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Network Engineer - Unpacking the Interview

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By: Shelby Welty

December 28, 2020

Unpacking the Interview: Network Engineer

Corporate networks have become increasingly complex as enterprises expand beyond office borders to include cloud-based connections, mobile devices, and always-on IoT technologies. The result is a rising demand for network engineers — today, network engineers number in the millions worldwide and commands starting salaries of more than $70,000.

It makes sense: These IT pros are responsible for delivering reliable performance, scaling up networks to meet emerging demand, and quickly troubleshooting any issues that arise. Achieving this mastery level requires a combination of in-depth network knowledge, in-situ experience, and hands-on training to help prepare engineers for anything IT environments can throw at them.

Nailing the Network Interview

With business networks now the backbone of operational success, companies can’t afford to hire network engineers who come up short in any critical competency. Certifications are the first indicator of assurance. Qualifications such as CCNA, CCNP Switch, and CompTIA Linux+ suggest that prospective engineers have the classroom training necessary to handle network challenges.

Additionally, enterprises need to assess the practical knowledge and the ability of network engineers to think on their feet. Interviews offer the ideal opportunity because current IT staff, HR team members, and C-suite executives can evaluate network experts to see how well they perform under pressure.

The secret to nailing the network interview? Preparing for some of the most common questions.

Question 1: What are the layers of the OSI reference model?

Expect any network engineer interview to include a set of questions around common concepts such as the OSI reference model. This is effectively a gatekeeper question — if engineers can’t quickly name these layers, they may require more classroom or field experience. But even experienced IT pros can get tripped up here, especially if they use these layers in practice but rarely have the need to call them out specifically.

In total, there are seven layers:

  • Physical layer
  • Data link layer
  • Network layer
  • Transport layer
  • Session layer
  • Presentation layer
  • Application layer

The interaction of these layers — and their effective management at scale — are critical to streamlining network processes and performance.

Question 2: There’s a network performance problem. What’s your process?

Network problems are common. Potential culprits include protocol mismatches, security issues, application conflicts, and end-user errors. No matter the root cause, network engineers need a reliable process for finding and fixing these errors, documenting the steps taken, and limiting the risk that the same issues will occur again.

To that end, interview teams will often ask engineers about their troubleshooting process. Here, the right answer isn’t a specific set of tools or technologies but rather a step-by-step framework that engineers have developed to assess potential problems and thoroughly analyze possible fixes thoroughly.

The answer should also include articulating the metric markers that engineers look for to determine if their efforts have been successful or if other approaches are required, along with a list of potential references or resources that could help pinpoint problematic processes. It’s also worth mentioning the value of collaborative efforts to solve IT issues since network engineers rarely work in isolation to solve corporate technology issues at scale.

Question 3: How do you handle angry or frustrated end-users?

With customer service now an integral part of IT, it’s no longer sufficient for network engineers to have only in-depth technical knowledge and industry expertise. IT staff must also effectively communicate with frustrated end-users who encounter repeated network failures or performance issues.

Be prepared for interviews to include at least one similar scenario that requires either a straightforward answer or more in-depth roleplaying to determine how prospective candidates will handle this type of communication.

Best bet? Start simple. Get to the bottom of the user’s IT issues and look for common root causes. Technical expertise isn’t as important as confident and calm communication — if users feel heard and understood, it goes a long way to diffusing potential problems. It gives network engineers the room they need to find and fix performance problems.

Expanding Engineering Options

Having the right combination of experience, expertise, and education — along with the proactive work ethic to prepare for common interview questions — network engineers can stand out from the crowd and jumpstart their next IT career. But this jumpstart is just the beginning for engineering experts. Evolving IT environments now need staff capable of providing highly specialized services in data analytics, application optimization, and cybersecurity. Considering the emerging role of cybersecurity engineers, not only do these IT pros have the engineering ability to manage solutions at scale, but they also have the in-depth training required to develop and deploy key defensive mechanisms across enterprise network environments.

Bottom line? Network engineers are in demand, and engineering opportunities are expanding. Nail the network interview and capture the career opportunity by preparing for the popular interview asks.

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