Do you have the technical expertise, patience and desire to focus on the development and refinement of systems and processes throughout their entire lifecycle? If you answered “yes,” becoming a systems engineer might be the right career move for you.
Generally speaking, systems engineers are multidisciplinary pros responsible for developing all aspects of a complex system that solves a problem, beginning with the initial concept design and continuing to production, release, and post-release management, explained Nader Mowlaee, career coach for engineers.
A broadly used title, systems engineer can mean different things for different types of products, companies and industries. In fact, the fundamentals, methodologies, processes and holistic approach can be applied to any type of system development, whether it’s used to operate a car, a business process or even a household appliance.
For example, an IT systems engineer may be responsible for evaluating, testing, debugging and implementing applications that support the company’s infrastructure, business processes or operations. Meanwhile, a software systems engineer may be responsible for planning an organization's software systems, their integration, and how they'll be supported over time.
Originally considered a niche position, today there are over 450,000 systems engineers employed in the U.S. and demand is projected to grow 21 percent from 2018 to 2028. Even better, Glassdoor puts the total pay at $112,671, but it’s possible to pull down as much as $190,000 with experience. Meanwhile, Dice’s latest Tech Salary Report puts the average salary for a systems engineer at $120,000, having increased 7.5 percent between 2021 and 2022—a sure sign of increased demand.
The breadth and variety of the discipline gives aspiring systems engineers the opportunity to choose their own adventure, noted Tim Go, systems engineer for Yelp. However, with so many opportunities, charting a path to a career in systems engineering can be daunting. Completing the following steps can help you reach the finish line.
System Engineer Pathway: Focus on the Niche
Whether you're looking to break into systems engineering after completing college, an internship, or stints in software development or programming, specialization is the best place to start.
Some 67 percent of systems engineers work in large organizations that look for subject matter experts who possess specialized knowledge or experience with their particular product category.
Focusing on a particular specialty, system or set of technologies can not only help you identify the skills and experience you need to acquire but also craft a value proposition that appeals to the specific wants and needs of hiring managers in major organizations. (And the compensation scale at major organizations goes quite high—for example, in much of Silicon Valley, the average base salary for systems engineers can approach a quarter-million dollars per year.)
The more niche your skills or learned technologies, the more in-demand you become—and the more you stand out compared to other candidates, Mowlaee said.
However, what most people don’t understand is you have to focus on specializations within a particular industry, not just the industry itself. Peeling back the layers of a system increases your understanding of that system and helps you identify a specific niche to target. For instance, niching down within the finance industry can help you fine tune your specialty from commercial banking to online and mobile banking transactions to data protection systems. Based on this example, creating a niche brand as an anti-tampering systems engineer can help you target niche-specific audiences and command premium pay.
Ideally, you want to be perceived as someone who’s dedicated to building a particular organization’s products or systems. When you take a focused approach to job searching, you land more interviews and get hired faster.
Develop Your Skills on the Job
In this field, employers value on-the-job experience as much as education. Getting full lifecycle experience with a product or system that is aligned with your targeted discipline and industry is the best way to prepare and boost your appeal.
The ability to be a self-starter is critical to success, advised Go, who launched his career on the help desk and built his knowledge by working in a series of positions with increasing responsibilities. In fact, one of the most crucial qualities employers look for is willingness to learn new skills when hiring systems engineers.
That said, because a systems engineer must be able to perform analysis, troubleshooting, systems design and validation, any experience developing any type of software is particularly valuable. Similarly, if you’re focused on software-oriented or communication systems, having a software engineering, computer sciences or network background will give you the best chances of success during the job search process and over the long term.
Technical skills that are in high demand include familiarity with Python for network and systems engineers as well as experience with infrastructure as code (IaC). Employers also want to see experience with configuration management tools such as Chef, Puppet, Ansible or Terraform.
Of course, you’ll also need to learn Azure or AWS fundamentals and DevOps to kick-start your systems engineering career.
Beyond the prerequisite technical skills, mastering multi-cloud technologies is a great way to become well-rounded and give yourself a leg-up, Go said. While employers don’t require certifications, earning certifications directly related to the job may help you break in a competitive marketplace.
On the nontechnical front, systems engineers often work alongside other tech professionals such as coders, developers and administrators to choose the right hardware and software. They also need the ability to break down problems and explain complex solutions to members of the C-suite, so solid communication skills and business insight are an absolute must.
Additionally, having a positive attitude, the ability to focus on a single task, being adaptable to change, taking the initiative, and displaying emotional intelligence can improve a young engineer’s employment prospects.
Today, soft skills are the most in-demand abilities for systems engineers regardless of the industry or the product/system they work on. In addition to networking, demonstrating strong communication, time management and collaboration skills is absolutely the best way to land your first job.