What it Takes to Be a Software Engineer or Systems Engineer

By Robert Half November 4, 2014 at 3:00pm

An IT software engineer and systems engineer actually have a lot in common.

Both need to understand underlying business and support requirements to design solutions. They must both draw on techniques and processes from multiple disciplines when solving a complex problem or set of problems. And they are both expected to bring several years of experience with various programming languages to their roles, and to collaborate with quality assurance (QA) and hardware engineers.

As for general differences between the two positions: Software engineers tend to focus more on implementing software, while systems engineers work with users and domains. If you’re considering a career in either position, read on for some more details about what to expect and how to train for each:

The software engineer

An IT software engineer designs and creates engineering specifications for building software programs, and should have broad information systems experience. Software engineers typically work with QA and hardware engineers to develop testing plans. Other responsibilities might involve determining what development methodology to use and documenting software requirements.

Minimum requirements for this role, according to Robert Half Technology’s Salary Guide, include a bachelor’s degree in computer science, electrical engineering, computer engineering or a related discipline. Most candidates for software engineering jobs also have several years’ experience in specific programming languages, such as C# and C++, Java or Visual Basic .NET. Programming languages required will vary by employer.

The systems engineer

A systems engineer in IT does some of the same work as a software engineer in that he or she develops software components. But systems engineering also involves specifying, building, maintaining and supporting technical infrastructure. That infrastructure can include the build, test and production environments used to deliver Software as a Service, and the systems used to monitor the performance of deployed software solutions. A systems engineer also may be called on to perform high-level root cause analysis for service interruptions, and help bring services back online once a problem is resolved.

The minimum education requirements for the system engineer role mirror those of a software engineer: a bachelor’s degree in computer science, electrical engineering, computer engineering or a related discipline. Like systems engineers, software engineers typically have several years of experience working with multiple programming languages and are capable of collaborating with QA and hardware engineers.

Soft skills are especially important for systems engineering professionals, as they must be able to communicate effectively with both technical and nontechnical users. Many employers will want a systems engineer candidate with extensive experience working with specific hardware and software systems, and the ability to demonstrate that he or she can design, analyze and troubleshoot IT at a systems level.

Learn what starting salaries are for systems engineers and software engineers:

Next steps

If you're thinking about becoming a software or systems engineer, consider taking one or more of the following steps:

  • Learn different software development methodologies, as developing software components and installing and maintaining software systems are likely to be among your job requirements in both fields.
  • Consider signing up for a massive open online course (MOOC). Massachusetts Information of Technology, for example, offers many of these courses on systems engineering topics. If you just want a primer, find a resource that offers an introductory class.
  • Pursue continuing education to learn an in-demand programming language, hone your soft skills or earn a certification.

This post has been updated to reflect more current information.

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