Looking for the perfect job?
Explore our Career Guides!

Read More

What is a Data Engineer and How to Become One

By Lace Brunsden


In today’s data-driven world, the role of a data engineer has become increasingly vital. These professionals are the architects behind the scenes, designing, building, and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to handle vast amounts of data. If you’re intrigued by the intersection of technology, analytics, and problem-solving, exploring the path to becoming a data engineer might just be the right journey for you.

Career Summary

Data Engineer Salary

Data Engineer Salary

The average data engineer salary can vary a great deal, although it is consistently above USD 100,000.

According to Glassdoor, the average data engineer salary can be summarized as follows:

  • Lower End: US$ 104,000
  • Median: US$ 126,000
  • Higher End: US$ 154,000

When we compare this to the average income of US citizens – which Forbes estimates is USD 59,428 – even lower-end data engineer salaries can be considered very high.

What is a Data Engineer?

A data engineer is a specialized IT professional responsible for designing, constructing, and maintaining the infrastructure and systems that enable data acquisition, storage, and processing. They possess a blend of skills in software engineering, database management, and data analysis to ensure the smooth flow of data within an organization.

What Does a Data Engineer Do?

Data engineers play a crucial role in the data lifecycle, starting from collecting raw data from various sources to transforming it into a usable format for analysis. What does a data engineer do every day? Most of the time, they build and optimize data pipelines, manage databases, and develop scalable solutions to handle large volumes of data efficiently. 

Additionally, data engineers collaborate with data scientists and analysts to ensure that data infrastructure supports the organization’s analytical needs and business objectives.

Data Engineer Career Progression

  • Entry-level Data Analyst/Intern: You’ll begin your journey by analyzing data, and gaining foundational skills in data manipulation, visualization, and basic querying.
  • Junior Data Engineer: You’ll assist in building and maintaining data pipelines, working with various data storage and processing technologies.
  • Data Engineer: You’ll take on more responsibility in designing and optimizing data pipelines and databases, collaborating closely with data scientists and analysts.
  • Senior Data Engineer: You’ll lead projects, design scalable data architectures, and mentor junior members while ensuring the reliability and efficiency of data systems.
  • Lead Data Engineer: You’ll oversee the entire data engineering team, set technical direction, and drive innovation in data infrastructure and processes.
  • Data Engineering Manager/Director: You’ll manage multiple teams of data engineers, aligning their efforts with organizational goals, and overseeing the strategic direction of data initiatives.
  • Head of Data Engineering/VP of Data Engineering: You’ll be responsible for the overall vision and execution of data engineering strategies, collaborating with other departments to ensure data-driven decision-making across the organization.
Data Engineer Career Progression

Best Aspects of Working as a Data Engineer

  • Continuous Learning Opportunities
  • Impactful Contributions to Business Success
  • High Demand and Competitive Salary
  • Collaboration with Diverse Teams
  • Innovation in Data Technologies

Worst Aspects of Working as a Data Engineer

  • High Stress and Pressure to Meet Deadlines
  • Dealing with Data Quality Issues
  • Repetitive and Tedious Data Cleaning Tasks
  • Long Hours of Problem-Solving and Troubleshooting
  • Constantly Evolving Technology Landscape

Useful Data Engineer Skills

  • Proficiency in Programming Languages
  • Strong Knowledge of Data Warehousing and ETL Techniques
  • Experience with Big Data Technologies
  • Understanding of Database Management Systems
  • Problem-solving and Analytical Thinking Skills

Popular Data Engineer Specialties

How to Become a Data Engineer

Data Engineer 6 Steps to Career


Do I Need a Degree to Become a Data Engineer?

When considering how to become a data engineer, it is important to figure out if you will benefit from having a degree. However, while having a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field such as Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, or Statistics is common and can be advantageous in the job market, it is not always a strict requirement to become a data engineer. 

Many professionals enter the field through alternative paths such as self-study, bootcamps, or technical certifications combined with practical experience and a strong portfolio of projects. Employers often prioritize skills and experience over formal education, but having a degree can certainly enhance your prospects and provide a solid foundation in the fundamentals of computer science and data engineering.

Can I Become a Data Engineer Through Online Education?

Yes, you can become a data engineer through online education. Many reputable online platforms offer courses, certificates, and even degree programs in data engineering-related fields such as computer science, data science, and data engineering. 

These programs often cover essential topics such as programming languages, database management, big data technologies, and data processing frameworks. By diligently studying and completing relevant coursework, coupled with hands-on practice and building a portfolio of projects, you can acquire the necessary skills to pursue a career as a data engineer.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Data Engineer Skills?

