First, we’ll give you a bit of background on what exactly a systems engineer does. If it sounds like the right career path for you, you’ll find more details below about the ten steps we recommend taking to become a systems engineer.
A systems engineer is tasked with building the IT systems of an organization. That is, they implement all of the different technologies used in the organization’s network and servers. Systems engineers have a deep, technical understanding of the technologies they work with. Responsibilities of a systems engineer may include networking, establishing and/or updating authentication protocols, encryption, documentation, enterprise resource planning, monitoring systems and watching for alerts, engineering new solutions to meet an organization’s needs, and patching.
Some systems engineers specialize in particular technologies and work as a team with other specialized systems engineers to ensure that all pieces of the organization’s IT systems function well as a unit. Different specialties for systems engineers can include cybersecurity systems, wireless/mobile systems, product quality, Linux, on-premise, and cloud.
When a new technology is adopted by an organization – say, a new phone system or a new cloud storage set-up – a systems engineer is the one who integrates it into the existing systems.
Some people use these two titles interchangeably and, at some organizations, these roles may be covered by the same person. However, in the case that they are separated out into two distinct roles, the systems engineer might be the person who builds a server initially, installing the operating system and setting up an IP address for it, while the systems administrator covers day-to-day maintenance for the established server. This makes the systems engineer the more senior role.
A systems engineer role is also more likely to include managerial responsibilities and might act as a mentor to junior team members. At some organizations, a systems engineer may plan a project to improve or update a system and can then delegate particular tasks from the project to systems administrators to implement.
Take note, within the complex hierarchies of large organizations you may see roles like Senior Systems Engineer, Junior Systems Engineer, Systems Engineer II, Systems Engineer III, and Lead Systems Engineer. When interviewing for one of these roles, you may want to ask how your role fits into the IT department’s hierarchy. That way you’ll know whether you will have support from additional team members and if you’ll be managing anyone else.
In IT roles, technical mastery can be much more important than formal achievements. However, educational attainment can be used by hiring managers as an indicator of a highly skilled applicant. That is, an applicant who holds a PhD in computer science is very likely to be skilled in networking and operating systems. However, job interviews for a systems engineer usually include technical interviews that allow applicants without formal training to demonstrate their skills, even if they learned less formally by shadowing a coworker or watching YouTube videos. Many job postings will list a bachelor’s degree as a requirement. However, related experience, bootcamp completion or technical expertise can sometimes be a substitute. Ultimately, the most important thing is to demonstrate your mastery of the skills necessary for the role. And remember, a systems engineer is a more senior position in an IT department. If you’re new to the IT job market, you may want to start off in a more junior role and build up experience, which you can then leverage to achieve your goal of being a systems engineer!
Now that you know just what a systems engineer does, review these ten steps below that can help you land a job in this role!
1. Learn Linux
Most systems engineer positions will require employees to know Linux or, at least, another operating system. If you’re choosing one to learn, Linux is a good place to start because you can find many free learning tools. It’s also relatively straightforward to reapply your Linux knowledge to learning a second operating system once you’re ready to expand the scope of your skillset.
2. Get to know the IT team at your organization and their roles
Depending on your experience, your current position and the structure of your current company, you may be able to advance into a systems engineer role at your company. To better understand the structure of the IT team it’s not a bad idea to ask the team members. Obviously, don’t interrupt them in the middle of a focused project session but you could ask to set up some time to chat. That will give you the chance to find out what kinds of systems roles your company employs and to learn more about the responsibility of each.
This information is especially useful since different organizations may define their IT department positions differently. The responsibilities of a systems administrator at one company may fall under a systems engineer at another.
3. Get used to working with Windows Server
Windows Server is used by many organizations. It allows a network of many users (employees at the company) to access the same software. A systems engineer would help set up new users and make sure everyone has the correct access. Windows server is also used by IT teams to maintain administrative control over systems across the organization. To familiarize yourself with this large-scale technology, you may want to browse online tutorials, look into instructional books, or chat with IT professionals in your personal network.
4. Learn about project planning
Tech professionals often have a handful of go-to project planning and project management processes that they can rely on for efficiency and organization when it comes to complex technical projects. Understanding these planning tools can give you a big leg up as a systems engineer since this role can involve team management and project direction. Tools and strategies you’ll want to research are Agile, Scrum, Jira, and Kanban. You may come across even more options, though these are some of the most popular among tech professionals.
If you want to go all-in on this skillset. There are even full project management bootcamps that you can sign up for. These programs will really immerse you in the skills needed for successful project management and can help make you a great fit for a senior-level IT role.
