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Data Engineer Career Guide

What is a data engineer?

A data engineer designs, builds, and manages the data architecture, databases, and processing systems that allow companies to store, analyze, and utilize large amounts of data. Their work forms the foundation for data-driven decision-making and insights, which are increasingly critical in today’s digital and competitive business landscape.

These professionals play a pivotal role in transforming raw data into usable information by creating and maintaining the systems and infrastructure that handle data. They are the builders and overseers of the data pipelines that ensure data is accessible and usable for data scientists, analysts, and other stakeholders within the organization.

Duties and responsibilities

Data engineers are responsible for creating and maintaining data infrastructure. They design and implement databases and data processing systems, optimizing them for performance, security, and reliability. They build data pipelines that transform and load data into these systems, making it available for analysis.

Additionally, these professionals are responsible for implementing data governance principles, including data quality and privacy standards. They work closely with other teams, such as data science and business intelligence, to understand their data needs and to provide them with the appropriate data and tools.

Work environment

Data engineers typically work in a corporate setting, although remote work is becoming increasingly common. They spend most of their time working on computers, designing data systems, writing code, and dealing with databases.

Their work can be complex and detail-oriented, requiring a deep understanding of the business’s data needs and the technologies used to store, process, and analyze data. Collaborative skills are also important, as they often work as part of a larger data team and need to understand and meet the data needs of other business units.

Typical work hours

Data engineers typically work full time during standard business hours, Monday through Friday. However, they might need to work outside these hours to perform system maintenance, deal with system outages or emergencies, or work on projects with tight deadlines. The nature of the role requires a certain level of flexibility, as data issues can arise at any time and need to be dealt with promptly to ensure the smooth operation of the business.

How to become a data engineer

Becoming a data engineer is a multi-step process that includes acquiring a proper education, gaining relevant experience, and keeping up with the latest trends in data technology. This career guide section outlines the path to achieving your goal.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Many prospective data engineers choose to major in computer science, information systems, or a related field. These programs provide students with a foundation in data structures, database systems, data processing, and computer programming.

Step 2: Gain experience

After earning a bachelor’s degree, it’s time to gain experience in the field, working in entry-level jobs related to data management, taking part in internships, or even working on personal projects or volunteering. This experience will help to develop technical skills in data manipulation and analysis, programming languages like Python and Java, and databasing languages like SQL.

Step 3: Consider a master’s degree

While a master’s degree is not always necessary, it can help to specialize your skills further and increase your competitiveness in the job market. Programs in data engineering or data science can be particularly helpful. These advanced programs often cover topics like machine learning, advanced database management, and data visualization.

Step 4: Pursue relevant certifications

Certifications can provide proof of your skills and make you more appealing to potential employers. Certificates like the Certified Data Management Professional (CDMP), Microsoft Certified: Azure Data Engineer Associate, and Google Certified Professional Data Engineer can all be beneficial.

Step 5: Apply for jobs

After acquiring the necessary education, experience, and certifications, the next step is to apply for data engineer positions. Create a resume highlighting your skills, education, and experience, and prepare for technical interviews where you may have to solve data-related problems.

Step 6: Continued learning and career advancement

The learning process doesn’t stop after securing a job. Data engineering is constantly evolving, so it’s important to keep up-to-date with changes in technology and best practices. This continuous learning can lead to career advancement opportunities, such as a senior or lead engineer.

How much do data engineers make?

Data engineer compensation is influenced by education, experience, and geographic location. The complexity of projects managed and the level of programming or software skill can also greatly impact their salary. The size and industry of the company employing them play a vital role as well, with larger, more established companies in tech-centered industries often offering the highest salaries.

Highest paying industries

  • Software Publishers – $128,790
  • Insurance and Employee Benefit Funds – $121,500
  • Data Processing and Hosting – $119,650
  • Wholesale Electronic Markets and Agents – $116,680
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $115,480

Highest paying states

  • Washington – $128,740
  • California – $125,410
  • New York – $122,570
  • Virginia – $121,620
  • Massachusetts – $120,860

Browse data engineer salary data by market

Types of data engineers

This career guide section will provide an overview of the different types and specializations in data engineering. Knowing the specific roles and what they entail can help make informed decisions about which path to pursue.

Database engineer

A database engineer specializes in designing, implementing, maintaining, and repairing databases. They often collaborate with application developers to create and enhance applications that interact with the organization’s data. These engineers are responsible for creating storage solutions and schema designs that facilitate data flow and improve system performance.

ETL engineer

ETL (extract, transform, load) engineers play a pivotal role in managing and orchestrating data pipelines. They extract data from different sources, transform it to fit operational needs, and then load the transformed data into an end target, such as a data warehouse. This role requires an understanding of complex databases and high-level programming skills.

Big data engineer

As the name suggests, big data engineers work specifically with large-scale data systems and are responsible for developing, maintaining, and testing big data solutions within organizations. They deal with complex systems and technologies like Hadoop, Spark, and other big data processing frameworks. Strong technical and analytical skills are vital for this role.

