What Does a Systems Engineer Do? (Plus How To Become One)
Updated March 23, 2023
If you're a natural problem-solver who appreciates continuous improvement, a career as a systems engineer might suit you. These engineers, which exist in a variety of industries, utilize technical skills, leadership and critical thinking to refine processes and products. Learning more about this career may help you reflect on whether you want to become a systems engineer.
In this article, we discuss what a systems engineer does, highlight the qualifications required for the career and explain what the job is like, including the work environment and salary associated.
Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.
What does a systems engineer do?
Systems engineers design, integrate and maintain complex systems and product lifecycles that support complex problem-solving and product development in a variety of industries. Systems engineers may work in technology, transportation, product development and manufacturing, and their duties vary accordingly. Here are some examples of what a systems engineer might do:
Studying and monitoring existing systems to ensure structural integrity and assess required upgrades
Researching available software, hardware and equipment necessary to optimize output
Installing new equipment according to business needs, such as production machinery in manufacturing or software in information technology (IT)
Monitoring network systems to ensure operations remain safe and efficient
Identifying issues in production processes and recommending strategies for improvement
Diagnosing and troubleshooting technical issues
Monitoring all software, hardware, equipment and systems continuously and setting up protocols for feedback
Coordinating with other departments, such as marketing and management, to identify areas for improvement and find optimal solutions
Average salary for a systems engineer
The national average salary for a systems engineer is $99,770 per year. Their salaries depend on their education level, experience and the size of the company in which they work. Some salaries range from $62,881 to $158,302 per year.
For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link(s) provided.
Systems engineer requirements
Becoming a systems engineer has several requirements, including:
A bachelor's degree is a minimum requirement for entry-level systems engineers. Useful majors include systems, informational systems, industrial engineering or computer engineering. Some systems engineers obtain a degree in their desired field and a minor in systems.
To be more competitive for leadership positions, aspiring systems engineers can earn a master's degree. Many universities offer a Master of Science in systems engineering. A doctoral degree in systems engineering is useful for those interested in research or teaching jobs.
Some systems engineers learn the fundamentals of the job through internships or apprenticeships, during which they may work under licensed engineers. They could work in coordinator or support positions to earn relevant experience before applying for systems engineer positions. In entry-level roles, they learn more about operations in the industry they're targeting, like tech or health care. Employers may also supplement with on-the-job training in the unique processes and requirements of the company.
Systems engineers can gain several certifications that show their expertise in different aspects of their job. Here are some examples of certifications for systems engineers:
Associate Systems Engineering Professional
Offered by the International Council on Systems Engineering, ASEP is the first level of certification for those who have recently graduated and started practicing systems engineering. The requirement to get this certification is passing an examination.
Certified Systems Engineering Professional
Also offered by INCOSE, this is one of the most sought-after certifications for the profession. It requires a minimum of five years of systems engineering experience, three references and a passing grade on the examination.
Expert Systems Engineering Professional
This certification is for those who have at least 25 years of experience in systems engineering and three references. Rather than an examination, recipients are subject to a peer review panel.
Certified Information Systems Security Professional
Offered by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) shows an individual's ability to design and implement cybersecurity programs. Successful candidates have five years of systems security experience and pass an examination.
The Professional Engineer (PE) is a common license required for engineers who plan to work with the public. Each state has different requirements to earn a PE, though a bachelor's degree from an accredited school, four years of experience under the supervision of a licensed engineer and a passing grade on the Fundamentals of Engineering exam are standard.
Systems engineers use several soft and hard skills to help them do their job well. Here are some examples:
This requirement varies depending on the industry in which the systems engineer works but requires being adept at planning software, modeling software and specialized equipment. IT systems engineers typically have a comprehensive understanding of data architecture, cloud computing and cybersecurity. This helps them develop and maintain protected internal data systems.
Systems engineers build functional models, which demonstrate how various parts of a product interact with one another to produce the intended outcome. They develop specifications and diagrams to support and contextualize these models, and in creating them, they may clarify how to design and construct the final product to maximize its efficiency.
A systems engineer's job requires a detail-oriented and meticulous analysis of each task they complete. They view a system as a whole and a sum of its parts. They also identify small details and make alterations. Sometimes, they implement large-scale changes to an entire system. Systems engineers also apply specific types of analysis to identify issues, clarify expectations and devise solutions, such as:
Systemic textual analysis
Systems engineers examine existing systems for weaknesses and opportunities for improvement, and risk management skills help them assess the likelihood and cost of system vulnerabilities. The following capabilities are critical for systems engineers involved with risk management:
Risk impact assessment
Risk mitigation planning
System engineers prioritize tasks, make and adhere to deadlines and create timelines for work completion. They also adjust to changes that occur in real-time and predict changes and plan accordingly. All this requires an ability to manage time and plan accordingly.
Systems engineers may work with a variety of different professionals. During a workday, they may interact with a marketing professional, a software engineer, a senior finance executive, a manufacturing plant member and a driver. It's important to develop clear and open communication methods to ensure they can explain technical information in simple terms to those outside of the engineering field.
Systems engineers collaborate on teams with designers, security experts, researchers, salespeople, manufacturing plant employees and marketing employees to launch a product. Effective engineers can delegate tasks, follow up on progress, conduct quality checks and offer constructive feedback.
Systems engineer work environment
Systems engineers can work in nearly any industry. Some aspects of a system engineer's work environment are consistent:
Systems engineers use technology constantly, including specialized software, security systems, modeling systems and plant equipment.
Products, requirements and standards are constantly evolving, so systems engineers stay current with new technology and update their knowledge to stay current.
System engineers work in person or remotely with people from many other fields, including other engineers and technology specialists, clients, financial specialists, public relations personnel and plant employees.
Although systems engineers typically work in offices, they may travel to facilities and job sites to inspect processes, manufacturing lines or server storage areas, depending on their industry.
Systems engineers generally work full-time during normal business hours, though some overtime may be necessary to meet deadlines.
Systems engineers are present in most industries. They can find employment with government agencies, nonprofits or private companies. Common industries include:
Consumer goods manufacturing
Finance and banking
Steps to become a systems engineer
Here are some steps that you can follow to become a systems engineer:
1. Pursue an education
A bachelor's degree is the basic entry-level requirement. Master's degrees and doctorates can also be of value when applying for managerial, research or advanced positions. During your program, consider completing at least one internship to gain experience.
2. Accumulate work experience
Some certifications require at least some experience before applying, and many systems engineering positions may have experience or credentialing requirements. You can earn work experience in entry-level positions as an engineer or in similar roles.
3. Earn certifications
Depending on the field, you can earn several certifications to potentially expand your job opportunities and increase your earnings. If you plan to work with the public, a PE is likely necessary. Renew your certifications or license as required by the issuing institution.
Systems engineer job description example
Below is a sample job description you might see for a fictional systems engineer job to help you prepare to apply:
Seeking a systems engineer to oversee the informational systems at a cell phone provider company. The job requires:
Monitoring existing systems
Overseeing the installation of new software
Configuring operating systems
Testing for security issues
Designing and implementing security systems
Training other staff in data safety
The ideal candidate has a bachelor's degree in information technology or computer engineering, a master's degree in systems engineering and CSEP certification. Minimum seven years of experience in systems engineering, at least five years in an IT support capacity.
Related careers to systems engineer
If you're interested in systems engineering, here are some related careers you might also consider:
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