How to Build Your Career as an Optical Network Engineer

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How to Build Your Career as an Optical Network Engineer

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Trends in information and communication technology are creating great opportunities for engineers with the skills to work as optical network engineers. The growing demand for bandwidth continues to push optics into many realms of communication networks. Optical networking now dominates global communication networks, terrestrial long-distance networks and metropolitan area networks. Optics is also displacing other technologies in access networks, local area networks, data centers, mobile backhauling and even in short distance applications like server backplanes. The success of 5G mobile communications will depend to a large extent on the availability of fiber optic backhaul networks.

This trend will continue unabated for as long as optics offers the most communication bandwidth of any other technology. As a result, optical network engineers are expected to remain relevant for a long time to come. This article is intended as a guide for those who want to learn more about beginning or expanding their careers in optical networking.

What is an optical network engineer?

An optical network engineer is a highly skilled technology professional responsible for the planning, designing, implementation or maintenance of an optical network. Optical network engineers ensure that networks operate properly in terms of the services that run over them – including video, data and voice. There is a variety of optical network engineers with the skills to work in different types of networks, including:

  • Global submarine networks
  • Terrestrial long-distance networks
  • Access networks
  • Data center networks
  • Optical backplanes

Consequently, optical network engineers can be referred to by different titles depending on the type of network they specialize in. Titles can also be influenced by specific roles, employer or the region of the world where they work. The following is a sample of different titles used to describe optical network engineers:

  • Optical network architect
  • Network engineer – Optical networking
  • Submarine network engineer
  • Long haul fiber engineer
  • Metro fiber engineer
  • OSP engineer – FTTX
  • Optical communications engineer
  • Optical transport engineer
  • Optical transport engineer, operations
  • Optical/Transport resident engineer
  • Optical network planner
  • Optical operation engineer
  • Optical DWDM engineer
  • Optical network deployment engineer
  • Optical network consultant
  • Optical test engineer

Roles of optical network engineers

There is a wide range of roles for optical network engineers depending on the type of network they are involved with. The following is a listing of some of the major roles of optical network engineers.

  • Route planning and network designing
  • Optical network equipment procurement
    • Preparation of fiber optic and network equipment specifications and cost estimates
  • Deploying and configuring optical network equipment
  • Testing and supporting optical networks in various stages of development
  • Optical network monitoring and restoration
  • Optical network acquisition

How much do optical network engineers make?

It will be disingenuous to drop a number for the average salary of optical network engineers. Salary is a function of too many variables, including specific role, the employer, the location of the company, market demand for the position and other factors. However, there is an interesting saying that “in America you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate”. The onus is always on the job applicant to do thorough research on the typical salaries offered by the company of interest to employees with comparable education, skills and experience in order to get the company to offer a fair salary.

Glassdoor is one of the most useful research tools for job seekers to check salaries offered for different job roles by different companies. Unfortunately, most optical network engineer salary data at Glassdoor is for the United States and a few other regions. However, even if you don’t work in the USA, looking at the data and comparing it with other occupations can give you a feel of how well the profession is regarded. The following is a sample of US salary ranges for selected companies and job roles:

So how do you build a career as an Optical Network Engineer?

To get a job and to grow into a career as an optical network engineer requires a combination of education, relevant training courses, knowledge of specific vendor systems, experience and other career activities. The following steps are typical for a successful career in optical networking:

Get a bachelor’s degree.

Most employers expect candidates for the position of optical network engineer to have completed a bachelor’s degree. While the degree itself may not prepare you for the specific position you will end up with, it demonstrates a commitment to a career in a technology field. It also demonstrates your capacity to learn new skills on the job.

Employers are not only looking for your current subject matter knowledge, but your capacity to learn new skills on the job. Most engineers find out that they learn more of the subject matter of their position during their first few months on the job than during their entire four years in college. Typical areas of study are optical engineering, electrical engineering, information technology, physics and other STEM subjects.

Employers may also choose to substitute education for years of experience as a technician in the IT, telecommunication or closely related industry.

Take vendor neutral training courses in fiber optics and/or optical networking

Whether you are still looking for a job or you just landed one as an optical network engineer, you must take vendor neutral courses related to your job function. A vendor neutral course is developed and delivered by organizations that are not affiliated with a supplier of fiber optics or optical system equipment. These offer unbiased, well rounded content that can give you the basic knowledge required of successful optical network engineers. Vendor specific courses, on the other hand, may be designed to focus only on topics where the vendor has competitive advantage.