5. Study computer science
While a university degree is a significant time commitment and financial investment, a B.S. in computer science can set you on the right path to becoming a systems engineer. While most schools don’t offer a specific “systems engineering” major, computer science programs will include rigorous coursework in UNIX, Linux, operating systems, networking, file systems, and security. Some university programs also offer career services to help connect students with professional growth opportunities like internships and networking events.
6. Take a coding or networking bootcamp
Alternatively, you could take an immersive bootcamp to quickly skill up on your networking and OS skills. Bootcamps are a great option for people who discovered their systems engineering passion after attending college for a different area of study or for those who are eager to jump into the workforce. Most bootcamps take less than a year to complete, while undergraduate degrees tend to take about four. You can browse bootcamps that would be a good fit for a systems-engineer-in-the-making at the bottom of this page.
7. Practice for technical interviews
Since a systems engineer is a highly technical role that requires mastery of multiple technologies, you will likely need to pass a technical interview as part of the hiring process. Technical interviews are usually tailored to specific roles – that is, help desk technicians wouldn’t need to solve all of the same questions as a systems engineer in order to be a good candidate. You can look up practice questions for a systems engineer role online – here’s a good question list to start with. When you attend an educational program – either a university or a coding bootcamp – that offers career services, they will usually give you a chance to try mock interview questions.
8. Start off as a Helpdesk Technician
A helpdesk technician is the entry-level role on the IT team at many organizations. You need to have a good technical skillset to start off on this role and general understanding of networks and systems. However, technicians always have the option of referring complex issues to a more senior member of the IT department. This role is a good learning opportunity because you’ll get your hands on a wide range of issues and learn to problem-solve on the fly. Working closely with systems engineers and DevOps roles also allows helpdesk technicians to pick up new skills and learn about working in IT.
9. Or, if you have a stronger IT background, start as a Systems Administrator
If you have a good amount of experience with some of the skills we mentioned above (Linux, project management, networking, etc.) but aren’t yet at the advanced level of systems engineer – you may try starting out as a systems administrator. This role often does much of the same work as a systems engineer but may not be as senior. As a systems administrator you may report to a systems engineer on projects. Once you master your responsibilities as a systems administrator, you’ll likely be well-paced to move on to a role as a systems engineer.
10. Find a mentor in this role
A great way to transition from a more junior IT role into a role as a systems administrator is to find a mentor – either at your current organization or within your personal network – who can talk to you about their responsibilities and might even allow you to shadow them on a project. It’s hard to start learning new skills when you’ve never even seen them in action before so watching a skilled systems engineer employ their skills can prime you to learn quickly yourself.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of systems administrators in the U.S. is expected to grow by about 10% between 2019 and 2029, which is much greater than the average growth expected for other jobs.
Systems engineers are a key support role in an organization. That is, they take care of infrastructural work that allows other departments to create/design/serve/sell/market the organization’s main product. As organizations across sectors expand their employee bases, and as new organizations spring up, the need for systems engineers to support new or growing systems increases.
Another factor in the growth in demand for this role is mature organizations making efforts to modernize their systems and keep pace with technological advancement. Systems engineers are a key player in modernization initiatives because they know how to integrate new tools into an organization’s existing processes to maximally improve efficiency and ease of operation.
The metro areas with the highest concentration of systems engineer roles include Lexington Park, MD; Jefferson City, Missouri; and the DMV area surrounding Washington, D.C. Non-urban areas with especially high concentrations of systems engineers include Northeast Virginia, West South Dakota, and Northern New Mexico.
Because the role of systems engineer is so vital to an organization’s IT infrastructure, there are opportunities for systems engineers across almost all industries. The larger and more tech-focused the organization, the more systems engineers they are likely to need. No matter what products or services they offer, large organizations made up of multiple departments rely on systems engineers for inter-department communication and collaboration. Almost all organizations use company-wide networks that employees log in to from their computers. Maintaining the network is also the responsibility of systems engineers.
Glassdoor currently lists systems engineers openings in industries from aerospace to biotech to construction to retail and more!
The average base pay for a systems engineer in the United States is $91,036. However, for a Senior Systems Engineer it rises to $117,904. This salary varies across industries and companies and is likely to be higher in industries where IT systems are more complex. For example, tech companies pay their systems engineers on average $111,803. Below is a breakdown of systems engineer average salaries across industries.
|Industry||Average Salary for Systems Engineers|
|Finance & Banking||$96,815|
|Biotech & Pharmaceuticals||$95,627|
|Media & Publishing||$94,616|
|Aerospace & Defense||$93,132|
|Arts & Entertainment||$87,608|