  • DataQuest: Offers interactive coding challenges and projects focused on data engineering skills.
  • Data Engineering Podcast: Features interviews with data engineers, discussions on industry trends, and insights into data engineering technologies and practices.
  • Towards Data Science: Publishes articles, tutorials, and case studies focused on data engineering concepts, tools, and techniques.
  • The Data Engineering Reddit Forum: A community-driven platform where data engineers share knowledge, ask questions, and discuss various data engineering topics.
  • Apache Flink Documentation: Official documentation for Apache Flink, a stream processing framework commonly used in data engineering.
  • The Data Engineering Cookbook: A collection of practical recipes and solutions for common data engineering challenges and tasks.
  • DataEngBytes: Offers conferences, webinars, and workshops focused on data engineering, featuring talks and presentations by industry experts.
  • Databricks Academy: Offers courses, webinars, and certifications specifically tailored to data engineering with Apache Spark and Databricks platform.

Practical Experience

What are Internship Opportunities for a Data Engineer?

Internship opportunities for data engineers can be found in various industries and organizations that rely on data infrastructure and analytics.

Some common internship roles for data engineers include:

  • Data Engineering Intern: Assisting in the development and maintenance of data pipelines, databases, and ETL processes.
  • Data Analytics Intern: Collaborating with data scientists and analysts to understand data requirements and optimize data workflows.
  • Software Engineering Intern with Data Emphasis: Contributing to projects that involve data-intensive applications or backend systems, gaining exposure to data engineering principles.
  • Machine Learning Engineering Intern: Supporting the development and deployment of machine learning models by building data pipelines and infrastructure.
  • Business Intelligence Intern: Assisting in the design and implementation of BI solutions, working with data visualization tools and reporting systems.
  • Data Operations Intern: Helping to manage and monitor data infrastructure, ensuring data quality, reliability, and performance.

What Data Engineer Skills Will I Learn?

As a data engineer, you will learn a diverse set of skills essential for designing, building, and maintaining data infrastructure and systems.

Some of the key skills you will acquire include:

  • Proficiency in Programming Languages: Such as Python, SQL, Java, Scala, or others for data manipulation, scripting, and automation.
  • Database Management: Including relational databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL, NoSQL databases like MongoDB and Cassandra, and data warehousing solutions like Amazon Redshift or Google BigQuery.
  • Data Modeling and Schema Design: Understanding how to structure data for efficient storage, retrieval, and analysis.
  • ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) Processes: Building and optimizing data pipelines to extract data from various sources, transform it into a usable format, and load it into databases or data warehouses.
  • Big Data Technologies: Familiarity with distributed computing frameworks such as Hadoop, Apache Spark, and Apache Flink for processing and analyzing large volumes of data.
  • Cloud Computing Platforms: Experience with cloud-based data platforms like AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud Platform for scalable and cost-effective data storage and processing.
  • Data Quality and Governance: Implementing practices and tools to ensure data quality, consistency, and compliance with regulations.
  • Data Visualization: Using tools like Tableau, Power BI, or matplotlib to create visualizations and dashboards for data analysis and reporting.
  • Version Control Systems: Proficiency in using Git or other version control systems for managing and collaborating on code and project files.
  • Problem-Solving and Analytical Thinking: Developing the ability to identify data-related challenges, analyze requirements, and design effective solutions to meet business needs.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Data Engineer?

The work-life balance of a data engineer can vary depending on factors such as the industry, company culture, and project deadlines. While some periods may require longer hours and intense focus to meet project milestones or resolve critical issues, many organizations prioritize maintaining a healthy work-life balance for their employees. 

With efficient time management and clear communication with your team, you can often enjoy a fulfilling career as a data engineer while still having time for personal interests and activities outside of work.

What’s the Career Outlook for Data Engineers in the USA?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide specific data for the job title “data engineer.” However, data-related occupations are projected to grow strongly due to the increasing reliance on data-driven decision-making across industries.

Computer and information research scientists are predicted to grow 23% between 2022 and 2032. At the same time, computer systems analysts are projected to grow 10% over the decade. 

Data Engineer Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Data Engineer?