If you are still searching for a position, a certificate in optical networking will not only show your commitment to the field but will also demonstrate your depth of subject matter knowledge. This gives you a competitive advantage over candidates vying for the same position.

If you are already on the job you can expect the company to arrange for you to take relevant courses for your career development. However, you own your career and the onus is on you to initiate the training you require. Do some research, find out the most appropriate training courses and recommend them to the training department in your company.

In large companies, training departments have responsibility for a wide range of subject areas, including management and sales. You will be more knowledgeable about relevant available courses for optical network engineers than they are. The onus is on you to bring these to their attention and have the courses included in the company training program. Following is a semblance of valuable vendor neutral optical network training courses.

Certified Optical Network Associate (CONA)

Developed by Optical Training Technology (OTT) and delivered by licensed trainers around the world, CONA is an intense 5-day introductory training course in optical networking. It single channel or multiple channel networks based on Short Wave Division Multiplexing (SWDM), Lan Wave Division Multiplexing (LWDM), Course Wave Division Multiplexing (CWDM), and Dense Wave Division Multiplexing (DWDM), all based on direct detection technologies. Delegates learn how to optimize network quality by mitigating against fiber optic impairments such as chromatic dispersion, polarization mode dispersion and nonlinear effects.  All other topics in optical networking such as fiber optics, passive components, optical amplifiers, transceivers, modulation formats, and transmission systems are covered. 

Certified Optical Network Engineer (CONE)

CONE is an advanced optical network course for optical network planners and designers. The course focuses on higher speed transmission systems at 100Gbps, 400Gbps, 800Gbps, 1.6Tbps and beyond, all based on coherent detection technology. Delegates learn how the powerful combination of coherent detection and digital signal processing has revolutionized optical communication. Moreover, delegates learn how Software Defined Networking (SDN) has contributed to open systems such as open ROADMs and white box solutions. Complex concepts such as phase modulation, polarization multiplexing, flexgrid and next generation Colorless, Directionless, Contentionless and Flegrid (CDCF) Reconfigurable Optical Add/Drop Multiplexers (ROADMs) are covered. CONA certification is required for candidates to enroll in CONE. 

Certified Fiber Characterization Engineer (CFCE)

The CFCE course is designed for test engineers who need to learn how to carry out full fiber characterization, including bi-directional OTDR testing, chromatic dispersion, Polarization Mode Dispersion (PMD) and spectral attenuation measurements. Candidates learn to carry out fiber characterization on telecom networks for 100Gb/s and extended wavelength operation, and deal with the impact of testing on technologies such as ROADMS and Raman amplifiers. Successful candidates are CFCE certified and are also awarded IEEE Continuing Education Units (CEUs) certificates.

Take other employer sponsored courses

Most employers will offer a wide range of training classes to give you the skills you need to do your job. Courses may include training on vendor equipment and systems that you use. The following are examples of vendor specific courses for optical network engineers:

  • Nokia Optical Network Design Expert
  • Huawei Certified Network Professional
  • CIENA Optical Communications Consultant (OC-C)
  • Cisco Optical Technology Intermediate (OPT200)
  • Adva Optical Network Training

Employers may only offer such training to employees if they deem it absolutely necessary for their jobs. If you feel that such courses will be required for your chosen career path, you should bring it up to your management. Managers may not want to offer you skills that will only benefit their competition once you decide to leave the company. You should be prepared to persuade them on how the training will benefit your current company.

Attend relevant conferences

Attending conferences is one of the best activities you will undertake to build your career in optical networking. The industry is changing rapidly and conferences will keep you abreast of the ever changing technologies. You will learn about industry trends, find out about new optical fibers and transmission systems, gain some new skills, and make a lot of new professional connections. The following is a sample of must attend events for optical network engineers.

  • Next Generation Optical Networking and 5G (NGON & 5G) Transport
  • The Optical Networking and Communication Conference & Exhibition (OFC)
  • The European Conference on Optical Communications (ECOC)


Current trends in information and communication technology will favor careers in optical networking for many years to come. To succeed as an optical network engineer, one requires at least a bachelor’s degree, vendor neutral training and other on the job courses. Participation at conferences and industry events is a great way to keep abreast of the ever-changing technologies and to network with other professionals in the field.

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