This feature first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
I have to admit that I am the reason support centers and help desks exist. While I certainly possess a fair share of skills, they don’t extend to support, especially computer network support. As a result, when I hear the words “network” and “support specialist” coupled together, I think superhero Part subject matter expert and part networking jack-of-all-trades, computer network support specialists are the rock stars who keep network-dependent systems and organizations connected and running.
Job role and responsibilities
If there’s one thing we can depend on, it’s that despite the best preparation and planning, things can and do break. As it relates to networks, downtime can be devastating to organizations and their clients. Computer network support specialists are highly skilled professionals who are well-versed in all aspects of network maintenance.
Successful computer network support specialists possess the skills necessary to analyze, evaluate, and maintain existing network systems. In addition, they routinely test systems, and when problems arise, they are able to analyze the issue and implement solutions. Specialists may be responsible for installing or maintaining hardware and software, as well as training others in best use practices.
You’ll also find computer network support specialists performing tasks such as analyzing attempted or actual security breaches, managing access permissions, backing up network data, and configuring and maintaining security. Support may be internal, tailored to the unique needs of the organization, or external, providing direct customer support for computer networking issues.
The types of networks may vary depending on the organization. Most computer network support specialists possess the skills necessary to support a variety of network environments including data communications networks, servers, or cloud networks. In addition, they routinely work with wide area networks (WAN) and local area networks (LANs).
Education and experience
As with any job role, requirements vary depending on the needs of the employer. In examining actual job postings, we found numerous industry-specific requirements, such as Cisco or Department of Defense credentialing, job-specific tools, or experience. For our purposes, however, we focused on general requirements, including experience, education, certifications, tools, and soft skills.
This is not an exhaustive list, as each employer brings their own unique requirements to the role, but this should provide a general guideline for must-have preparatory skills.
Education — While there are always exceptions, most employers look for candidates with an associate or bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering, computer network support, information technology, or a related field.
Experience — In examining job postings, the amount of experience required varies greatly. For example, some “journeyman” or senior-level computer network support specialist positions require eight or more years of work experience, while an entry-level position might require one to two years of experience.
Successful candidates should possess a strong background in networking roles gained through real-world experience, hands-on classroom work, apprenticeships, or internships. Experience with information technology and cybersecurity topics, as well as server administration, is also helpful when preparing to become a computer network support specialist.
If you’re looking for a solid vendor-neutral certification, then you can’t go wrong with the CompTIA Network+ credential. This credential demonstrates to prospective employers that you possess the skills necessary to configure, manage, and troubleshoot networks (both wired and wireless), and that you’re up-to-date on the latest advances in network-related hardware, virtualization, cloud computing, and security.
It's recommended that Network+ candidates also have CompTIA A+ and nine to 12 months of professional networking experience before attempting the exam. In addition, CompTIA offers numerous other vendor-neutral certifications covering topics, which a prospective computer network support specialist may find useful, including CompTIA Server+, CompTIA Linux+, and CompTIA Security+.
Depending on the specific technologies used by the employer, prospective network support specialists may want to consider adding some vendor-specific credentials to their certification portfolio. By way of example, Cisco users will be pleased to know that Cisco offers a full complement of networking credentials covering all career phases from entry level to associate, professional, and expert.
The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) are globally recognized and well-respected credentials. Employers working with Cisco technologies frequently look for these credentials when evaluating the skills of prospective employees. The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) may well be viewed as the holy grail for Cisco networking professionals. The terminal credential in this certification portfolio is highly respected and usually only obtained by experienced candidates that are able to demonstrate advanced networking skills.
Many vendors (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and VMware, for example) also maintain robust credential programs to support networking professionals and organizations using their technologies. Network support professionals who work with the military or other federal organizations may find Department of Defense (or equivalent) credentials to be helpful.
Regardless of the vendor networking technologies supported by your organization, it’s worth looking at vendor-neutral credentialing. Certifications demonstrate to employers that you are committed to an attitude of continuous learning to ensure your skills remain current and up-to-date on the latest networking technology advances.
While it should be intuitive, network support specialists need an understanding of basic office productivity tools, such as Google Workspace or Microsoft Office. These tools enable support specialists to readily communicate with peers and clients, prepare presentations, develop and maintain reports, and analyze data.
In addition to productivity and related desktop tools, successful candidates should be familiar with common configuration management software, network monitoring software (Wireshark or Nagios, for example), operating system software (Microsoft Windows Server, Unix), and virus protection/security software (McAfee, rootkit detection, cybersecurity software).
In general, successful candidates will find that a working knowledge of computers, including software, hardware, cabling, and peripheral devices, is instrumental in performing their duties effectively and efficiently. An understanding of computer repair and network maintenance is also a plus.
Excellent communication skills are probably one of the most important skills a successful network support specialist can possess. Why? Because people typically don’t come to you for assistance when things are going well. The phone rings when things are broken, slow, or non-responsive. And when these things happen, clients become frustrated and, well, cranky.
Successful professionals need the ability to listen, quickly synthesize the information received, and then communicate solutions in a manner that the client can understand. It’s important to remember that many clients may not possess the technical skills necessary to understand the tasks required to resolve the issue, so patience and an ability to lead a client through the steps required to resolve an issue in a virtual environment are vital.
Understanding human nature and how to diffuse a stressful situation is just as important as knowing how to fix the problem. A healthy dose of organization, the ability to think outside the box when problem solving, and the capacity to self-direct and work independently are all important qualities. Additionally, flexibility and the ability to work within a team are essential.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment and Wages report for May 2022, the mean hourly wage for computer network support specialists is $36.57 with a mean annual wage of $76.06. The median annual wage is $68,050, with top earners making more than $115,000.
When it comes to earning potential, industry sector and geography matters. Industry sectors reporting mean annual wages of more than $100,000 in 2022 include:
- Securities, commodity contracts, and other financial investments and related activities ($110,440)
- Petroleum and coal products manufacturing ($103,200)
- Semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing ($102,150)
- Support activities for mining ($101,960)
- Electric power generation, transmission and distribution ($101,740)
Salaries also vary depending on geographic location, so candidates seeking top-tier salaries may need to be prepared to follow the money. States with top salaries for computer network specialists include Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Wages are likely to be higher in certain metropolitan areas.
According to the May report, here are the top five metropolitan areas offering the highest wages:
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA ($126,060)
- Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL ($107,270)
- Durham-Chapel Hill, NC ($102,910)
- Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT ($101,670)
- New Haven, CT ($98,240)
According to the BLS, employment outlook for computer network support specialists is solid. It is anticipated that this career sector will enjoy an estimated 6 percent growth between 2021 and 2031. This is slightly higher than the national average, which stands at 5 percent. As with salaries, some industry sectors may experience stronger growth than others. Candidates should plan to do their homework and research which industry and geography is right for them.