  • Data Engineer: As a Data Engineer, you’ll be responsible for designing, building, and maintaining data pipelines and infrastructure, ensuring efficient data processing and storage to support the organization’s data analytics and business intelligence needs.
  • Big Data Engineer: Transitioning to a Big Data Engineer role, you’ll specialize in managing and processing large volumes of data using distributed computing frameworks like Hadoop, Apache Spark, or Apache Flink, enabling organizations to extract valuable insights from massive datasets.
  • Cloud Data Engineer: Becoming a Cloud Data Engineer, you’ll focus on architecting and implementing data solutions on cloud platforms such as AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud Platform, leveraging scalable storage and computing resources to handle diverse data workloads efficiently.
  • Streaming Data Engineer: Embracing the role of a Streaming Data Engineer, you’ll work with real-time data streams, designing and optimizing systems to process and analyze data as it flows in, enabling organizations to make immediate decisions and take timely actions based on up-to-date information.
  • Data Warehouse Engineer: Assuming the position of a Data Warehouse Engineer, you’ll specialize in designing and maintaining data warehouses, organizing and aggregating data from various sources for analysis and reporting, and ensuring data consistency and integrity across the organization.
  • Machine Learning Engineer (with a focus on data engineering): As a Machine Learning Engineer with a focus on data engineering, you’ll contribute to building and deploying machine learning models by preparing and engineering datasets, creating features, and integrating models into production systems, enabling intelligent data-driven applications.
  • Data Infrastructure Engineer: Transitioning to a Data Infrastructure Engineer role, you’ll be responsible for building and optimizing the underlying infrastructure and architecture supporting data processing and analytics, ensuring scalability, reliability, and performance of data systems.
  • Data Pipeline Engineer: Stepping into the role of a Data Pipeline Engineer, you’ll specialize in developing and maintaining data pipelines, orchestrating the flow of data from source to destination, and automating data processing tasks, enabling efficient data movement and transformation.
  • Data Operations Engineer: As a Data Operations Engineer, you’ll focus on managing and monitoring data infrastructure and systems, ensuring data quality, availability, and performance through proactive monitoring, troubleshooting, and optimization efforts.
  • Database Engineer: Assuming the position of a Database Engineer, you’ll specialize in designing, implementing, and optimizing databases, ensuring data integrity, security, and performance, and providing support for database-related issues and queries within the organization.

What Type of Companies Hire a Data Engineer?

Various types of companies across different industries hire data engineers to support their data infrastructure and analytics needs.

These include:

  • Technology Companies: Companies in the technology sector, such as software development firms, tech startups, and IT service providers, often hire data engineers to build and maintain data pipelines, support product analytics, and develop data-driven applications.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks, investment firms, insurance companies, and fintech startups rely on data engineers to manage and analyze vast amounts of financial data, detect fraud, optimize trading algorithms, and support risk management initiatives.
  • E-commerce and Retail Companies: E-commerce platforms, online retailers, and brick-and-mortar stores leverage data engineers to analyze customer behavior, optimize inventory management, personalize marketing campaigns, and improve the overall shopping experience.
  • Healthcare Organizations: Hospitals, healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, and health tech startups employ data engineers to manage electronic health records (EHRs), analyze patient data for clinical research, develop predictive models for disease diagnosis and treatment, and enhance healthcare delivery processes.
  • Telecommunications Companies: Telecommunications providers and mobile network operators hire data engineers to process and analyze network data, optimize network performance, predict customer churn, and develop personalized services and offers based on usage patterns.
  • Manufacturing and Supply Chain Companies: Manufacturing firms, logistics companies, and supply chain management providers utilize data engineers to collect and analyze production data, optimize supply chain operations, forecast demand, and improve inventory management processes.
  • Consulting and Professional Services Firms: Consulting firms and professional services organizations offer data engineering services to clients across various industries, helping them build data infrastructure, implement analytics solutions, and derive actionable insights from their data.
  • Government Agencies and Nonprofit Organizations: Government agencies, research institutions, and nonprofit organizations hire data engineers to manage and analyze government data, conduct policy research, track social indicators, and support initiatives related to public health, education, and social welfare.

Should I Become a Data Engineer?

In conclusion, whether you should become a data engineer depends on various factors, including your personal interests, skills, and long-term career goals. Throughout this article, you’ve learned about how to become a data engineer. We’ve covered the essential data engineer skills, career opportunities, and potential challenges of working as a data engineer. It’s crucial to carefully consider these factors and evaluate whether the field aligns with your strengths, interests, and aspirations. 

If you enjoy working with data, solving complex problems, and driving innovation through technology, pursuing a career as a data engineer could be a rewarding path for you. 

However, it’s essential to make an informed decision based on a thorough understanding of the role, industry trends, and your own passions and objectives. By weighing these factors thoughtfully, you can determine whether becoming a data engineer is the right choice for you and embark on a fulfilling and successful career in this dynamic and rapidly evolving field.

Careers Related to Data Engineering

Also read:

Data-Driven: Franck Pachot on Building a Career in Database Technology

Lace Brunsden

About the Author

Read more articles by Lace Brunsden