What to Expect When You Become a Systems Engineer

What does the future hold for the Unix systems engineer?

Systems engineers and systems administrators are hot commodities right now. These IT professionals analyze an enterprise’s systems requirements and actively participate in the design, implementation and troubleshooting of various platforms. 

According to the most recent Robert Half Technology Salary Guide, the starting salary for a newly hired systems administrator is expected to range from $69,000 to $112,000 in the U.S. in 2017. A systems engineer can expect between $86,500 and $130,000.

We spoke to Dermot, a Unix systems engineer for a multinational telecommunications company, to learn more about the role. He said, “Administrators are responsible for the day-to-day running of the platform, but the systems engineer knows the platform’s capabilities and how it best interacts with various software and services that sit on top.”

Use our Salary Calculator to discover the starting pay for a systems engineer or systems administrator in your area.

More than technical skills are required

Systems engineers are thought leaders with a strong customer-service mindset. According to Dermot, “They need to be comfortable in areas such as performance, disaster recovery and network integration. They also need to think ahead in terms of scalability — and know what the next requirement of the customer or stakeholder will be and provide for growth accordingly.”

When hiring systems administrators, most employers require a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field, along with specific areas of expertise — for example, Unix and Linux experience. For senior-level positions, job seekers need at least five years of relevant experience. But technical and analytical skills by themselves are not enough. Project management capabilities are also needed, for example, for handling deadlines and coordinating teams. In addition, systems engineers must be adept at communicating technical information to nontechnical staff, such as project stakeholders.

Dermot said it’s surprising how much of his job involves talking and writing. “The workday tends to revolve around communications,” he explained. “Email and Skype play a large part. Project members, customer engineers and automated build and test systems all shape what you’ll be doing for the rest of the day or week. You have to develop your ability to give presentations, engage stakeholders, coordinate teams and hold meetings — from the stand-up meetings every morning to the updating of user stories in the evening.”

Given the job’s diverse activities, time management and organization are crucial to being a systems engineer. “You will find yourself receiving vast amounts of information each day, so a vital part of the role is organizing that information. A tool such as OneNote is good for keeping on top of the project.”

There's no "normal day" for systems engineers

There is no list of recurring daily or weekly tasks for most systems engineers. Dermot describes his role as being “100 percent project-based.” But he adds that he likes to carve out time to work on personal goals, such as reading about tech trends and best practices.

So, if you’re the kind of IT professional who likes a constant supply of fresh challenges, and you have both the technical and management skills required for the role, then becoming a systems engineer may be right for you.

Interested in becoming a systems engineer or systems administrator? The Robert Half Technology Salary Center lists these job descriptions and starting salary ranges, as well as many other IT jobs in the U.S. and Canada. 

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Note: This post has been updated. It originally appeared on 12/8/15.