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Big Data Engineer Career Guide

What is a big data engineer?

A big data engineer is a data science professional who specializes in handling, processing, and analyzing big data. As the term implies, big data encompasses vast and complex data sets, often requiring niche skills and tools to manage. The role is crucial in the era of data-driven decision-making.

Companies collect large volumes of data from various sources, and their role is to design and manage the systems that can handle such data. They are instrumental in designing and building data processing systems and often work closely with data analysts, data scientists, and other IT professionals to ensure that data is available, reliable, and ready for analysis.

Their work often enables organizations to extract meaningful insights from data, thus guiding strategic decision-making and providing a competitive edge in the market. Essentially, they transform raw, unstructured, or semi-structured data into systems and structures that make the data understandable and usable.

Duties and responsibilities

Big data engineers are responsible for a range of duties that revolve around designing, creating, and maintaining big data systems. These professionals are tasked with developing scalable and efficient software solutions and algorithms to process, clean, and verify the integrity of large data sets. They also develop data architectures, databases, and processing systems to support various data initiatives.

These engineers design and create new systems and maintain and optimize existing systems to ensure they meet evolving needs, including monitoring system performance and troubleshooting issues. Part of their role involves collaborating with data scientists and other stakeholders, helping them utilize the data infrastructure effectively and efficiently.

Work environment

The work environment for a big data engineer is usually an office setting, although remote work has become increasingly common in the tech industry. They typically work in a team setting, collaborating with other IT professionals like data scientists, data analysts, and IT project managers.

Their work is heavily computer-based, involving programming, data modeling, and system designing tasks. While it can be high-pressure due to the complexity and volume of the data they handle, it’s also intellectually stimulating, with problem-solving and innovation at its core.

Typical work hours

Big data engineers typically work full-time, usually around 40 hours per week. Their work aligns with the traditional 9 to 5 schedule, but this can vary depending on project deadlines and the specific demands of the organization they work for.

Occasionally, overtime is required to meet project deadlines or to address urgent system issues. Additionally, remote work has the potential to provide increased flexibility with work hours.

How to become a big data engineer

Becoming a big data engineer involves a series of steps that focus on acquiring the necessary education, technical skills, and hands-on experience in big data technologies. Here’s an overview of the steps you need to follow:

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Most employers require a degree in computer science, software engineering, information technology, or a related field. A solid educational background in these areas will provide you with the foundational knowledge necessary to succeed in this role.

Step 2: Learn big data technologies and programming languages

You will need to develop expertise in big data technologies, such as Hadoop, Spark, and NoSQL databases. You should also become proficient in programming languages, such as Java, Python, or Scala, which are commonly used in big data processing. 

You can learn these skills through online tutorials, courses, or self-study materials. All of the following courses are 100% online, and you’ll earn a certificate upon completion:

Step 3: Gain practical experience

Hands-on experience in programming and working with big data technologies is crucial. Work on personal projects, contribute to open-source initiatives, or participate in internships to develop your technical skills and build a portfolio of your work. Focus on creating big data processing pipelines, implementing machine learning algorithms, and optimizing performance.

Step 4: Develop strong analytical and problem-solving skills

These engineers must be skilled at analyzing large datasets, designing efficient data processing pipelines, and troubleshooting issues. Developing strong analytical and problem-solving skills is vital for success in this role. Practice solving complex programming problems and working with algorithms to enhance these skills.

Step 5: Build a professional network

Networking plays a significant role in career progress. Attend industry events, join professional organizations, and leverage social media platforms like LinkedIn to connect with other data professionals and stay informed about new opportunities.

Step 6: Apply for jobs

With the necessary education, experience, and skills, you can start applying for engineer positions. Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight your relevant qualifications and accomplishments in big data technologies and programming. During interviews, be prepared to discuss your experience with big data frameworks and provide examples of projects you’ve completed.

Step 7: Pursue certifications and professional development (optional)

While not required, obtaining certifications and participating in professional development opportunities can enhance your credibility and demonstrate your commitment to the profession. Many enroll in this Big Data Specialization online course via Coursera. You can set your own schedule to complete it, and you’ll earn a shareable certificate upon completion.

