definitely. if you can get a job as a noc jockey (CCNA-level if you're certification happy), that's a good foot in the door. and someplace large enough to have a NOC (network operations center) is likely going to have a big enough network to be interesting. it doesn't have to be huge, though. but a noc is going to put you in a position where you can see the network and how various engineering decisions look once they're implemented.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:46 PM on January 28, 2009

Response by poster: Great, thanks for the info everyone.
posted by Malad at 6:30 PM on January 28, 2009

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