Systems Engineer vs Systems Administrator: What’s the Difference?

Systems Administrators, Systems Engineers and Systems Architects all play unique and critical roles. Dive into the skills and tools needed to excel in each of these professions!
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Within the ever-expanding world of Information Technology, demand has increased for a number of different roles including Systems Administrators, Systems Engineer and Systems Architects. While each of these require a unique set of skills, serving different functionalities, their day-to-day responsibilities tend to overlap, especially in smaller organizations that don’t always differentiate the three. Systems Engineer and Systems Administrator especially are often used interchangeably, although they’re actual descriptions differ. 

A Systems Administrator, or sysadmin, ensures that computer systems and servers operate effectively, providing training and troubleshooting and updating software as needed. 

A Systems Engineer is responsible for building the IT systems of an organization, using technical knowledge to continually evaluate and improve its functionality.

Meanwhile, a Systems Architect is a senior-level role in charge of designing and planning an organization’s IT system, in communication with upper-level management.

All three of these roles serve a vital purpose within the IT ecosystem. If you’re interested in pursuing a career within programming, cybersecurity or IT, you’ll want to read on as we break down:

  • The definition and day-to-day responsibilities of each of these roles
  • The top tools and skills you’ll need on the job
  • Expected salary at each level of the IT world
  • How to best choose which professional path is right for you and kickstart your career in tech

What is a Systems Administrator?

On a daily basis, sysadmins serve as the frontline operators for IT networks across the world, big and small. Using given resources, they are tasked with meeting users’ needs without exceeding budget. One of the most challenging aspects of the role has to do with who those users are: depending on the company they might have to answer to the needs of both internal stakeholders and external customers. 

On an as-needed basis, system administrators are responsible for troubleshooting user issues, updating software, providing staff training and technical support and installing and maintaining physical and virtual servers. They also tend to work closely with cybersecurity specialists in monitoring company email accounts and security threats and supervise a team of IT Professionals. 

Top Skills and Tools Needed for Systems Administrators

As one of the most versatile roles working with computers and servers, Systems Administrators can set themselves up for success by gaining experience within a wide range of softwares and tools they might be called upon to utilize. These include:

  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Programming and Scripting Languages like Python, HTML and Javascript
  • Structured Query Language (SQL) to support with database management
  • Cloud technology, such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon Cloud Services. 

Systems Administrator Salary

$84,910 is the reported median pay for a Systems Administrator, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salary also varies by state and region with Maryland, California, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut being the top paying states.  

The job outlook for network and computer systems administrators from 2019 to 2029 is expected to grow at an average rate of 4%. As companies invest in more advanced technology, especially on the mobile side, the need for systems administrators will only continue to expand. As a result,  network administrators (another name for sysadmins) has been named one of the Top 10 Most In-Demand Tech Jobs by CIO.com

What is a Systems Engineer?

A good systems engineer is a big-picture thinker. They bring together all the disparate technologies used in an organization’s networks and servers to create a comprehensive and secure IT program. The person taking on this role is oftentimes responsible for completing an initial build of a server, installing the operating system and setting up IP addresses. 

A System Engineer creates the system in question through a four stage process. First, the task definition phase allows the key stakeholders to identify their needs and research options. Then, the engineer moves to the conception phase where they consider alternatives and establish models. Next, the design stage is when detailed blueprints and plans are created. Finally, the implementation phase sees the system put online and evaluated for effectiveness. Throughout and following this process, the Systems Engineers duties include risk assessment, analyzing costs, documenting engineering procedures and more. 

Top Skills and Tools Needed for Systems Engineers

The technical elements of IT are a must-have for any Systems Engineer, in addition to the skills that come with leading a cross-functional team. Some of these top skills include: 

  • Linux operating systems and UNIX
  • Windows Server 
  • Project planning methodologies such as Agile, Scrum, Jira and Kanban
  • Computer Science Principles
  • Proficient coding ability
  • Ability to communicate with multiple stakeholders
  • Strong leadership skills

Systems Engineer Salary

According to data from Glassdoor, the average base pay for a systems engineer in the United States is $92,337. However, for a Senior Systems Engineer it rises to $117,904. Individuals in this role can expect to earn higher pay within industries that require a more complex IT setup with regular upgrades.. For example, tech companies pay their systems engineers on average $111,803, with the software and banking industries not far behind. 