Some popular certifications for big data engineers include the AWS Certified Big Data Specialty, Google Cloud Professional Data Engineer, and Microsoft Certified: Azure Data Engineer Associate certifications. 

Regularly attending workshops, seminars, or conferences can help you stay up-to-date with industry trends and best practices, furthering your professional career.

How much do big data engineers make?

Big data engineer salaries vary, influenced by several factors. Generally, those with more significant experience and proficiency in big data technologies, like Hadoop, Spark, or Hive, earn more than those new to the field.

Industry can also greatly impact compensation. Industries like technology, finance, healthcare, and e-commerce, which heavily rely on data for decision-making and operations, often offer higher salaries due to the critical role of big data engineers.

Geography is another important factor, with engineers in areas having a higher cost of living or a high concentration of tech companies, like San Francisco or New York, often earning more than those in other regions.

Education can also play a role. While many successful engineers have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field, those with a master’s degree or relevant certifications in big data may have higher earning potential.

Finally, the size and profitability of the company can impact salary, with tech companies or those with more complex data needs often paying more.

Highest paying industries

  • Software Publishing – $160,650
  • Securities and Investments – $156,700
  • Computer Manufacturing – $155,610  
  • Data Processing – $154,820
  • Enterprise Management – $151,200

Highest paying states

  • California – $173,400
  • Massachusets- $161,200
  • Washington – $154,840
  • New York – $154,430
  • Maryland – $147,920

Browse big data engineer salary data by market

Types of big data engineers

This career guide section covers the expansive profession of big data engineers. The nature of this role can vary significantly based on the specific tools, platforms, and technologies they specialize in. Let’s take a closer look at several specialty areas:.

Hadoop engineer

Hadoop engineers specialize in using the Hadoop ecosystem — a suite of open-source tools designed for big data processing and analysis. They typically work on developing Hadoop applications for data analysis, data mining, and machine learning. This role requires proficiency in Hadoop components such as HDFS, MapReduce, Hive, and HBase.

Spark engineer

Spark engineers focus on utilizing Apache Spark — a big data processing framework. Unlike Hadoop, which relies on disk storage, Spark uses memory and is known for its speed. These engineers work on creating and managing Spark applications for real-time data processing and machine learning tasks.

Data warehousing engineer

Data warehousing engineers specialize in designing, building, and managing data warehouses, which involves transforming raw data into a structured form suitable for analysis and reporting. They leverage data warehousing concepts and tools like Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, or Microsoft SQL Server.

NoSQL engineer

NoSQL engineers work with NoSQL databases designed for storing, retrieving, and managing large amounts of unstructured and semi-structured data, requiring proficiency in using NoSQL databases like MongoDB, Cassandra, and Couchbase.

Data pipeline engineer

Data pipeline engineers focus on designing and constructing data pipelines, which are systems for extracting, transforming, and loading data from various sources to a destination where it can be analyzed. Using tools like Apache Beam, Apache NiFi, and Apache Airflow allows them to create robust and scalable data pipelines.

Cloud data engineer

Cloud data engineers specialize in leveraging cloud platforms for big data processing. They are experts in services provided by cloud platforms like Amazon AWS, Google Cloud Platform, or Microsoft Azure, specifically designed for big data tasks.

Streaming data engineer

Streaming data engineers deal with real-time data and work on systems that can process data as it arrives — in contrast to batch processing, where data is collected over time and processed all at once. This role necessitates using tools like Apache Kafka, Apache Flink, or Spark Streaming.

Top skills for big data engineers

Excelling as a big data engineer necessitates a blend of technical expertise, analytical thinking, problem-solving aptitude, and effective collaboration capabilities.

These professionals must have a strong grasp of big data tools and technologies, including distributed storage and computing systems like Hadoop, data processing tools like Spark, and NoSQL databases like MongoDB or Cassandra. Familiarity with cloud platforms such as AWS, Google Cloud, or Azure can also be essential. Proficiency in these technologies is necessary to build scalable, efficient, and robust data pipelines.

