Breadth makes more sense than depth in today's IT environment.
Whether you're a network engineer looking to advance your career through certifications, self-study, or going back for a degree, you might wonder whether to go for breadth or depth in knowledge. In this age, network engineers should focus on adding expertise outside of their core networking skills. Corporate environments are changing with SDNs, the increasing importance of network security, and networking's growing role as the glue to connect modern container applications. Being isolated in a networking only silo may no longer work. You’ve heard of full-stack developers. Why not be a full-stack infrastructure professional?
Getting a vendor-based certification, whether that's a well-known Cisco certification like CCNA or CCIE, or a Juniper Networks Certification Program (JNCP), is an obvious way to keep yourself current, acknowledged by your current or future employer, and practical. If your employer gives you financial support for earning them, I recommend you take advantage of that.
It can be very tempting to go deep and follow one path in one discipline, such as progressing from CCNA Wireless to CCNP Wireless and finally to CCIE Wireless. While that may be good for organizations that need deep levels of expertise, it's important for you to broaden your knowledge since different IT areas need to collaborate with each other. Being a person who can communicate with other groups to help troubleshoot or design a network will be valued and acknowledged by the broader IT group.
While getting depth certifications demonstrates expertise and specialization, I strongly recommend adding entry-level certifications in areas that are adjacent to your core area, such as in security or cloud.
Groups such as CompTIA and (ISC)2 offer alternative certifications, particularly in areas of security or cloud, and specialized credentials such as HealthCare Information Security and Privacy Practitioner. I would recommend those if you want your knowledge to be tied less to a vendor and you have allegiance to an industry. The benefits are similar to the vendor certifications as they enable you to acquire some breadth.
Understanding widely used, but not vendor-specific technologies is useful and certifications include the Linux certifications through the Linux Foundation or Certified OpenStack Administrator from the OpenStack Foundation. Note that you can learn some of these skills on your own if you don’t have the time or money to take formal certification coursework and tests. Options include online courses from Coursera or the Linux Foundation via EdX.
We know that DevOps is a hot topic and uses programming skills to help with system configuration and management in a particular domain such as networking or systems management.
There only a handful of DevOps certifications; one is the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer. The dearth of DevOps certifications is due to the fact that DevOps skills are used to improve another core domain of expertise. In other words, you cannot become a DevOps engineer in a vacuum. It’s always in context of an area such as networking, Linux, or cloud.
Hot jobs such as a systems reliability engineer may be a goal for you, since it combines programming skills with operational functions. Some consider this to be the next stage for some systems professionals after being in a DevOps team.
Computer science degrees
If you choose to go to school for a computer science degree, getting some breadth is a good idea. Networking is part of the overall infrastructure, so learning adjacent areas such as information security or distributed systems design will be very useful. The only exception is if you want to go in depth to pursue research. In that case, you would want to be narrowly focused.
Leaving your comfort zone of networking may feel like a stretch, but it can pay off in advancing your career or helping you find new areas that appeal to you. Whether it’s through a certification or a college degree, breadth will be valued by the marketplace over the long term.