Data warehouse engineer

Data warehouse engineers design, develop, build, and maintain an organization’s data warehouse. This typically involves creating data modeling solutions, integrating new data management technologies and software engineering tools, and performing data analyses. Professionals in this role typically interface with other data professionals to ensure the company’s data is organized, accessible, and ready for analysis.

Machine learning engineer

Machine learning engineers are a subcategory of data engineers specializing in using predictive models and machine learning algorithms to extract patterns and insight from vast amounts of data. These professionals possess a blend of technical skills, including deep learning, statistics, and software development, which allows them to create systems that can learn from and make decisions or predictions based on data.

Top skills for data engineers

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a data engineer. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Understanding database structures

The ability to comprehend, design, and implement database structures is fundamental. This involves knowing how to configure, maintain, and repair databases to ensure data consistency and security. A deep understanding of database structures enables efficient data warehousing, which significantly betters the performance of processes related to data analytics.

Proficiency in programming languages

Most data manipulation tasks require using certain programming languages, notably SQL, Python, and Java. Proficiency in these languages allows them to develop and organize complex, high-volume, and disparate data from multiple sources. Thus, the command of programming languages empowers these professionals to extract the maximum utility from the data at hand.

Big data comprehension

As organizations handle increasingly large volumes of data, individuals in this role need to understand big data concepts and tools, which means having a grasp of platforms like Hadoop and MapReduce, which allow organizations to process and analyze big data. Given the current digital data trend in many industries, knowledge of big data handling is essential.

Communication skills

An underappreciated but vital quality in this role is communication. They often interact with data teams, business stakeholders, and strategy teams to understand requirements, explain complex technical processes in layman’s terms, and devise comprehensive data solutions. Eloquent communication helps bridge the gap between complex, intricate information and day-to-day business operations.

Problem-solving aptitude

These engineers must handle challenges around database systems and large data processing, which requires the ability to solve diverse problems. Optimizing data protocols, refining data architectures, and troubleshooting data-related issues require the ability to analyze situations and find effective, efficient solutions critically.

Data engineer career path

As a data engineer, your career opens up to various progression paths, both technical and managerial. Over time, as they gather experience and technical skills, several future job opportunities may arise.

One of the most common career paths is advancing into a senior role. As a senior data engineer, you’d be responsible for designing, building, and managing large-scale data processing systems. You might also supervise a team of data engineers, helping them troubleshoot complex technical issues and ensuring that all data pipelines are robust, efficient, and secure.

Becoming a data architect is another opportunity for professional growth. In this role, you would focus on defining the vision, strategy, and principles for data management. Data architects design and construct new databases while managing complex data systems and improving system performance. This job requires higher-level strategic thinking and a deep understanding of how data influences business decisions.

For those interested in managerial roles, the position of a data engineering manager or a director of data engineering can be an attractive career progression. You would oversee a team or multiple teams and coordinate data engineering projects, budgets, timelines, and resources. This pathway would place you in a leadership role and require strong business knowledge.

Those interested in the analytical side should consider transitioning into a data analyst or data scientist role. Although this would require additional statistics and machine learning skills, it can lead to fascinating roles where you’d be solving complex problems with data, deriving business insights, and helping strategy teams make informed decisions.

A significant trend in data engineering is the shift toward cloud-based data processing and storage systems. Adapting to cloud infrastructure demands a robust understanding of cloud platforms and their respective data management tools. Consequently, data engineers increasingly need skills related to cloud computing and need to stay updated with trending cloud technologies such as AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure.

Another trend is the adoption of machine learning and AI techniques to analyze data. These techniques offer different ways to process and interpret data, opening up deeper insights and more effective business decision-making tools. This variation and development necessitate continuous self-improvement and an openness to ongoing learning for these professionals.

Contactless transactions and remote work culture are the other prevailing trends increasing the demand for data engineering expertise. As businesses strive to create personalized user experiences and make data-driven decisions, data engineering professionals are integral to developing and maintaining the infrastructure that supports these advances.

Employment projections for data engineers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of data engineers is projected to grow 9 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. The increased need to design, secure, and manage databases will drive job growth, making it a lucrative occupation and a stable career choice with promising opportunities for the future.

Data engineer career tips

Understand the business

A successful data engineer not only manages and organizes data but also comprehends business needs. This requires proactively communicating with other departments to understand their data needs and how best to implement them.

Stay updated with technology advancements

Keep an eye on industry trends, advancements in data structures, database systems, and analytical tools. Understanding the latest technologies, such as cloud platforms and machine learning, can give you an advantage in your data engineering career.

Problem-solving skills

Diagnosing and rectifying any issues during data management or pipeline development is a crucial aspect of the job. This might involve debugging code, optimizing data processes, or eliminating system errors. These challenges require a problem-solving mentality and a patient, methodical approach.

