Some companies treat “systems engineer” and “systems administrator” almost interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two positions. In broadest terms, systems engineers must design and implement a company’s system (comprising the network, servers, devices, etc.), whereas systems administrators are largely charged with keeping everything running.
To frame it another way, system administration is a very reactive role, with sysadmins constantly monitoring networks for issues. Systems engineers, on the other hand, can build a system that anticipates users’ needs (and potential problems). In certain cases, they must integrate existing technology stacks (e.g., following the merger of two companies), and prototype different aspects of the network before it goes “live.”
The educational path for a software-focused systems engineer usually starts with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Computer Science, Information Systems, and/or Engineering. As systems engineers gain experience, they’ll learn the tools and techniques necessary to manage systems at scale—for example, a senior systems engineer (i.e., system engineer III) will not only need experience in designing and implementing the overall architecture of a software system, but must have tactical knowledge of virtualization, containers, systems design tools and languages, and analytics. (Check out a sample résumé for some idea of how to present your experience.)
In other words, it’s a complex job, with a salary to match. We analyzed Dice’s data and came up with the following salaries for systems engineers. It’s clear that advancing in this role translates into a significant pay bump: systems engineers III make nearly $10,000 more than less-experienced colleagues, and that’s before you consider other perks and benefits such as equity and increased vacation time.
If you want a truly impressive salary, though, consider specializing in Linux systems—that will translate into a $20,000 pay bump. So get to know your Linux/UNIX servers, pass your Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) exam (depending on your focus), and become as familiar as possible with open-source architecture.