For most individuals who work in IT, they start out as a help desk, or a desktop support professional. In addition, I hear about individuals who work at a small company, not being specifically IT, but "who knows computers." Usually, the career stepping stones go something like the list below for an individual.
1. The individual "who knows computers."
2. Help Desk Technician
3. Desktop Support Technician
4. Server Team Member
Beyond the fourth step in this career path, you can hit management, become a specialized consultant, or companies have higher level jobs which are more along the lines of "Information Architect." This leads me to the next logical question: How does an individual get started down the network engineering path?
From everyone contact that I talked with, it seems that starting out on the Microsoft side is the popular consensus. The stories range from a guy who was ambitious and an opening happened on the networking team. On the other end of the spectrum, I have heard stories where server team members were forced to go to the network team because no on else could be found to fill the position.
At the end of the day, there is one condumdrum that seems to occur when guys move from a software centric role to the network centric role: Having to start at the bottom again. I'll admit if I had to go back and work a profession that I was considered to have less than one year experience I wouldn't be happy about that. That brings the obvious question, "Why make the switch?"
1. More Money
Just do some online salary search for system administrator, and network engineer. Generically, the network engineer always comes out on top.
2. Less hectic
Every organization that I have worked for, and other professionals that I have discussed this with, all say that that work on the network team is less hectic. I attribute this to the fact that every user has a concept that some information/content is on a server. Thus, what a user cares more about they will likely make more change requests. (Just ask any SharePoint Administrator.)
3. No worries about "Clouds"
There is always fuss about "the coming cloud revolution." Lets suppose that every company fully embraces the "cloud." In addition, every sever is at a far away data center. At the end of the day, there will still be switches in closets, and firewalls at the perimeter.
4. Less Hacks
Another constant complaint I hear from system administrators is that they easily get marginalized. For example, a friend of mine does some SMB work on the side. He had a job getting a SMB's server, and PCs up to snuff. He got everything done, on time, and on budget. The customer was happy that everything worked as they expected. He never received another call from that business again. He didn't work himself out of a job. They thought he charged too much and hired someone who claimed they are an IT professional.
Anyone with a virtualization client, and a Windows server disk, can play around and claim, they know servers. In fact, they haven't worked on enterprise equipment, or deployed anything in production for a client. Overall, with system administration, and desktop support, you can always get the kid next door who is cheaper. (Never mind quality.)
5. Cooler Challenges
Okay, this one is completely biased, but it is my point of view. I think it is cool once you start to learn BGP, or MPLS, and get a view about how the whole internet actually works. It is the thrill of viewing the big picture about how a network actually functions.
Finally, one reason to stay on a software centric path that trumps all of the reasons above is: you love it. On your career path, if you do love what you do, are good at it, and keep a career focus, it can satisfying professionally, and financially.
If anyone who reads this has another path they took onto a network engineering team please let me know. I am always interested in hearing anyones story about coming up in the ranks. Also, if anyone has a good reason (besides challenging point #5 - it is biased) why they think being a system administrator is better than network engineer, please post below.