What does a systems engineer do? (And how to become one)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 6 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Systems engineers focus on developing and refining processes and systems. They can work in varying fields designing, implementing and optimising systems that improve efficiency, functionality and safety. Understanding what systems engineers do can help you decide if this type of role suits your interests and skills. In this article, we answer the question of what does a systems engineer do, where they work and how you can become one.

What does a systems engineer do?

To answer 'What does a systems engineer do?', they oversee all aspects of a project or system in various fields, such as software, transportation, product development and manufacturing. They're responsible for designing, implementing and optimising systems that improve efficiency, functionality and safety. Systems engineers can work in multiple industries, with their roles in each varying accordingly. Some examples of a systems engineer's duties include:

  • planning and implementing systems automation as required for better efficiency

  • monitoring and managing systems and infrastructure

  • establishing, configuring, testing and maintaining systems, application software and system management tools

  • designing, implementing and optimising security systems

  • providing technical assistance to others involved in the process

  • working with other professionals and non-professionals to troubleshoot and find solutions

  • developing step-by-step solutions for problems

  • carrying out quantitative risk assessments for a system

  • assessing stages of operations in a system for efficiency

  • maintaining engineering system documents

  • performing cost analyses for new projects

  • overseeing the manufacture of new systems

Related: The roles of a systems analyst (plus how to become one)

Where do systems engineers work?

Systems engineers can work in a variety of industries and locations, developing specialised systems to meet the needs of their clients. Some areas that systems engineers may work in include:

Biosystems

Biosystems engineers work with systems related to the natural environment. These may include water and wastewater treatment plants, waste management facilities and food procession operations. A biosystems engineer's role is to understand the health and safety considerations associated with the processes and develop systems optimised to carry out tasks in these areas.

Logistics

Logistics systems engineers assess and optimise the distribution process of finished goods to retailers or consumers. They develop systems that optimise the storage, transportation and delivery of goods. An engineer working in a logistics role may develop improved systems for picking items from warehouse shelves, more efficient systems for loading trucks and optimised transportation routes for vehicles delivering goods.

Network systems

Network systems engineers work with network hardware and software that a business uses in its daily tasks. They manage users in the network, optimise the network and maintain it by carrying out repairs. They may also implement upgrades to ensure the network functions optimally.

Product development

Product development systems engineers work with businesses to assess their manufacturing systems for product production. They uncover inefficiencies and attempt to mitigate them to produce an optimally performing manufacturing process. These systems engineers focus on yield by reducing waste and increasing output.

Software systems

Software systems engineers design and develop software solutions for businesses. They assess software systems for technical constraints and capability. These systems engineers develop test plans, scripts and procedures to evaluate software systems, identifying areas that require improvement.

Transportation

Transportation systems engineers work with systems that transport people and goods. These can include areas such as emergency management or traffic maintenance. These engineers work closely with civil engineers to make transportation systems more efficient and improve management methods.

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Systems engineer working environment

Systems engineers work in many industries and the working environment varies accordingly for each industry. Some aspects of the working environment of a systems engineer include:

  • using technology constantly, including specialised software, modelling systems, security systems and plant equipment

  • keeping up to date with new technology and updating their knowledge and techniques accordingly

  • working in-person or remotely with people from a variety of other fields, including other engineers, clients, plant employees, technology experts and financial experts

  • working in an office or on-site, depending on their role and their specific industry

  • working full time during normal business hours, although working overtime may be necessary to meet deadlines

Related: Guide to workflow: definition, components, processes and uses

Required skills to become a systems engineer

Systems engineers require a variety of soft and hard skills to help them conduct their job successfully. Some examples of skills that systems engineers require include:

Natural technical aptitude

Although the requirement for this skill varies depending on the industry in which the systems engineer works, strong technical skills are important. Systems engineers learn to use a range of computer programs. In particular, they typically use planning software, modelling software and specialised equipment.

Strong analytical thinking

Systems engineers are usually detail-oriented and have exceptional analytical skills when carrying out their tasks. They're practical individuals and have a logical approach to problem-solving. Systems engineers usually possess the ability to view a system holistically and at the component level. Besides making changes to small, intricate details, they can also implement large-scale modifications to an entire system or process.

Good time management

Systems engineers may prioritise tasks, create project timelines and set and meet deadlines for work. They can adapt to unforeseen changes in real-time and adjust their tasks and deadlines accordingly. Good organisational skills are also key for systems engineers.

Excellent communication skills

Systems engineers work with a variety of professionals and non-professionals. They may interact with employees at all levels, such as financial executives, plant operators and administration staff. It's important for successful systems engineers to communicate clearly and openly, ensuring that they can explain complex technical information in simple terms.

Ability to work in a team

Systems engineers work in teams with designers, researchers, plant employees, financial executives, security representatives and marketing personnel. It's beneficial for them to delegate tasks, follow up on progress, carry out quality checks and provide constructive feedback for their teammates. This can ensure projects run more smoothly.

How to become a systems engineer

If becoming a systems engineer is something that interests you, then it's important to gain a suitable education to apply for a job as one. The steps below can help you prepare for a career as a systems engineer:

1. Further your education

Education is a basic entry requirement to become a systems engineer and there are multiple avenues available for you to follow. To be a systems engineer, you could pursue education in subjects like:

  • electrical or electronic engineering

  • mechanical engineering

  • production or manufacturing engineering

Engineers typically require one or two A-Level (or equivalent) qualifications for a foundation degree or higher national diploma. If you have two to three A-Levels (or equivalent), you might then pursue a bachelor's degree. You may wish to further your education to a master's level degree, which may first require an undergraduate degree. To achieve the status of a chartered engineer at a later date, it's useful if a professional institution, licensed by the Engineering Council, accredits your master's level degree.

2. Accumulate work experience

Work experience is valuable and some certifications require you to have at least some experience before applying. Some systems engineering positions may also include experience requirements. Employers typically prefer you to have several years of experience. You can earn work experience in an entry-level engineering position. Alternatively, some large employers offer structured internship programmes and summer placement schemes. Some degrees also offer a year in industry, which can help you gain experience.

3. Gain professional accreditation

You may consider gaining professional accreditation to further your career by becoming a chartered engineer with a professional institution licensed by the Engineering Council, such as the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers or the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Having chartered engineer status with one of these institutions can open up more opportunities for you with greater levels of remuneration, taking your career to the next level.

Related: System design interview questions (with examples and tips)

How much does a systems engineer make?

Systems engineers are typically full-time employees, although some may work part-time or on a contractual basis. Their salaries depend on their education level, experience and the size of the company in which they work. The national average salary for a systems engineer is £41,462 per year.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.

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