Career advice: generalist vs. network engineering specialist

Unanswered Question
Dec 22nd, 2009


I am facing a career decision, and thought it might be interesting to throw it up to the group for advice.

I have always been an IT generalist, working in or consulting to smaller organizations (<200 users). I know a bit about a lot of things (windows, networking, sql,, linux, Voip, telephony, etc etc etc) I've always found it easy to get decent paying work (+- 60K) doing this.

In an effort to move up (more money, more interesting work, larger organizations) I have been focusing my efforts on network engineering. My current job title is network engineer, though that's really less than half of my responsibilities. CCNA is done, CCNP will be done shortly. I really like it so far, this is by far my favorite part of my current job.

However, looking around, I have serious doubts that this strategy is going to pay off. Junior network engineer jobs seem to be paying under 60K, and I think it's going to be very difficult to land a senior engineer job as a "paper ccnp." I can't afford to spend years in a lower paying job to gain the experience to move up, I need to make more money soon.

I have a job offer on the table for 80K doing basically what I've always done as a generalist (working for a consulting firm). I think it's dead end as far as growth in technical skills or size of organization, but financially there's serious potential for a lot more money.

What should I do? Grab the well-paying, not-so-interesting job, or hold out and try to make my way into a higher paying job doing work I would enjoy more.

Thanks in advance for your insightful, reasoned advice.

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jgagznos Tue, 12/22/2009 - 13:07

Hi Leroy,

Great question for this forum.  I think there are a lot of people in similar situations in this industry.  I also came up the ranks working with small to medium size businesses where IT personnel wear many hats and need wide exposure to a number of technologies to perform their work.  I will offer you my own perspective based on what I did.

Naturely, you want to want to work with what interests you.  The question is how to get there without starting over or taking an unnecessary salary hit.  I say - take the larger amount of money now, but focus your certifications around what you WANT to do.  Get your CCNP and then complete a CCIE or a CCVP (plenty of jobs with good pay for voice people).  A CCNP really doesn't have many job opportunities today.  I know that seems like a lot to do, but it really is the best way to move to network engineering and not start at the bottom rung making 40K for who knows how many years...

Just my 2 cents,


osman97229 Tue, 12/22/2009 - 13:36

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I have over 15+ years of experience working in IT industry mainly working as UNIX administrator and eventually becoming sr. storage architect at a large corporation. I am now trying to become Cisco Certified Network Engineer focusing first for the CCNA training. In my case, the reason I am seeking the Cisco certification is to expand my area of expertise and not necessarily to seek a job as a Cisco certified network engineer. My feeling is having a Cisco certification will help me in my career growth and perhaps it is a good skill to have as I am considering starting my own consulting company.

If I were you I would definitely take the high paying job even though the job description is not exactly what you’re looking for. You can always leave the company if a better opportunity presents itself in the future. Also, it is possible if you join the consulting firm that you might be working with customers that have network related consulting positions.

Since your interest lays in the network administration position try to keep your self abreast with the latest technologies and having some hardware at home that you can practice with. This avoids being “paper CCNP” as you have described above.

Finally, the reality is that if you don’t have practical experience no one will hire you as a Sr. network engineer. You will need to accept a Jr. level position first before you can advance to a senior level position. If you were considering two positions one with the $80k offer and another one say with $60k offer but the $60k position was networking related my advice would have been different.

Take the job given the current job climate.

Reza Sharifi Tue, 12/22/2009 - 14:39


I second what Joe and Osman said.  Take the higher paying job.  With 20k more on you salary a year, you will probably net about 15k a year after taxes.

With 15k extra a year, you can spend about 2 to 4k of the first 15k and buy yourself a nice rack of equipment on Ebay and practice at home.

Another important thing to remember is with the average salary increase of about 5% a year (if you are lucky in this economy) when you get a job for 60k a year, it will probably take you about 6 to 7 years to get to 80k unless you are one of wall street executive that gets multimillion dollar bonuses a year.


leroyplock Wed, 12/23/2009 - 11:33

After 3 good responses, there seems to be no more activity, so thought I'd do a quick wrap-up.

I appreciate the comments, and the fact that everyone said "take it" definitely influenced my thinking.

One comment I'd like to make is that I don't think you should take a job like this unless you have the intention to stay for a few years at least.  Organizations (good ones anyway) invest in and depend on their people; a stable, prosperous environment benefits everyone. It's bad career karma to take any kind of serious job if you're not planning to stick around (and it doesn't look good on your resume). If you want to do that kind of thing there's contract work, but I need more financial security. Maybe it's different in big corporations where everyone's easily replaceable.

Happy holidays y'all, and best of luck in your career and all your endeavors.

marikakis Thu, 12/24/2009 - 12:40

Well, I saw this thread some time ago, and although I am the kind of person who tends to seek new adventures depending on my current interests, I didn't post because I thought the guys were giving you the best advice for the current financial situation. In my first job I was an ISP network engineer. In my country networking jobs are not paid any better than any average job you can get (technical or anything), so most people are not doing it for the money or for the fame. If the previous posts didn't puzzle you enough, and you want to puzzle yourself more, consider whether you would like to become a network engineer in the case where each and every job you could possibly have was paid the exact same amount of money forever. Tough one?

And suppose that your true love is the network engineering speciality. In my country we have a proverb: "When poverty knocks on your door, love escapes from the window". The thing that you love the most can really hurt, when you can't pay the bills by the end of the month. In the current financial situation you can keep this as a hobby. Don't we all do this from time to time?

I will tell you another thing. You know the proverb "Jack of all trades, master of none". A less known one is : "Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one"! The person who knows how to do many things might be a master in integration or be able to see things from many different angles and pick the best way to accomplish a given task.

I think you won't become a 'paper CCNP' no matter how hard you try. It's too late because you have already seen the practical side of things being a generalist. I think the term 'paper CCNP' applies more to people without any technical job experience. In any case, you might consider now the network engineer as a 'specialist', but if you take that road at some point, you will see that there is no end to specialization. Routing & Switching? Service Provider? Security? Wireless? Voice? Maybe double or triple or multi-million CCIE? Ha, there is no end in this road my friend!

From my experience, people who are too specialized and do the same thing for many years can feel very insecure under certain circumstances. Knowing many things can help you feel better when searching job advertisements. So, you can feel proud being a generalist, while also trying to extend your skills with methods that have been mentioned already.

And a last thing about company loyalty. Yeah, the companies want YOU to be loyal. They won't do you the same favor if they decide to fire you because of some headcount limitations, etc. So, while I do understand sticking around for a while, in the end you should do what's best for you after some careful thinking. The companies should understand this. It's all about profit, isn't it?

Have a nice holiday and consider this my christmas speech from the heart! Good Luck!


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