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What is a Machine Learning Engineer and How to Become One

By Oluwadamilola Osisanya

Published:

Are you intrigued by the power of AI and wondering how to harness it for your career?

This article breaks down the role and offers a clear, actionable guide on how to become a machine learning engineer, setting you on the path to success in this dynamic field.

Career Summary

Machine Learning Engineer Salary

Machine Learning Engineer Salary

The machine learning engineer salary varies significantly based on experience, geographical location, and the specific industry they work in.

Here are the average machine learning engineer salary figures according to Glassdoor:

  • Entry-Level: US$ 118,000
  • Median: US$ 156,000
  • Senior: US$ 208,000

All machine learning engineers receive a higher salary when compared to the national average, which is $59,428, according to Forbes.

What is a Machine Learning Engineer?

So, what is a machine learning engineer? A machine learning engineer serves as the architect behind the development, deployment, and optimization of machine learning models

Unlike traditional software engineers, who focus primarily on building applications, machine learning engineers specialize in designing algorithms that enable computers to learn from data and make predictions or decisions autonomously. 

These professionals possess a deep understanding of statistical techniques, mathematical principles, and programming languages, allowing them to translate complex algorithms into scalable solutions for real-world problems.

What Does a Machine Learning Engineer Do?

A machine learning engineer’s day-to-day responsibilities encompass a diverse range of tasks, from data preprocessing and model development to deployment and optimization. 

They collaborate closely with cross-functional teams, including data scientists, software engineers, and domain experts, to identify business needs, collect relevant datasets, and define project objectives. 

Once armed with the requisite data, machine learning engineers embark on the iterative process of building, training, and refining machine learning models using algorithms such as supervised learning, unsupervised learning, and reinforcement learning. 

Additionally, machine learning engineers are adept at deploying models into production environments, integrating them with existing systems, and monitoring their performance over time to drive continuous improvement and adaptation.

Machine Learning Engineer Career Progression

  • Junior Machine Learning Engineer: This is an entry-level position focusing on learning and applying machine learning algorithms, data preprocessing, and model development under supervision. You will often assist in the implementation of ML models and help maintain and troubleshoot existing systems.
  • Machine Learning Engineer: With some experience, you can take on more complex projects, developing and deploying machine learning models independently. You will work closely with data scientists and engineers to improve model performance and will be involved in the entire lifecycle of machine learning projects.
  • Senior Machine Learning Engineer: In this role, you will lead machine learning projects, design model architecture, and mentor junior engineers. You will have deep expertise in machine learning techniques and will be responsible for strategic decisions regarding model development, deployment, and optimization.
  • Lead Machine Learning Engineer/ML Team Lead: Leads a team of machine learning engineers, overseeing project development and implementation. You will ensure alignment with business objectives, set technical direction, and prioritize projects. Communication and leadership skills are key in this role.
  • Machine Learning Manager: Your role here involves managing the machine learning team and projects at a higher level, focusing on strategy, resource allocation, and cross-departmental coordination. You will play a crucial role in integrating machine learning capabilities into broader organizational goals.
  • Director of Machine Learning/AI: This is a senior executive role where you will be responsible for the vision, strategy, and execution of machine learning and AI initiatives across the organization. You will oversee multiple teams, ensuring that machine learning projects align with the company’s strategic objectives and drive innovation.
Machine Learning Engineer Career Progression

Best Aspects of Working as a Machine Learning Engineer

  • Tackling challenging issues with innovative machine-learning solutions
  • Enjoying strong job security and demand across industries
  • Earning high compensation due to specialized skills
  • Working with diverse teams, including software engineers and data scientists
  • Benefiting from the possibility of remote work

Worst Aspects of Working as a Machine Learning Engineer

  • Spending significant time cleaning and preprocessing data due to inconsistent or poor-quality data sources.
  • Pressure to deliver complex models quickly without adequate time for refinement.
  • The opaque nature of some models makes identifying and fixing issues challenging.
  • Limited access to computing resources can hinder model training and experimentation.
  • Difficulty in deploying models into production environments due to compatibility or scalability issues.

Useful Skills to Have as a Machine Learning Engineer

  • Programming Skills 
  • Data Manipulation and Analysis
  • Statistics and Probability 
  • Cloud Computing
  • Deep Learning

Popular Machine Learning Engineer Specialties

  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) 
  • Computer Vision 
  • Reinforcement Learning
  • Robotics
  • Data Science

How to Become a Machine Learning Engineer

Machine Learning Engineer 5 Steps to Career

The journey into this exciting field requires a roadmap; here are the common steps on how to become a machine learning engineer, starting with education and leading into practical experience.

Education

Education plays a pivotal role in the journey to becoming a machine learning engineer, laying the foundation for mastering complex algorithms and data-driven problem-solving.

