Many companies are actively installing systems to improve the efficiency of their work processes and increase productivity.

The role of a “Systems Engineer” is to ask a company what sort of systems it requires, and to design and build these systems.

In this article, we take a look at the roles and skills required to outline the differences between a "Systems Engineer” and a “Programmer”— two roles which are commonly confused.

If you are a company that is considering recruiting a Systems Engineer, this article may be of assistance.

What is a Systems Engineer?

A Systems Engineer works in the field of software development and, based on a client’s requirements, decides on a system’s specifications, and designs and develops the system.

The specific roles of a Systems Engineer are outlined below:

Defining requirements

A Systems Engineer interviews a client to determine what sort of system they require, then decides on specifications while taking various factors such as budgets and deadlines into account.

Basic system design

Based on the requirements defined above, the Systems Engineer works on the basic design of the system as a whole; considerations include the system’s functions, display methods, and operating methods.

Detailed system design

After confirming the basic design, the Systems Engineer moves on to more detailed aspects of design, such as which programming technologies and mechanisms to use to develop the system’s functions.


After the programming has been completed, the Systems Engineer verifies that the system works as designed: the causes of any flaws are identified, and the program is corrected and modified as needed.

Maintenance and operation

After the system has been installed, the Systems Engineer responds to issues faced by the company and works to prevent them from reoccurring by continuing to fix bugs, and implementing updates.

As outlined above, one of the chief roles of a Systems Engineer is to act as a point of contact for the client company, by conducting interviews and carrying out systems design. While some Systems Engineer write systems programs themselves, the majority outsource the programming to specialist programmers.

What is a Programmer?

A Programmer is a specialist who uses various programming languages to write computer programs based on a predetermined design. They are specialists in writing computer programs, and rarely involved in the actual design of the system. The specific roles of a Programmer are:


A Programmer writes computer programs based on designs drawn up by a Systems Engineer.


After writing the program, the Programmer tests the system: any flaws in the program are corrected or modified according to the instructions of the Systems Engineer.

What is the difference between a Systems Engineer and a Programmer?

A Systems Engineer and a Programmer appear to be similar, but they are tasked with different roles. Simply put, the Systems Engineer designs the system according to the client’s requirements, while the Programmer creates the program according to the Systems Engineer’s design.

It’s helpful to think of Systems Engineer as working upstream, whereas Programmers work further downstream.

For example, the Programmer is rarely required to deal directly with the client, since the Systems Engineer is responsible for negotiating with the client and carrying out the design of the system. However, depending on the project or the size of the company, the Systems Engineer or Programmer can, in some cases, be required to engage in both the design and programming aspects of systems-building.

What qualifications, experience, and skills should a Systems Engineer have?

While there may be exceptions, the natural career progression is from Programmer to Systems Engineer. For this reason, the Systems Engineer is regarded as the more senior position, and generally demands a higher annual salary. For the latest estimates of the average annual salary for a Systems Engineer, the Robert Half Salary Guide is available to view free of charge:

However, it is a fact that some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not make clear distinctions between different occupations. When recruiting a candidate that has worked at such SMEs, it makes sense to decide whether to offer them a job as a Systems Engineer or a Programmer based on their skills, experience, and qualifications, rather than on their career history.

To assist you in your search, we will describe some of the skills, experience, and qualifications that should be considered when recruiting Systems Engineers.

The skills required of a Systems Engineer

The following four skills are indispensable for a Systems Engineer:

1. Communication skills

Systems Engineering is often thought to be a quiet job, sat in front of a computer all day, but in reality, the role demands high-level communication skills. To develop new systems, the Systems Engineer must meet with clients to find out their requirements, set schedules, assemble the development team, share necessary information among the team, and verify and report on development progress. All these aspects of systems development depend on high-quality communication.

2. Logical thinking skills

Logical thinking is critical to systems design and building. To understand the client’s demands and resolve their issues, leaving things to chance is clearly not the way forward. The ideal candidate will have the intelligence to identify potential problems, approach them rationally, and resolve them one by one.

3. Management skills

The Systems Engineer is also required to plan schedules in line with requirements definitions and final delivery dates, provide precise instructions to programmers, verify progress, as well as manage their own tasks. Therefore, it is vital that the candidate has strong management skills.

4. IT-related technical skills and knowledge

Since the Systems Engineer proposes systems to clients and designs systems for them, it goes without saying that IT skills and basic knowledge are essential. Without knowledge of programming languages, the Systems Engineer will not be able to design systems, instruct programmers, or carry out program checks. Hence it is critical that the candidate possesses basic programming skills and can select the optimal development tools themselves.

If the candidate has knowledge of cybersecurity and cloud computing, the systems they propose and build are likely to be of exceptional quality.

Previous experience

As a recruiter, you need to understand what sort of roles a candidate has been tasked with in the past.

Some candidates may have deep knowledge of the programming language used at their previous company, but little understanding of the language you use at your company. Other candidates may have worked solely as Programmers, and so have limited experience with requirements definitions or systems design.

Even if a candidate is exceptionally skilled, they must be able to utilize their skillsets in a company setting—otherwise you run the risk of letting their talent go to waste. When it comes to recruitment, therefore, we strongly advise to verify that the skills of the candidate align with the actual roles you need them to carry out.


While Systems Engineer and Programmers are not required to possess qualifications, qualifications can be used to objectively assess a person’s knowledge and skill levels. Below are some of the most popular Systems Engineer qualifications.

■ National qualifications

・Fundamental Information Technology Engineer Examination, and Applied Information Technology Engineer Examination

These national examinations test the fundamental knowledge and practical skills required of engineers and, since they also include questions on programming languages, they are a sort of stepping-stone qualification to becoming a Systems Engineer. The Applied Information Technology Engineer Examination is a higher-level qualification than the Fundamental Information Technology Engineer Examination.

・Systems Architect Examination

This national examination is for engineers who lead systems design and development. Its high difficulty level means that candidates who possess this qualification are advanced-level Systems Engineers.

・Network Specialist Examination

This examination tests knowledge and skills related to network systems. This qualification is rated as level 4—the most difficult of the four levels of national qualification. Candidates with this qualification can therefore be expected to have an immediate impact as Network Systems Engineers.

■ Private-sector qualifications

・Oracle Master

This technical certification for Oracle products comprises four levels. Candidates must start by acquiring the lowest level before working their way up.

・Cisco certifications

These certifications test knowledge and skills related to Cisco Systems products. Candidates also face questions on installing, setting up, and operating networks.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of both national and private-sector qualifications. If you choose candidates with qualifications that are directly related to the tasks you wish them to carry out, the recruitment is more likely to be a success.


A Systems Engineer is essential for building systems. In addition to IT skills, a Systems Engineer’s communication and management skills will also have a significant impact on a project’s progress. If you are a personnel manager looking to recruit talented a Systems Engineer immediately, please do not hesitate to contact Robert Half today.