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Systems Engineer Career Guide

What is a systems engineer?

A systems engineer is a professional who oversees the design, development, and implementation of complex systems. These can range from computer networks and telecommunications systems to aerospace projects or manufacturing processes. Engineers in this role focus on understanding and managing the interdependencies and interactions among the various parts of a system to ensure that it functions optimally as a whole.

They hold a critical role across various industries, such as information technology, telecommunications, automotive, aerospace, and defense, among others. Their work helps ensure that the systems within these industries function efficiently, effectively, and reliably, leading to successful project outcomes, better product quality, and improved operational performance.

Duties and responsibilities

Systems engineers are involved in many aspects of system design and implementation. They typically begin by defining and understanding the needs and requirements of the system, including liaising with various stakeholders, including customers, managers, and other engineering teams.

Once requirements are understood, they design the system architecture and coordinate with other engineers who work on specific parts of the system. This often involves creating and using diagrams or models to visualize the system and its components.

These professionals also oversee system integration, testing, and validation to ensure the system meets the defined requirements. They are involved in troubleshooting any issues that arise and help maintain and upgrade the system over its lifecycle.

Work environment

The work environment of a systems engineer can vary widely depending on the industry. Professionals in this role often work in office settings, using computers and software tools to design and analyze systems. However, in certain industries, such as manufacturing or aerospace, they may also spend time on factory floors or in other production environments.

These engineers often work as part of a team, interacting with various other professionals, including other types of engineers, project managers, and technical writers. Their role can be quite complex and demanding, requiring strong problem-solving skills, thinking holistically, and excellent communication abilities.

Typical work hours

Systems engineers typically work full-time, standard business hours. However, given the project-based nature of much of their work, there may be times when extra hours are required to meet project deadlines or to address system emergencies. 

Despite these demands, the role can be gratifying, offering opportunities to work on complex, innovative projects that significantly impact an organization’s success.

How to become a systems engineer

To become a systems engineer, you must build a solid technical foundation, gain practical experience, and develop excellent problem-solving and communication skills. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Obtain a relevant educational background

Begin by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field such as systems engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, or mechanical engineering. This will provide you with the necessary technical knowledge and skills to understand and work with complex systems.

Step 2: Gain practical experience

Hands-on experience is crucial for developing the skills needed to be an effective systems engineer. Look for internships, co-op programs, or entry-level positions in your chosen industry to gain practical experience working with real-world systems. This experience will help you better understand systems engineering concepts and their practical applications.

Step 3: Develop problem-solving and communication skills

These professionals must be excellent problem solvers and communicators, as they often work with cross-functional teams to design and maintain complex systems. You may consider participating in team projects or engineering competitions to practice working in a collaborative environment.

Take courses or workshops in problem-solving, communication, and project management to strengthen these skills. Here are three highly-rated online courses in these areas:

Step 4: Obtain relevant certifications (optional)

While not always required, obtaining relevant certifications can help demonstrate your expertise and commitment to professional development. Certifications may be vendor-specific or cover broader systems engineering concepts. 

Some popular certifications include the INCOSE Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP), Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP). Many people have taken this online course in Product Development & Systems Engineering to help them prepare for the INCOSE exam.

Step 5: Build a professional network

Networking is essential for building a successful career in this role. Attend industry conferences, workshops, and events to connect with other professionals and potential employers. Establish a strong online presence by creating a professional website, blog, or LinkedIn profile to showcase your expertise and experience in systems engineering.

Step 6: Continue your education and stay current with industry advancements

Systems engineering is constantly evolving, with new technologies and best practices emerging regularly. Engage in continuous learning by attending workshops, conferences, and webinars to stay up-to-date with the latest advancements in your industry. You may also consider pursuing a master’s degree or Ph.D. in systems engineering or a related field to deepen your knowledge and enhance your career prospects.

Step 7: Apply for jobs

With the necessary education, experience, and certifications, start applying for systems engineer positions. Tailor your resume and cover letter to emphasize your technical expertise, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills. During interviews, be prepared to discuss specific examples of your past experiences and demonstrate your understanding of systems engineering principles and best practices.

How much do systems engineers make?

Several factors can influence the salary of a systems engineer. One of the most significant is experience. Those with a wealth of experience in designing, implementing, and maintaining systems and skills in high-demand areas like cloud computing, cybersecurity, or artificial intelligence often earn more than those new to the field.

The specific industry in which they work can also significantly affect their compensation. Industries such as technology, aerospace, and finance, which rely heavily on complex systems, typically offer higher salaries due to their critical role in these sectors.

Geographic location plays a role as well. Those in areas with a high cost of living and a strong tech industry, like Silicon Valley or Seattle, often earn more than those in other regions.

Education can also impact salary. While many successful systems engineers have a bachelor’s degree in a related field like computer science or engineering, those with a master’s degree or relevant certifications may have higher earning potential.

Finally, the size and type of the company can influence compensation. Larger companies or those with more complex systems needs often pay these engineers more than smaller companies.