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Machine Learning Engineer?

Yes, machine learning engineers typically have at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as computer science. This educational foundation provides a critical understanding of algorithms, programming languages like Python, and mathematical concepts that are fundamental to the field. 

While alternative educational paths, such as self-study, online courses, and boot camps, can also lead to opportunities in machine learning, a degree often serves as a key starting point for developing the deep technical skills and theoretical knowledge required in this highly specialized area.

Why Is It Important to Get a Degree in Computer Science?

Obtaining a degree in computer science is crucial because it provides a foundational understanding of algorithms, programming, data structures, and computational thinking, which are essential skills for developing machine learning models. 

A computer science degree not only equips students with the ability to write efficient code and understand the theoretical underpinnings of machine learning algorithms but also offers exposure to specialized courses in artificial intelligence, data analysis, and statistics. 

This comprehensive educational background enables aspiring machine-learning engineers to tackle complex problems, innovate with new algorithms, and apply machine-learning techniques to real-world challenges. 

How Long Does It Take to Get a Degree in Computer Science?

Obtaining a degree in computer science typically takes four years for a Bachelor’s degree, assuming full-time study. 

This duration is standard in many countries and provides a comprehensive education in programming, algorithms, data structures, and computer systems, along with specialized electives in areas like artificial intelligence and data science that are directly relevant to machine learning. 

For those aiming to deepen their expertise or pursue more advanced roles in machine learning, pursuing a master’s degree may require an additional one to two years of study. 

This extended education pathway not only deepens technical knowledge and practical skills but also enhances the ability to engage in innovative machine learning projects and research, laying a solid foundation for a career in this dynamic and rapidly evolving field.

How Much Does It Cost to Study Computer Science at University?

The cost of studying computer science at the university level can vary significantly, depending on whether you’re a state resident or an out-of-state student. 

On average, undergraduates can expect to pay around $10,162 if they’re attending as state residents, while those coming from out of state might see figures closer to $33,627. 

The financial landscape shifts slightly for students advancing to graduate studies in computer science; state residents typically face tuition and fees averaging $11,404, whereas out-of-state students are looking at an average of $25,678. 

These figures underscore the financial commitment required to pursue a degree in this dynamic and ever-evolving field, highlighting the importance of financial planning for prospective students.

Can I Become a Machine Learning Engineer through Online Education?

Yes, you can become a machine learning engineer through online education. The digital landscape has evolved to offer comprehensive online courses, degrees, and certifications that cover essential topics in computer science, mathematics, programming, and machine learning. 

These online programs, provided by universities, colleges, and specialized platforms, make it possible to gain a deep understanding of machine learning algorithms, data analysis, and the implementation of models without attending traditional in-person classes. 

Online education allows flexibility in learning pace and schedule, making it an attractive option for individuals balancing other commitments. Additionally, many employers recognize the value of online credentials, especially when backed by demonstrable skills and practical projects. 

Thus, online education can be a viable path to entering the field of machine learning engineering, provided learners are committed to engaging deeply with the material and actively applying what they learn in real-world scenarios.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Machine Learning Engineer?

Here are some valuable resources for those aiming to become machine learning engineers:

  • Google AI Blog: This platform shares insights and updates on Google’s latest research and advancements in AI and machine learning, providing a wealth of knowledge directly from one of the industry’s giants.
  • DeepMind Blog: Renowned for its cutting-edge research in AI, DeepMind’s blog offers deep dives into its latest projects and breakthroughs in machine learning, ideal for those looking to stay at the forefront of AI research.
  • OpenAI: Known for its significant contributions to AI research and the development of advanced models like GPT, OpenAI’s website features research papers, tools, and blog posts crucial for anyone looking to understand the future direction of machine learning.
  • GitHub: A central hub for collaboration and code sharing, GitHub hosts countless machine learning projects and codebases, offering practical examples and the opportunity to engage with the community on real-world applications.
  • Kaggle: Beyond competitions, Kaggle provides datasets, forums, and kernels (detailed code notebooks), making it a practical resource for applying machine learning theories and engaging with a community of like-minded individuals.
  • TensorFlow Blog: Directly from the developers of TensorFlow, this resource offers tutorials, updates, and case studies specific to TensorFlow, one of the leading frameworks for machine learning projects.

Practical Experience

Gaining practical experience is crucial in the journey to becoming a machine learning engineer, as it bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world applications. 

What are Internship Opportunities for a Machine Learning Engineer?

Internship opportunities for a machine learning engineer can vary widely depending on the company, industry, and specific interests of the individual.