Build a professional network

Building a professional network keeps you in touch with industry trends, offers opportunities to learn from others, and provides potential job referrals. Here are some professional associations and networks that can be useful:

  • Data Science Association
  • Association for Computing Machinery
  • The Data Warehousing Institute
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society

Prioritize continuous learning

With the fast pace of technology advancements, continuous learning is a must. The following are some ways you can keep updating your knowledge and skills:

  • Taking advanced courses and earning certifications in specific tools or software
  • Attending industry conferences and webinars
  • Reading industry-specific books and research papers
  • Participating in online platforms like GitHub to learn, collaborate, and contribute

Gain certifications

Earning professional certifications can greatly enhance your career prospects. Certifications not only boost your credibility but also demonstrate your commitment and expertise. Some relevant certifications are Microsoft Certified: Azure Data Engineer Associate, Google Certified Professional Data Engineer, and IBM Certified Data Engineer – Big Data.

Where the data engineer jobs are

Top employers

  • Amazon
  • Facebook
  • Microsoft
  • IBM
  • Google

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Washington
  • Massachusetts

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • Indeed
  • Monster
  • CareerBuilder


What kind of qualifications are typically required for a data engineer?

Generally, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology, or a related field is required. However, some companies may require a master’s degree for senior-level positions. Additionally, data engineers must be knowledgeable in various data modeling techniques, algorithms, and architecture. They also need to have strong skills in programming languages such as Python, Java, and SQL.

What are some primary responsibilities of a data engineer?

Data engineers are responsible for creating and managing data architectures, databases, and processing systems. They also transform data into a format that can be easily analyzed, ensure systems meet business requirements and industry practices, and collaborate with data scientists and architects on several projects.

How important is data privacy knowledge for a data engineer?

Data privacy is a crucial aspect of any data-driven role, and this is no exception. They must understand applicable data privacy laws and compliances to ensure that all data-handling practices within their organization protect user data and respect privacy standards.

What skills can set a data engineer apart from the crowd?

While strong technical skills are fundamental for data engineers, soft skills such as problem-solving, creativity, and strong communication can set one apart. Familiarity with recent industry trends, like machine learning and AI, can provide a competitive edge. Picking up relevant certifications can also prove beneficial.

Is experience with machine learning essential as a data engineer?

While machine learning knowledge is not a strict requirement, it’s certainly beneficial. Given the data-intensive nature of machine learning, data engineers play a pivotal role in creating architectures that facilitate machine learning processes. Thus, an understanding of these mechanisms can greatly enhance their performance and collaborative efforts with data science teams.

What is the role of a data engineer in data visualization?

Although the primary role in data visualization often falls to data analysts or data scientists, a data engineer can contribute significantly to this process. Their responsibility is to manage the data so that it is correctly and efficiently processed and ready for visualization, which can involve cleaning data, managing databases, or optimizing processing systems to ensure high-quality data for visualization.

What type of companies usually look for data engineers?

Nearly every industry today utilizes data in some capacity for business operations, strategic decision-making, and forecasting trends, meaning data engineers have a wide array of employment opportunities. Tech companies, financial institutions, healthcare organizations, retail corporations, management consulting firms, and many more businesses across sectors regularly employ them.

How important is teamwork in a data engineer’s role?

Teamwork is essential. In most organizations, data engineers are part of a larger team of data professionals, including data scientists, analysts, and database administrators. Collaborative efforts are crucial to managing and interpreting data effectively. Good communication skills, both verbal and written, are critical for efficient team dynamics.

What does a typical day for a data engineer look like?

A typical day may include meeting with team members to discuss project goals, designing data models, developing databases, and improving data processing systems. Data engineers also spend time troubleshooting and resolving any issues with the data systems. They may also collaborate with data scientists and analysts to ensure they have the necessary data for their work.

What is a typical career progression for a data engineer?

A data engineer’s career typically begins with an entry-level or junior position where they gain valuable experience with data architectures and systems. As they acquire more skills and experience, they can progress to mid-level and senior positions. Some engineers, through continuous learning and specialization, may choose to move into related roles such as data scientist, data architect, or business intelligence analyst.

Are certifications important for a data engineer’s career?

Certifications can enhance credibility and demonstrate a commitment to the field. They can validate a professional’s knowledge and skills in specific areas related to data engineering. Certifications such as Google Certified Professional Data Engineer, IBM Certified Data Engineer, or Microsoft Certified: Azure Data Engineer Associate can be beneficial to establish industry expertise.

What are some challenges a data engineer may face in their job?

Data engineers often have to deal with large volumes of data, making data management a complex task. Dealing with unstructured data, integrating new data sources, guaranteeing real-time data processing, and maintaining data quality are some of the challenges often faced. They are also responsible for ensuring all data is secure and complies with applicable regulations, which adds another layer of complexity to their work.