Systems engineers are interdisciplinary professionals that work across many different engineering branches and come from a variety of engineering backgrounds.
They are adept at incorporating varying technologies into a single design to complete a function or set of functions.
If you're a prospective student or a recent engineering graduate, here's what you need to know about the different types of systems engineering and how to pursue a career as a system engineer.
What does a systems engineer do?
Think of systems engineers as engineering and technology aggregators. Their primary goal is to make complex solutions easy to use by designing a combination of multiple components or subsystems into a whole solution that is distinct from its parts. System engineers span almost all systems engineering industries, but you can commonly find them employed in sectors such as:
- Information technology
- Software development and implementation
Software and IT systems engineers
Systems engineers who primarily focus on information and technology management are skilled in designing, building and maintaining custom network, data and software solutions. These professionals have experience with multiple software verticals such as:
- Common operating systems
- OS tools
- Development languages
- Network management
- Data management
- Algorithm generation
- Machine learning
- Servers and data centers
If you have direct experience in any of these verticals, note them prominently in your resume. Our Resume Templates make it easy to showcase your technical skills (and all of your other skills, too).
To design systems that meet businesses' needs, system engineers collaborate with many different departments and individuals:
- Front end and back end developers
- Information technology engineers
- Network engineers
- Key business stakeholders
- QA/testing engineers
- Data center managers
- Infrastructure managers
- Logistics operators
A typical systems engineering job description in the software and IT sector will require familiarity with the tools related to the position. Competitive candidates will also have experience using the architecture, development methodologies and code languages the company uses.
Product systems engineers
Product systems engineers work together to create highly complex physical products. These engineers know enough about each engineering discipline to combine them into a single system. They develop processes and models that outline the high-level responsibilities of each sub-discipline that operates within the system. Systems engineers outline multiple requirement tiers and assign these requirements to each discipline to ensure the operation of the device.
These engineers cooperate with a multitude of engineering disciplines such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, structural engineering, computer science and other systems engineers. They also collaborate with key business stakeholders such as business, security, marketing, user experience, safety and organizational leaders.
A typical product systems engineering job description requires familiarity with multiple engineering disciplines. Applicants should hold mechanical, electrical or systems engineering degrees. Candidates also need to be able to manage multiple stages of the design cycle.
Companies generally want product systems engineers to be able to see projects through from beginning to end, including:
- Conceptualizing and analyzing new systems
- Developing prototypes
- Finalizing products ready for implementation
If you have direct experience moving a project successfully through multiple levels, let the hiring manager know. Review our Cover Letter Samples for guidance on sharing useful anecdotes that will catch the employer's eye.
Process system engineers
Process systems engineers create workflows and processes that a system will solve. A process systems engineer's primary goal is to create, change, move, dismantle or unitize specific physical substances, all while operating under specific output requirements.
For example, a chemical systems engineer may lead a team of engineers to optimize the creation of automotive lithium-ion batteries. That process may involve many critical steps, such as mechanical engineering for packaging, electronics controls systems and synthesizing raw lithium.
Like other systems engineers, process systems engineers work with various engineering disciplines regularly. They also work with business leaders to produce optimized systems outputs, reports, key performance indicators and other various business decision inputs.
You can commonly find systems engineers that focus on large-scale processes in the chemical and petroleum industry. However, civil, mechanical, electrical and other related interdisciplinary engineers may also hold those roles. Process systems engineers perform tasks including:
- Process analysis
- Process improvement
- Scoping studies
- Front-end process design work
- Collaboration with contractors and consultants on process designs
Most common systems engineer disciplines
Systems engineers are interdisciplinary by design, so having a general engineering or technical background may be enough to get you in the door. You'll spend your first few years on the job building your skills and gaining an understanding of how to develop and implement successful systems. Some of the most common engineering disciplines that pursue careers as systems engineers are:
- Mechanical engineers
- Electrical engineers
- Computer engineers
- Aerospace engineers
- Chemical engineers
- Petroleum engineers
- Civil engineers
- Construction engineers
- Mining/Geotechnical engineers
How to become a systems engineer
To become a successful systems engineer, you'll need to:
- Earn your degree. Your bachelor's degree should relate to the industry in which you intend to work. For example, systems engineers that work in the automotive sector are commonly mechanical or electrical engineers. You can also pair your degree and system engineering certification with relevant experience for a particular industry or specialty.
- Build your technical skills. Gain relevant system engineering skills and supplement your tradition education with cross-disciplinary technologies. Systems engineers generally (but not always) hold senior positions within companies. A competitive candidate should have experience working in a large team environment and multiple engineering disciplines.
- Focus on your soft skills. Systems engineers often serve as a conduit between business leaders with high-level goals, and the technical teams that create the "ones and zeros" behind the scenes. Being able to effectively communicate in high-level engineer conversations just as well as in technical conversations is a skill that may prove to be more effective than you think. Get some more information in our articles on translating soft skills to your resume and cover letter.
As you develop your career goals and explore systems engineer jobs, a solid resume will be one of your most powerful assets. Use our Resume Builder and Cover Letter Builder to showcase your skills and experience and prove to the hiring manager that you will be an asset to their organization.