A deep understanding of database structures, both relational and non-relational, is critical for professional success. Engineers must be proficient in designing data models that can handle vast amounts of data efficiently and effectively. Additionally, they must be skilled in data processing techniques to transform and prepare data for analysis.

They should possess expertise in coding and programming, with a focus on languages often used in data processing and analysis, such as Python, Java, or Scala. This knowledge is necessary to write scripts for data extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL), and to create custom solutions tailored to their organization’s needs.

Familiarity with machine learning algorithms and data analytics can greatly enhance their toolkit. With this knowledge, they can implement more advanced data processing techniques and collaborate more effectively with data scientists and analysts.

The ability to think critically and devise effective solutions is crucial for ensuring the reliability and accuracy of data systems. Given the complex and often unpredictable nature of dealing with large datasets, these engineers should be excellent problem solvers. They may encounter issues like data inconsistency, system performance challenges, or complex data integration tasks.

Finally, effective communication skills are vital to collaborate with other team members like data scientists, business analysts, and decision-makers. Clearly explaining complex technical concepts, understanding business needs, and contributing to strategic discussions around data usage are keys to the success of data initiatives within an organization.

Big data engineer career path

The career path for a big data engineer usually begins in an entry-level role related to data or software engineering. Titles such as data analyst, junior software engineer, or database administrator offer individuals the opportunity to gain experience in data handling, programming, and understanding business needs.

As they gain experience and demonstrate a solid understanding of data systems, there are opportunities to move into roles like data engineer or big data developer, working with larger, more complex datasets and developing more advanced data processing systems.

The next step in the career progression is often the role of a big data engineer. In this position, individuals are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining and organization’s infrastructure. They also work with data scientists and analysts to ensure the data is accessible, reliable, and optimized for their needs.

With substantial experience and a track record of successfully managing an organization’s data infrastructure, more advanced roles, such as senior big data engineer or data architect, are available. These roles involve larger-scale responsibilities like setting data strategy, designing the overall structure of data systems, and leading teams of engineers.

Beyond that, they may move into managerial or executive roles, such as director of data engineering, overseeing data strategies and operations across an entire organization.

The role is becoming even more vital as businesses continue accumulating more data and seek to use it to drive strategic decision-making. Given the rapid evolution of data storage and processing tools, big data engineers are required to stay on the cutting edge of technology. 

In addition, the emergence of machine learning and artificial intelligence has introduced a new set of tools and platforms to master. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), these professionals are also working more frequently with real-time data and dealing with the challenges of processing and analyzing it.

Employment projections for big data engineers

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide specific projections for big data engineers, they are typically classified under ‘Software Developers and Quality Assurance Analysts and Testers’. The employment for these roles is projected to grow 25 percent through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. 

The need for new apps on smart devices and the demand for computer software will drive this growth. Considering the increasing importance of data in business decision-making and strategic planning, the demand for these engineers will grow even more rapidly. Their expertise in handling, processing, and interpreting large datasets is invaluable in the current data-driven business environment.

Big data engineer career tips

Stay updated with the latest technologies

The big data landscape is rapidly evolving, with new technologies and tools introduced regularly. It’s crucial to stay updated with these changes to design and manage systems effectively.

Develop skills in distributed computing

Working with big data often involves distributed computing — processing data across a cluster of machines. Mastering distributed computing frameworks like Hadoop and Spark is essential for effectively managing large-scale data processing tasks.

Understand data warehousing techniques

A solid understanding of data warehousing techniques and concepts includes knowledge of data cleaning, ETL processes, and data modeling, which are essential for turning raw data into usable information.

Build a professional network

A robust professional network can provide support, resources, and opportunities for collaboration. Consider joining professional associations and networks such as:

  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • IEEE Computer Society
  • Data Science Association
  • LinkedIn Groups related to big data and data engineering

Continuous learning

The field of big data is constantly evolving, and continuous learning is essential. Here are some suggestions:

  • Participate in big data workshops and conferences: These events offer opportunities to learn about the latest developments in big data and to network with other professionals in the field.
  • Follow big data blogs and forums: These platforms provide valuable insights, tips, and updates on big data technologies and trends.
  • Pursue online courses and certifications: Many courses and certifications can help you deepen your understanding of big data technologies and tools.

