Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer: What’s the difference?

  • 11 mins read

Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer: What’s the difference?

What is the actual difference between a Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer? Hey, you there! Yes, I am talking to whoever is reading this. Have you ever been at a party eavesdropping on a conversation between two techies? One was boasting about being a software engineer, and the other was bragging about being a systems engineer. But to you, they both were someone who worked with computers, right?

Software engineer talks to a systems engineer

In reality, that’s not the case; the software engineer was all about designing and developing software applications, while the systems engineer was all about the hardware and infrastructure that keep those applications running smoothly.

It shouldn’t be a surprise knowing that software and system engineers’ roles are becoming more in-demand than ever in our digital world.

Here’s a really fun fact for you, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the software development industry is predicted to experience a notable 22% surge in employment from 2019 through 2029. In comparison, employment in the computer and information technology sector, which encompasses systems engineers, is only expected to grow by 11% during the same time frame.

Although software engineers and systems engineers work in the same industry, their jobs are drastically distinct yet equally important to the success of any technology-based project. So, what exactly sets them apart? Let’s dive in and find out!

Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer: The Meat and Potatoes

Let’s begin with software engineering. It is designing, developing, testing, and maintaining software programs. As a result, if you appreciate creating programs ranging from desktop and mobile apps to web development and games, software engineering might be a good job for you! So, get ready to flex your creative muscles by creating user-friendly, intuitive, and efficient software solutions that improve people’s lives.

We’ll now go to system engineering. Well, in a nutshell, system engineering deals with the design, development, and also maintenance of complex systems such as computer networks, industrial control systems, and telecommunications systems. If you’re a natural problem solver who appreciates challenging work, system engineering might be the profession for you. As a system engineer, you will utilize your knowledge and experience to develop and execute dependable and efficient systems that keep organizations and industries functioning smoothly.

As a result, although both software engineering and system engineering include the design, development, and management of technical systems, they differ significantly. Here are some instances.

Responsibilities

Systems Engineers are responsible for the integration of systems and designing a system to meet certain standards and needs. They play both technically proficient and managerially competent roles. They are in charge of the system’s architecture, identifying requirements, selecting and developing components, ensuring that the final solution is correct, and managing projects and communicating effectively.

Software Engineers are responsible for developing software, understanding user requirements, providing input to functional design, testing systems, and troubleshooting software-related issues. They are focused on coding and designing applications and manipulating computer instructions to implement the functions that the system needs to perform. 

Expertise

System engineers must have a more comprehensive understanding of the entire system beyond just the software architecture. They must be knowledgeable about system architecture, which involves multiple services and frameworks that must work together to ensure the proper functioning of complex web applications. System engineers must have a strong understanding of networking and root cause analysis in all TCP/IP protocol stacks. Troubleshooting any problems in the various stacks and ensuring that the application or system runs smoothly are among their responsibilities.

Software engineers typically focus on developing computer programs and applications using programming languages and software development tools. They are usually tasked with creating and maintaining software, fixing bugs, and adding new features to the system. In comparison to system engineers, software engineers generally have a more narrow focus on the software and its development. Well, as you can imagine are optional to have a  really deep understanding of the overall problem domain, which refers to the specific area of knowledge or expertise that a system is designed to address. Instead, they are simply expected to be specialized in one or more programming languages and software development tools.

Work Environments

System engineers are in charge of ensuring that the system operates reliably and effectively, frequently in a production or operational setting. Well, that just means that they must understand how every inch of the system’s components interact, and they are responsible for ensuring that the system satisfies the customer’s needs and also that it runs smoothly.

Okay, now moving on to the software engineers, they usually are tasked to operate in a development setting, where they are responsible for writing code, testing it, fixing bugs, and expanding the program’s functionality.

Yeah, that’s a lot of work!

They must have a thorough grasp of the programming languages and software development tools they employ. They are accountable for developing software that fits the specifications established by system engineers or project managers.

Transitioning

If a Software Engineer wants to transition to System Engineering, they may gain experience by leading small projects and doing some parts of System Engineering in addition to software development. They may be promoted to team leaders and project managers with System Engineering responsibilities.

System Engineers may have technical backgrounds and be knowledgeable in software development, or they may come from different backgrounds and have a more general knowledge of technology and systems.

Education

Employers often demand or prefer that Systems Engineers have a degree in computer science, electrical engineering, or a similar subject. These disciplines give a solid foundation in the fundamentals of hardware and software, as well as project management, which are all essential to the Systems Engineer profession. Systems Engineers may seek professional certifications, such as those granted by the International Council on Systems Engineering, in addition to a degree (INCOSE).

Well, normally, a Software Engineer really must have a degree in computer science, software engineering, or a related field. These subjects give a strong foundation in programming languages, algorithms, data structures, and software development procedures. In addition to a degree, Software Engineers may also pursue professional qualifications, such as those awarded by the IEEE Computer Society.

Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer: Pros and Cons

Pros of software engineering

  • High demand: Skilled software engineers are in high demand, with projected job growth rates faster than the average for all occupations.
  • Opportunities for learning and growth: So because the tech industry changes quickly, there are many ways to study and advance as a software engineer and keep up with the latest technologies and trends.
  • Good salary and benefits: So, if you opt for software engineering, you can expect a good salary.
  • Remote work options: Many software engineering jobs can be done remotely, providing greater flexibility and work-life balance.

Cons of software engineering

  • Constant need for learning and adaptation: As the world progress, so does the Software engineering, so staying up-to-date with new technologies and trends can be a bit challenging. 
  • Long hours and demanding deadlines: Software engineering projects often have tight deadlines, which can require long hours and periods of intense focus and concentration.
  • High pressure to produce results: The true nature of software engineering work means that there is often a high pressure to produce results and meet deadlines, which can be stressful for some individuals.
  • Isolation: So, depending on the work environment, software engineers will have to spend a lot of time working independently or in front of a computer screen, which can well eventually lead to feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Pros of System Engineering

  • Opportunity to work on a large scale: System engineers are actually responsible for designing and maintaining complex systems, just as transportation networks, power grids, and defense systems, that can have a significant impact on society. This can be an exciting and fulfilling aspect of the job.
  • Potential for career growth and advancement: System engineers typically have a broad range of skills and experience, making it easier for them to transition into management and leadership roles. This can provide opportunities for personal and professional growth.
  • High demand and job security: With the increasing reliance on complex systems in our society, the demand for skilled system engineers is expected to remain high. This can provide job security and stability.
  • Challenging and intellectually stimulating work: System engineering requires a deep understanding of complex systems and how they work. This can be a challenging and intellectually stimulating aspect of the job that appeals to those who enjoy problem-solving and critical thinking.

Cons of System Engineering

  • Level of specialization: System engineering requires a deep understanding of complex systems and their workings. This level of specialization can make it difficult to transition to other fields or industries, limiting career flexibility.
  • High stress and pressure: Working on large-scale projects, particularly in critical infrastructure and defense systems, can be high-pressure and stressful. 
  • Complex and ever-changing technology: System engineering is subject to constant innovation and change, like software engineering. Keeping up with the latest technology can be challenging and require ongoing learning and professional development.
  • High responsibility and risk: System engineers are more responsible for designing and maintaining systems that significantly impact society. This can carry a high responsibility and risk, particularly in critical infrastructure and defense systems. Any mistake can have serious consequences.

Software Engineer Vs. System Engineering: Can You Work Remote?

software engineer or systems engineer working remotely

Working remotely has become increasingly common across various industries, including software engineering and system engineering. However, the availability and flexibility of remote work may vary depending on the employer.

Remote Work in Software Engineering

Software engineering is a field that offers many opportunities for remote work, and it can be a great option for those who prefer a more flexible work schedule. Many software companies offer the option to work remotely, and some even operate entirely remotely. Remote work can offer benefits such as avoiding the commute and having a more comfortable work environment, leading to better work-life balance.

However, remote work can come with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is maintaining communication with team members, as remote workers may have fewer opportunities for face-to-face interactions.

It’s important for remote software engineers to have strong communication skills and to stay in regular contact with their team members. Another challenge is staying focused without the structure of a traditional office environment. Remote software engineers need to be self-motivated and able to manage their time effectively.

Remote Work in System Engineering

In system engineering, remote work may be less common compared to software engineering, but it’s still possible. However, due to the nature of the work, some system engineers may find it more difficult to work remotely, as the work may require being on-site or in the field. System engineers often work on critical infrastructure systems, such as power grids and transportation networks, as well as military and defense systems, which may require on-site work or field testing. It’s important for system engineers to consider the specific job and industry before pursuing remote work.

Which One Has a Better Salary: Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer?

Well, here comes the question that literally everyone was waiting for: Which job makes you more money? Is it software engineering, or is it system engineering? It’s like the final battle between two rivals; the answer is literally as hard to find as a unicorn in a desert. 

Does a software engineer or systems engineer have a higher salary?

Software engineering and system engineering pay actually varies a lot depending on where you work, what industry you work in, and, well, how much experience you have. It’s like trying to predict the weather.

Now, I’m sure you are desperately itching to hear some numbers – to be honest, who isn’t?

Well, without further ado, here they are: 

Both Systems and software engineers are not far off from each other, with the average annual salary for software engineers being $90,900 and for system engineers $83,958

But wait a minute, guys. These numbers only show some things. For example, if you are a software engineer working in a small town, you might make less than a systems engineer working for a tech giant in Silicon Valley. Also, you should remember that the pay ranges for different job titles in both fields vary. 

Software Engineer vs. Systems Engineer: Final Thoughts

So, what’s the result? Both software engineering and system engineering can pay very well, and the need for skilled people in these fields will only grow. It seems that these careers have become the new “doctor” and “lawyer” jobs. But C’mon, you’ll likely make a lot of money in either field, so don’t sweat the details. Just follow what interests you the most!