Highest paying industries

  • Computer Manufacturing – $132,840
  • Finance – $130,640
  • Software Publishers – $126,780
  • Other Information Services – $129,240
  • Management of Companies – $134,080

Highest paying states

  • California – $131,670
  • Maryland – $128,350
  • Virginia – $127,940
  • New Hampshire – $135,930
  • New Jersey – $134,530

Browse systems engineer salary data by market

Types of systems engineers

This section of the career guide examines the different types and specializations. Their specializations can vary depending on their industry, the type of systems they manage, and the specific methodologies they use.

IT systems engineer

IT systems engineers specialize in designing, implementing, and maintaining IT systems. This includes developing system architecture, integrating software and hardware components, and troubleshooting system issues. They often work with technologies such as networks, databases, and operating systems.

Aerospace systems engineer

Aerospace systems engineers work on designing and implementing aircraft and spacecraft systems. These engineers coordinate the development of various subsystems, including propulsion, avionics, and control systems, ensuring they work together effectively to achieve the goals of the overall system.

Industrial systems engineer

Industrial systems engineers focus on optimizing complex industrial processes. They may work in manufacturing, logistics, or supply chain environments, using systems engineering principles to improve efficiency, increase productivity, and reduce costs.

Cybersecurity systems engineer

Cybersecurity systems engineers focus on designing and managing secure IT systems. Professionals in this role develop security architectures, implement security controls, and respond to security incidents to protect the system from threats. They often have a deep understanding of cybersecurity principles and tools.

Network systems engineer

Network systems engineers design, implement, and maintain network systems. These engineers ensure the smooth operation of communication networks within an organization, from local area networks (LANs) to wide area networks (WANs). They may also work with cloud-based network systems.

Embedded systems engineer

Embedded systems engineers work on the development of embedded systems, which are computer systems integrated into other devices or products. These systems might be found in various applications, from home appliances to automotive systems.

Top skills for systems engineers

A deep understanding of systems engineering principles is a foundational skill for systems engineers. It’s vital to understand how different system components interact, how changes in one part of the system might affect others, and how to optimize system performance. This understanding is important in designing, implementing, and maintaining efficient systems.

Proficiency in technical software is another essential skill for these professionals. They often need to use software like MATLAB, Simulink, or CAD tools to model and analyze systems. Familiarity with these tools is important for accurate system design and analysis.

The ability to think critically and analytically about complex problems is an important part of their role. These engineers often need to identify and resolve issues within a system, optimize performance, and find solutions that align with the project’s constraints and goals. 

Excellent communication skills are critical as well. They often work with a diverse team of stakeholders, including project managers, software engineers, and clients. Communicating complex technical concepts clearly and effectively is essential for coordinating efforts, explaining system designs, and ensuring everyone is aligned on project goals and progress.

Lastly, professionals in this role often oversee projects from conception to completion, coordinating efforts, managing resources, and ensuring timelines and specifications are met. This requires a good understanding of project management principles and techniques and the ability to adapt to changes and manage risks effectively.

Systems engineer career path

The career path for a systems engineer often starts with a role that builds foundational knowledge in systems design and analysis, such as a junior systems engineer or a related engineering role. Here, you’ll gain experience with various systems and learn to apply engineering principles to solve technical problems.

You can advance to a systems engineer position after gaining experience and possibly earning relevant certifications. In this role, you’ll work on more complex systems, often collaborating with a team to design, implement, and manage technical solutions that meet specific business needs.

With further experience and a strong track record of successful projects, you could move into a senior role. In this position, you’ll handle more complex system designs, lead projects, and mentor junior engineers.

From there, you could advance to roles such as a lead systems engineer, systems architect, or systems engineering manager, where you’ll make high-level design decisions, oversee the work of a team of engineers, and contribute to the strategic planning of engineering projects.

Further down the line, there are opportunities to move into executive roles such as a director of engineering or chief technology officer (CTO). Some professionals also transition into consulting or freelance work, offering their expertise to various organizations on a project-by-project basis.

One significant trend is the increasing importance of these professionals in fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cybersecurity. These areas are rapidly developing and require the expertise of systems engineers to design and manage complex systems.

Another trend is the growing emphasis on system sustainability and lifecycle management. Engineers in this role are increasingly tasked with considering the entire lifecycle of a system, from design to decommissioning, and ensuring that systems are designed to be efficient, reliable, and sustainable.

In addition, the trend toward the Internet of Things (IoT) is leading to an increased demand for systems engineers. As more devices become interconnected, there is a growing need for those who can design and manage these complex networks.

Finally, there’s an increasing recognition of the need for soft skills, such as communication and collaboration, in this field. These engineers often need to work with stakeholders from different disciplines, making these skills necessary.

Employment projections for systems engineers

Systems engineers are typically included in the broader category of “Computer Hardware Engineers” or “Network and Computer Systems Administrators” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The employment of computer hardware engineers is projected to grow 5 percent through 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. 

However, the employment of network and computer systems administrators is projected to grow by 3 percent through 2031, slower than the average for all occupations. The ongoing need for robust and efficient systems in various industries drives the demand for these roles. Those with up-to-date technical skills, a broad understanding of different technologies, and strong soft skills will likely have the best job prospects.