Per 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, more than double the expected number for average job growth.

What is a Systems Architect?

Do you aspire to a leadership role with the autonomy to put your own vision into place, while firmly staying rooted in the world of tech? Then, Systems Architect might be the job for you. As a senior-level position, the Systems Architect is ultimately responsible for creating, designing and implementing all technology solutions for an organization. In contrast to the Systems Engineer, who actually builds the system, the Architect oversees all elements of the IT program, making the appropriate tradeoffs and decisions for the company in question.

The most important aspect of the Systems Architects role is to bridge communication between upper-level management and the IT team they are responsible for overseeing. Infrastructure such as hardware, software, web portals, intranet connections, firewall, servers and cybersecurity could all fall under their domain. Choosing the best technical solutions to fit within a given budget and staying up to date with emerging tech trends are other vital tasks for the position.

Top Skills and Tools Needed for Systems Architects

Systems Architects need to truly demonstrate a mastery of the world of IT, and have ample opportunity to do so throughout their career, as this is not an entry-level position. In addition, possessing the characteristics of a strong leader is key. Top skills for a Systems Architect are:

  • Extensive knowledge of computer systems and networks
  • Background in object-oriented programming and client-side coding
  • Proficiency with Windows Server, DNS, and SQL
  • Strong analytics, conceptual problem solving and troubleshooting skills, including experience with a wide variety of systems issues
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills and ability to lead a cross-functional team

Systems Architect Salary

In the United States, the average base salary for systems architects is $147,183/year; high but expected for a corporate leadership role. Keep in mind, the salary a Systems Architect can expect to earn is based on other factors such as their location, the industry they work in, the size of their IT department, and their level of experience. Given these factors, the yearly salary can range between $80,000 and $180,000 a year.

Which Path is Right For You?

So with the definition and responsibilities of all these roles in mind, which one should you pursue? Well, the good news is, you might not have to make a choice in mind. Unlike other tech professions, like web development, the IT path doesn’t diverge as dramatically in terms of skill sets, as is the case for front-end vs back-end developers. There is significant overlap in the role and responsibilities of a Systems Administrator versus a Systems Engineer, and both roles could progress to that of a Systems Engineer. In more bootstrapped organizations and startups, one individual might take on different aspects of any or all of these roles.

That being said, depending on where your interests lie, especially in terms of leading a team, there are factors to consider when applying for these jobs. Systems Administrators are typically more “in the weeds” when it comes to regular maintenance of a system. The role will change on a daily basis, as user inquiries come in and problems that need to be troubleshooted occur. The Systems Engineer plays a larger role when it comes to implementing new systems. They are likelier to take on more managerial responsibilities and long-term tasks like improving or updating an organization’s systems. Further up the hierarchy, the Systems Architect sets the strategy for big-picture technology solutions and sets the high-level budget with the company’s leaders. 

Overall, obtaining a background in IT and/or Cybersecurity will equip you with the skills needed to eventually tackle any of these roles!

Beginner a Career as a Systems Engineer, Systems Administrator or Systems Architect

The most traditional starting point for a career in IT is a bachelor’s degree in computer science. A four year program contains a comprehensive curriculum, covering all the fundamentals and theoretical aspects of programming, cybersecurity and more. However, that is far from the only option for potential students. Bootcamp programs in Coding and Cybersecurity are becoming an increasingly popular, cost-effective and efficient option. With a focus on job-critical skills, career support and networking options and with an ability to complete in six months or less, these programs are a great option for learning while working, or leveling up your career options quickly.

Outside of these options, even more choices exist for learners of all kinds and at any price point. Beginners can check out a number of free online coding resources, or look into more comprehensive self-paced courses such as Google Career Certificates. Within the IT profession, many companies will look for potential candidates to hold industry-standard certifications, which can be pursued independently or as part of a bootcamp program. These include the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam and certifications from CompTIA like Network+, Security+ and A+.

Remember, it’s never too late to start or continue your learning! While all these educational options are voluntary and can be mixed and matched, some upper-level positions, especially that of Systems Architect, require a master’s degree or proof of certification.  

Ready to kickstart your career as a Systems Administrator or Systems Engineer? Check out our  additional resources!

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