System Engineer vs. Software Engineer: Differences and Similarities

In-depth guide to system engineer's vs. software engineer's, including the similarities and differences, career ladder, and education.

Systems engineers and software engineers are both important roles. Despite their varying responsibilities, both systems engineers and software engineers work towards similar goals and long-term objectives. The key to identifying the differences between the two roles is recognizing what each type of engineer creates or produces. Software engineers are largely responsible for developing code and maintaining the technology they develop, whereas systems engineers are responsible for building and maintaining computer networks. 

Systems engineers often have more experience working with hardware and networks while software engineers focus on coding and developing applications. Systems engineers also deal with the entire project engineering life cycle while software engineers focus on coding and developing applications. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the specifics of systems engineers vs. software engineers while discussing the roles, responsibilities, and required skill sets for both. In addition, we’ll identify the similarities and differences between the two roles, including the education and training requirements, career ladder specifics, and a brief forecast into the future job landscape for both roles. 

What is systems engineering? 

Systems engineering refers to the practice of developing and refining systems and processes. Systems engineers can work in a variety of fields, but their main focus remains the same. On any given day, a systems engineer will be responsible for a variety of tasks, including iterating upon existing systems and designing and implementing innovative systems that increase efficiency and improve functionality. 

Traditionally, engineering disciplines are defined by their physical attributes. On one hand, chemical engineers combine chemistry, biology, and physics to provide solutions to chemical-centric problems, and software engineers write scripts and build code to ship products or solve consumer pain points. System engineers, on the other hand, go beyond the physical composition of their discipline to design, integrate, and manage complex systems over the entirety of their life cycle. 

The roles and responsibilities of system engineers include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Monitoring and managing installed systems and infrastructure.
  • Creating and developing test plans to further develop computer systems.
  • Leading communication system design and implementation for new systems or upgrades.
  • Collaborating with other system engineers or system architects to fulfill organizational goals.
  • Crafting and sharing progress reports pertaining to internal systems and information management.
  • Assessing and calculating the technical features of a project to ensure all procedures are operating correctly.
  • Crafting and sharing one-pagers with leadership and key stakeholders to communicate changes and developments.
  • Working with IT professionals and third-party providers to problem solve and implement solutions pertaining to systems management.

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What is software engineering? 

Software engineering refers to the practice of developing, delivering, maintaining, and improving software systems and programs. This engineering discipline is a systematic engineering approach that leverages program languages backed by skilled engineering teams to build, ship, or iterate upon existing software. This software can include anything from operating systems to mobile games or computer applications. Different computers and operating systems require different languages like Java, Ruby on Rails, or .NET programming languages to operate, meaning software engineers will have to work within those parameters when completing their tasks.

Depending on the organization, software engineers will usually work as part of a team to develop software that appeals to a specific need or solves consumer pain points. To boost efficiency, software engineers are often expected to be proficient in the entire software development cycle, from the preliminary system analysis to the final tests and, ultimately, deployment. Overall, software engineers are responsible for building comprehensive software that complies with both coding and consumer standards. 

The roles and responsibilities of software engineers include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Documenting systems and processes.
  • Ensuring software is always up to date.
  • Developing functional, well-designed code.
  • Troubleshooting, debugging and updating existing systems.
  • Iterating upon existing code to improve the customer experience.
  • Integrating software components into fully functional software systems.
  • Developing functional code from scratch to solve consumer pain points.
  • Developing quality assurance procedures to uphold the quality of the code. 
  • Working within project parameters and timelines to ship products on time. 

Systems engineer vs. software engineer: similarities and differences 

Systems engineers and software engineers are often confused as they both operate within the tech space. Despite both types of engineers working within technology, their roles vary drastically. The role of a systems engineer is to ensure that all different elements of a system work together cohesively, while software engineers are responsible for building out technology or code. Systems engineers often have more experience working with hardware and networks, while software engineers focus more heavily on coding and developing applications. In a perfect world, system engineers and software engineers work together and collaborate to develop comprehensive software systems and solutions. 

Systems engineer responsibilities and skills

Systems engineers take on a great deal of responsibility, including developing, maintaining, and supporting technical infrastructure, hardware, and system software components. To be successful as systems engineers, these individuals must be extremely detail-oriented and precise. In addition, systems engineers need to be strong communicators, possess analytical and organizational skills, and be excellent troubleshooters. 

Systems engineers also need to have many technical skills and understand software development, data architecture and programming, cloud computing, networking, scripting, information security, software and hardware, risk management, and systems engineering software. 

Additional roles and responsibilities include: 

  • Testing
  • Maintenance
  • Consultations
  • Operational design
  • System Integration
  • Information management

Software engineer responsibilities and skills

Software engineers are responsible for analyzing and iterating upon existing software in addition to designing, building, and shipping new code or products that solve consumer pain points. Depending on the task, software engineers may be required to code or build products in a number of different software programming languages. As a result, software engineers need to have a great deal of technical knowledge that allows them to operate and produce work in numerous programming languages.

To be successful as a software engineer, these individuals must be able to code, test software, and develop software. Soft skills that are required include being effective communicators, being team players, being able to problem solve and identify innovative solutions, and being extremely detail oriented. 

Additional roles and responsibilities include: 

  • Design development
  • Quality enhancement
  • Client consultations

Career ladder

While a career in system engineering will vary from a career in software engineering, the trajectory or career ladder remains relatively similar. Both system engineers and software engineers will start off in an entry-level position that can be used to gain experience and learn more about their respective fields. Both engineers will then both progress as they continue to gain valuable real-world experience while refining their skill sets. 

Systems engineers and software engineers can also choose to specialize in a specific area of expertise like systems security or software development. With experience, systems engineers may eventually become managers, where software engineers may become project managers or senior developers. 

When determining which career path to pursue, it’s important to remember that both software engineers and systems engineers have relatively similar base salaries. Software engineers generally start out at a base salary of $120,000 and systems engineers at $121,000. Both careers also present a steady growth trajectory as demand for technological solutions continues to rise. 

Education and training

The education and training required for both systems engineers and software engineers is quite similar. Both roles will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. Both systems engineers or software engineers can then choose to further their education or partake in courses or additional training to specialize in a given area. Some employers may prefer that candidates interested in either role possess additional education or training like a master’s degree or additional certification. Relevant industry experience and portfolio samples also go a long way in helping candidates stand out amongst competing applicants.

Parting advice

While the roles and responsibilities of software engineers and systems engineers may sound quite similar, they’re actually very different. Both types of engineers are responsible for various aspects of technology; however, one can very rarely operate to their full potential without the other. When determining how to recognize the difference between the two, remember that software engineers are largely responsible for developing code and maintaining the technology they develop, whereas systems engineers are responsible for building and maintaining computer networks. In conclusion, both roles are centered around technology but have differing roles and responsibilities. 

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About the author

Hannah Ross

Hannah is an experienced content creator and digital strategist with a demonstrated history of working with startups, small business owners, and large organizations. Presently, Hannah serves as the Founder at Flamingo Social where she strives to create impactful organic content marketing strategies that help founders tell inspiring stories.

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