Systems engineer career tips

Understand systems thinking

As a systems engineer, you’ll deal with complex, interconnected systems. Understanding systems thinking — the ability to see how parts interact to form a whole — is crucial to analyzing and designing effective systems.

Develop strong problem-solving skills

In this role, you’ll often need to solve complex problems involving multiple system parts. Strong problem-solving skills can help you identify the root cause of issues, propose effective solutions, and implement these solutions successfully.

Stay updated with industry trends

Technologies and methodologies in systems engineering evolve rapidly. By staying updated with industry trends, you can ensure that your skills and knowledge remain current and relevant.

Build a professional network

Networking can provide valuable insights, learning opportunities, and potential collaborations. Consider joining professional associations and communities such as:

  • International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE)
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Systems Council
  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Embedded Systems (SIGBED)

Master relevant tools and technologies

These engineers use various tools and technologies, such as computer-aided design (CAD) software and simulation tools. Proficiency in these tools can enhance your productivity and the quality of your work.

Implement continuous learning

In the rapidly evolving field of systems engineering, continuous learning is key to staying updated and enhancing your capabilities. Areas of focus could include:

  • Emerging trends in systems engineering
  • New tools and technologies in your field
  • Advances in modeling and simulation techniques
  • Updates on standards and regulations in your industry

Improve your communication skills

Engineers often need to coordinate with various stakeholders, from team members to clients. Clear and effective communication can ensure everyone understands the system’s requirements, design, and performance, and can foster collaboration and efficiency.

Cultivate project management skills

Projects in this field often involve multiple tasks, resources, and deadlines. Strong project management skills can help you plan and execute these projects effectively, ensuring they’re completed on time and within budget.

Where the systems engineer jobs are

Top companies

  • Lockheed Martin
  • Boeing
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Raytheon Technologies
  • Google

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Florida
  • Maryland

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • Indeed
  • Dice
  • Monster


What skills are necessary for a systems engineer?

These engineers should have strong analytical and problem-solving skills, as they are often required to develop complex system designs and troubleshoot issues. They should have a solid technical foundation in computer science, engineering, or a related field. 

Additionally, professionals in this role should have excellent communication skills to collaborate with other team members and stakeholders effectively. It’s also important to have strong project management skills, as they often oversee projects from conception to implementation.

What are the typical duties of a systems engineer?

Their typical duties include:

  • Designing and implementing computer systems and networks
  • Troubleshooting technical issues
  • Ensuring system security and efficiency
  • Performing system upgrades and maintenance
  • Collaborating with other IT professionals and stakeholders to meet the organization’s technology needs

They may also be involved in system testing, documentation, and training of end users.

What type of education or certification does a systems engineer typically have?

They typically have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering, information technology, or a related field. Some may hold advanced degrees, particularly for roles that require more specialized knowledge. 

Certifications, such as those offered by Microsoft, Cisco, or the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), can demonstrate professional competency and may be required or preferred by some employers.

How does a systems engineer contribute to the success of an organization?

Professionals in this role contribute to the success of an organization by ensuring that its computer systems and networks function effectively and efficiently. They can enhance productivity by implementing and maintaining systems that meet users’ needs and resolving any technical issues. These engineers also contribute to the organization’s security by protecting its systems and data from threats.

How does a systems engineer work with other professionals in an organization?

Often working closely with various professionals within an organization, they collaborate with other IT professionals, such as network administrators, database administrators, and IT managers, to implement and manage systems. Professionals in this role may also interact with non-technical stakeholders, such as executives or end users, to understand their needs and provide technical support.

What are the challenges a systems engineer might face?

Challenges can include:

  • Designing and implementing systems that meet complex or evolving needs
  • Troubleshooting technical issues
  • Ensuring system security in the face of increasing cyber threats

Keeping up with changes in technology, as well as best practices in systems engineering, is another common challenge.

What are the key performance indicators for a systems engineer?

Key performance indicators might include:

  • The uptime and performance of the systems they manage
  • The successful completion of projects
  • The resolution of technical issues

They may also be evaluated on their contribution to system security, such as implementing security measures and handling security incidents.

How does a systems engineer stay updated with the latest technology trends and developments?

They can stay updated with the latest technology trends and developments by participating in ongoing professional development, such as attending industry conferences, workshops, or training courses. Other options include joining professional organizations, reading industry publications, and following relevant online forums or social media channels to stay informed about the latest technologies and best practices.

How does a systems engineer ensure the security and reliability of an organization’s systems?

They ensure the security and reliability of an organization’s systems by implementing robust security measures, such as firewalls, encryption, and access controls, and by regularly monitoring system performance and security alerts. 

They should also have a plan for responding to security incidents and performing system backups and disaster recovery. Regular maintenance and upgrades can further enhance system reliability.

What role does a systems engineer play in implementing new technology systems?

They play a key role in implementing new technology systems. These professionals are often involved in the entire process, from the initial planning and design to the installation, testing, and final deployment of the system. Engineers in this role work with other IT professionals and stakeholders to ensure that the new system meets the organization’s needs, and they provide training and support to users during and after the implementation.