Master data visualization techniques

While the main focus is often on backend data processing, being able to visualize data effectively can be a valuable skill, which can help in debugging, data exploration, and communicating data insights to others.

Prioritize security and privacy

Given the sensitive nature of data, it’s essential to prioritize security and privacy in all aspects of big data engineering. This includes secure data storage, encryption, anonymization, and complying with relevant data protection laws and regulations.

Improve problem-solving skills

Dealing with big data can present a range of challenges, from performance issues to data inconsistencies. Developing strong problem-solving skills can help you tackle these challenges and find effective solutions.

Develop a deep understanding of the business domain

Understanding the business domain in which you’re working can significantly improve the value you bring to your role. This knowledge can guide your decisions in data processing and storage, ensuring that the data systems you design align with the needs and goals of the business.

Cultivate a team-focused attitude

Big data projects often involve collaboration between data engineers, data scientists, business analysts, and others. Cultivating a team-focused attitude can help you communicate effectively, share ideas, and work collaboratively to achieve project goals.

Where the big data engineer jobs are

Top companies

  • Amazon
  • Google
  • Microsoft
  • Facebook
  • IBM

Top states

  • California
  • Washington
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Massachusetts

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • Indeed
  • Dice  
  • GitHub Jobs


What educational background is typically expected for a big data engineer?

Big data engineers often hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a field such as computer science, data science, or software engineering. Their education usually includes programming, databases, machine learning, and statistics courses. Some also hold specialized certifications in technologies used in big data, such as Hadoop or Spark.

What are the key responsibilities of a big data engineer?

Professionals in this role design, build and maintain systems for processing large sets of structured and unstructured data. They also develop algorithms to extract meaningful insights from this data. Their responsibilities often include data acquisition, data transformation, and managing large-scale data storage systems.

What skills are essential for a big data engineer?

Big data engineers need strong programming skills, typically in languages such as Python, Java, or Scala. It’s also essential to know big data technologies like Hadoop, Spark, Hive, and Kafka. 

Experience with databases, both SQL and NoSQL, is also important. Additionally, they need strong problem-solving skills and the ability to work with complex data structures.

What types of industries do big data engineers typically work in?

Opportunities exist in many industries, including technology, finance, healthcare, retail, and telecommunications. Any industry that generates and uses large amounts of data to inform business decisions will likely employ these engineers.

What role does a big data engineer play in a data science team?

In a data science team, big data engineers play a critical role in creating and maintaining the infrastructure data scientists use to perform analyses. They ensure that data is clean, reliable, and accessible. They might also develop tools and algorithms to help data scientists analyze complex data sets.

How do big data engineers ensure the quality of their data?

Big data engineers employ several methods to ensure data quality. They use data validation rules and profiling to check for inaccuracies in data and implement data cleaning procedures to remove or correct erroneous data. Ensuring data consistency and integrity across multiple data sources is another important aspect of their work.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a big data engineer?

Managing and processing extensive data sets in a way that is efficient and scalable can be challenging. Big data engineers must also keep up with the rapidly evolving field of big data technologies, and they often have to solve complex, unprecedented problems. Ensuring data security and privacy is another significant challenge.

What role does a big data engineer play in business decision-making?

Although big data engineers typically do not make business decisions themselves, their work is crucial for enabling data-driven decision-making. They create the infrastructure that enables businesses to extract meaningful insights from their data. This information can inform a wide range of business decisions, such as understanding customer behavior, optimizing operations, or predicting market trends.

Do big data engineers need to understand machine learning?

While only sometimes required, understanding machine learning can benefit big data engineers. Machine learning algorithms are often used for data analysis, and those who can implement these algorithms or create the infrastructure that supports them can add significant value. Knowledge of machine learning can also help them design more effective data processing systems.

What is the typical day-to-day experience of a big data engineer?

A big data engineer might spend a day designing and implementing new data processing systems, troubleshooting issues with existing systems, or optimizing systems for better performance. They might work closely with data scientists to understand their needs and create solutions that support data analysis. Staying updated with the latest technologies and industry trends can also be a part of their daily routine.