However, here are some common types of internship opportunities that are often available:

  • Tech Companies: Large tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and others often offer internships specifically focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence. These internships typically involve working on cutting-edge ML projects under the guidance of experienced researchers and engineers.
  • Startups: Many startups working in AI and machine learning offer internship opportunities for students and recent graduates. These internships can provide valuable hands-on experience and the opportunity to work closely with a small team on innovative projects.
  • Research Labs: Research institutions and labs affiliated with universities often offer internships for students interested in machine learning research. These internships can involve working on academic research projects, publishing papers, and collaborating with faculty and graduate students.
  • Industry-specific Internships: Many industries, such as healthcare, finance, automotive, and manufacturing, are increasingly utilizing machine learning technologies. Internship opportunities in these industries may involve applying machine learning techniques to solve specific industry challenges.
  • Government Agencies: Government agencies and research organizations sometimes offer internships focused on machine learning and AI applications. These internships may involve working on projects related to national security, public health, environmental monitoring, and other areas of interest to the government.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Machine Learning Engineer?

As a machine learning engineer, you will develop a broad range of skills that are essential for designing, building, and deploying machine learning models to solve real-world problems.

Here are some key skills you’re likely to learn:

  • Programming Languages: Proficiency in programming languages such as Python, R, or Julia is essential for implementing machine learning algorithms, manipulating data, and building models.
  • Machine Learning Algorithms: Understanding various machine learning algorithms, including supervised learning (e.g., regression, classification), unsupervised learning (e.g., clustering, dimensionality reduction), and reinforcement learning, is fundamental.
  • Deep Learning: Knowledge of deep learning frameworks like TensorFlow, PyTorch, or Keras, as well as neural network architectures such as convolutional neural networks (CNNs), recurrent neural networks (RNNs), and transformers, is crucial for tackling complex problems in computer vision, natural language processing, and other domains.
  • Data Preprocessing and Cleaning: Skills in data preprocessing techniques, such as data cleaning, feature scaling, feature engineering, and handling missing values, are essential for ensuring the quality and reliability of your datasets.
  • Model Evaluation and Validation: Understanding how to evaluate and validate machine learning models using appropriate metrics and techniques such as cross-validation, hyperparameter tuning, and model selection is critical for assessing model performance and generalization.
  • Data Visualization: Proficiency in data visualization libraries like Matplotlib, Seaborn, or Plotly helps in exploring datasets, understanding patterns, and communicating insights effectively.
  • Probability and Statistics: Knowledge of probability theory, statistical concepts, and methods is important for understanding the mathematical foundations of machine learning algorithms and interpreting model outputs.
  • Software Development and Version Control: Skills in software development practices, version control systems (e.g., Git), and collaboration tools are necessary for writing clean, maintainable code and working effectively in team-based environments.
  • Deployment and Productionization: Understanding how to deploy machine learning models into production environments, including containerization (e.g., Docker), cloud platforms (e.g., AWS, Azure, Google Cloud), and model serving frameworks (e.g., TensorFlow Serving, Flask), is essential for delivering real-world solutions.
  • Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking: Developing strong problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities is crucial for identifying appropriate machine learning approaches, troubleshooting issues, and iteratively improving model performance.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Machine Learning Engineer?

The work-life balance of a machine learning engineer can vary depending on factors such as company culture, project deadlines, and individual preferences. The role often involves long hours of intense focus on problem-solving, data analysis, model development, and experimentation. 

Machine learning projects may require iterative testing cycles, debugging, and refining models, which can sometimes extend beyond standard working hours. Additionally, staying updated with the latest research papers, tools, and techniques in the rapidly evolving field of machine learning may require investing personal time in learning and skill development. 

However, many companies in the tech industry prioritize employee well-being and offer flexible work arrangements, remote work options, and opportunities for continued learning and professional growth, which can contribute to achieving a better work-life balance as a machine learning engineer.

What’s the Career Outlook for Machine Learning Engineers in the USA?

The career outlook for machine learning engineers in the USA is highly promising, with significant growth expected in demand over the coming years. According to data from 365 Data Science, the demand for ML specialists is projected to grow by 40% from 2023 to 2027. 

This indicates a substantial increase in opportunities for professionals skilled in machine learning techniques, algorithms, and applications. 

Factors driving this demand include the increasing adoption of AI and machine learning technologies across various industries, such as healthcare, finance, e-commerce, and autonomous vehicles, as well as the need for organizations to leverage data-driven insights for innovation and competitive advantage. 

As a result, individuals pursuing careers as machine learning engineers can expect robust job prospects and opportunities for advancement in the rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence and data science.

Machine Learning Engineer Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities for a Machine Learning Engineer?

Job opportunities for machine learning engineers are diverse and can be found across various industries and sectors.

