What Does a Big Data Engineer Do and How To Become One?

FT Contributor  | 

Qualified tech professionals are in high demand as more and more companies focus on bringing their operations online and to a cloud environment. Some tech experts focus on using data to inform business decisions and streamline company operations. Skilled software developers, network architects, and computer and information research scientists can demand high salaries.

Data engineers are also in high demand as companies and organizations seek to build networks and database infrastructures that can handle large amounts of data.

Job Description

A big data engineer builds the infrastructure that handles data for a company or organization. In the world of big data, such a professional needs to develop and maintain systems that can store and process vast amounts of information.

The big data engineer should be able to design an entire data processing infrastructure that can collect, manage, organize, secure, and visualize large data sets.

Who Big Data Engineers Work With

In this profession, you typically work with other big data experts. A data architect may design the system for obtaining, storing, and organizing data. As a data engineer, you then build the system using the architect’s designs and specifications as guidelines. Data engineers often work alongside data architects during the design process, and the exact duties of each of these positions may vary depending on the experts’ skill sets and the needs of their employer or client.

A big data engineer also works with a data scientist, which is a specialist who uses the database and system to analyze data. As a data engineer, you need to be sure that your infrastructure meets the needs of the data scientist.

What Big Data Engineers Do

Since you deal with large amounts of data, your job usually focuses on creating scalable systems that can handle sophisticated algorithms.

In addition to building databases and applications, a big data engineer tests the system and performs debugging, if necessary. Your duties may also include conducting maintenance, updating security systems, and troubleshooting after your customized big data infrastructure is operational.

In this career, you use various tools and frameworks to build your data systems. Big data engineers typically start their careers as software engineers, and they are familiar with multiple programming languages, including C++, Python, R, Ruby, and Java. You use coding systems such as Python and Java to create customized information-handling tools using data processing platforms such as Hive and Hadoop.

Generalist vs Specialist Data Engineers

Some data engineers focus on a specific aspect of data processing systems, while others are generalists who handle the entire building process. Generalists typically work for smaller companies or oversee a team of engineers. Others are pipeline engineers who work alongside data scientists to create pipelines that collect, manage, and visualize relevant data. They focus on customizing the system that data scientists use to perform their analysis.

Some big data engineers focus solely on databases. In this position, you build and maintain large data warehouses as well as design pipelines that data scientists and other employees can use to access and organize the data.

Data Engineer vs. Data Scientist

A data scientist and data engineer work closely together, and their duties may overlap, especially in smaller companies or organizations. However, these two experts focus on different areas. Data engineers build the infrastructure and tools that a data scientist uses to access, select, and organize data. The data scientist uses these tools and systems to get the data to perform their analysis.

A data engineer can also build applications that help scientists analyze data. To do so effectively, engineers need an understanding of the type of analysis that scientists do, and scientists need basic knowledge of the tools and systems that data engineers build. These two jobs have different focuses, but they complement each other.

Data engineers and scientists can work with data in a variety of different fields, from personal finance to business intelligence to healthcare.

Median Salary and Job Growth

The average salary for big data engineers is $157,020. Pay may vary depending on employer, experience, credentials, and education, but the range is typically between $138,461 and $178,213.

According to IBM, the demand for professionals who work in data and analytics will increase significantly in the coming years.

Job Requirements

Because of a heavy focus on software engineering and algorithmic thinking, most big data engineers start their careers by earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science or software engineering. Some employers prefer to hire applicants with a master’s degree in a relevant field.

During your studies, you can develop the technical skills you need for this career. You’ll start developing skills in computer programming languages such as Python and Java. You apply these coding languages within data processing platforms such as Hadoop. You also need to become familiar with Structured Query Language (SQL) and NoSQL.

You can obtain an entry-level position as a software engineer, a database administrator, or data analyst to gain experience with big data.

Today’s data engineers need to become familiar with cloud computing. This job also relies on machine learning and artificial intelligence, so either professional or academic experience in these fields could prove useful.

You can also earn professional certification. For example, you could become an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Big Data Specialist or a Data Science Council of America (DASCA) Associate Big Data Engineer.

Big Data Engineer Job Outlook

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that demand for IT jobs would grow at a rate of 12% by 2028. The agency specifically pointed to big data careers as one of the driving forces behind the increased demand in tech-related fields.

For comparison, the BLS projects that the average demand for professional workers in all industries will increase by 5% between 2018 and 2028. So, the need for IT workers will increase much faster than average.

Should I Become a Big Data Engineer?

You could succeed in a career as a big data engineer if you are interested in developing both technical skills and soft skills. Since this career requires working with multiple computer languages and on different platforms, you need to be very interested in developing your technical skills during school, through work experience, or as part of a certification program.

Data engineers also need to be able to communicate and work as part of a team. In this career, you coordinate closely with data architects and data scientists. You need to be able to work together on design and implementation.

You may also enjoy a career as a data engineer if you like problem-solving. You use your skills to create customized solutions for data scientists and analysts and you must have the patience to test, troubleshoot, and upgrade your tools and systems when necessary.


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This post was updated February 20, 2020. It was originally published February 20, 2020.