Here are examples of job opportunities for machine learning engineers:

  • Software Companies: Machine learning engineers can work in software companies developing AI-driven products and solutions, such as recommendation systems, natural language processing applications, and computer vision technologies.
  • Finance and Banking: Financial institutions utilize machine learning for tasks such as fraud detection, risk assessment, algorithmic trading, and customer segmentation, offering job opportunities for machine learning engineers in the finance and banking sector.
  • Healthcare: In healthcare, machine learning engineers can work on projects involving medical imaging analysis, predictive analytics for patient outcomes, drug discovery, and personalized medicine, collaborating with healthcare providers, research institutions, and pharmaceutical companies.
  • Automotive Industry: Automotive companies are increasingly incorporating AI and machine learning technologies into vehicles for autonomous driving, driver assistance systems, and predictive maintenance, creating job opportunities for machine learning engineers in the automotive industry.
  • E-commerce and Retail: E-commerce platforms and retail companies use machine learning for personalized recommendations, demand forecasting, pricing optimization, and supply chain management, offering job roles in data science and AI teams.
  • Consulting Firms: Consulting firms specializing in data science, analytics, and AI services may hire machine learning engineers to work on client projects across various industries, providing strategic insights and solutions leveraging machine learning techniques.
  • Research Institutions and Academia: Machine learning engineers can pursue roles in research institutions and academia, where they may engage in academic research, collaborate with multidisciplinary teams, publish papers, and contribute to advancements in the field of machine learning.
  • Government Agencies and Defense: Government agencies, defense contractors, and research organizations may offer job opportunities for machine learning engineers to work on projects related to national security, defense applications, cybersecurity, and intelligence analysis.

What Type of Companies Hire a Machine Learning Engineer?

Machine learning engineers are in demand across various industries and sectors due to the increasing adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies.

Here are some types of companies that commonly hire machine learning engineers:

  • Social Media Platforms: Social media companies like Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and TikTok employ machine learning engineers to develop algorithms for content recommendation, user personalization, sentiment analysis, and spam detection.
  • Streaming Services: Streaming platforms such as Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and Twitch utilize machine learning to enhance user experience through personalized content recommendations, playlist generation, content tagging, and user behavior analysis.
  • Energy and Utilities: Energy companies and utilities employ machine learning engineers to optimize energy distribution, predict equipment failure, improve energy efficiency, and analyze sensor data from smart grids and IoT devices.
  • Agriculture and AgTech: Agricultural companies and startups in the AgTech sector leverage machine learning for crop monitoring, yield prediction, precision agriculture, disease detection, and farm management, addressing challenges in food production and sustainability.
  • Supply Chain and Logistics: Companies in supply chain management and logistics utilize machine learning for demand forecasting, route optimization, inventory management, warehouse automation, and supply chain analytics to streamline operations and reduce costs.
  • Gaming Industry: Game development studios and gaming companies integrate machine learning for player behavior analysis, dynamic game balancing, virtual assistant NPCs, procedural content generation, and game testing automation to enhance gameplay experiences.
  • Telecommunications: Telecommunications companies employ machine learning engineers to improve network performance, predict network congestion, optimize bandwidth allocation, detect anomalies and security threats, and enhance customer experience through personalized services.
  • Insurance: Insurance companies leverage machine learning for risk assessment, fraud detection, claims processing automation, customer segmentation, and pricing optimization to improve underwriting accuracy and operational efficiency.
  • Travel and Hospitality: Companies in the travel and hospitality industry utilize machine learning for personalized travel recommendations, dynamic pricing, sentiment analysis of customer reviews, demand forecasting, and customer service automation.
  • Manufacturing and Industrial Automation: Manufacturing companies and industrial automation firms integrate machine learning for predictive maintenance, quality control, supply chain optimization, production scheduling, and autonomous robotics to enhance productivity and efficiency.

Should I Become a Machine Learning Engineer?

From understanding the core concepts of machine learning algorithms to acquiring essential skills in programming, data analysis, and model deployment, the journey to becoming a machine learning engineer is both challenging and rewarding. However, before embarking on this career path, it’s crucial to reflect on your personal interests, skills, and long-term goals. 

While the demand for machine learning engineers is booming across industries, success in this field requires a genuine passion for solving complex problems, a curiosity for exploring new technologies, and a commitment to continuous learning and skill development. Additionally, considering how your strengths align with the technical and analytical aspects of machine learning can help you determine if this career path is the right fit for you.

Furthermore, making an informed decision involves weighing the potential benefits and challenges of pursuing a career as a machine learning engineer. While the opportunities for innovation, intellectual growth, and impact are abundant, the field also demands perseverance, adaptability, and resilience in the face of evolving technologies and industry trends.

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Oluwadamilola Osisanya

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