In IT, What Is the Difference Between Systems Engineer and Systems Administrator?

2014-06-04 Initial Post

Both terms can mean the same thing if used at different organizations, e.g., a Systems Administrator at Company A might do the same thing as a Systems Engineer at Company B. But when the same company has both titles, there is a difference. The engineer plans and sets up the systems and the admin maintains them.

So usually, the engineer is more knowledgeable and experienced. Novell used to have the Certified Novell Administrator (CNA) and Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) certifications. The CNA, IIRC, required only one exam while the CNE required the CNA and something like three or four additional exams. Microsoft had the same concept with the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). The point was that the CNE/MCSE had additional training/knowledge beyond the CNA/MCSA.

Even when I was a Sr. Systems Engineer, I would just tell people that I was a Systems Administrator. The reason was that I didn’t feel qualified to call myself an “engineer” because I didn’t have a degree in an engineering discipline. This is why the blog that you're reading is named Sys Admin Extraordinaire. I know people who’ve gone to school for engineering and I know that it requires a tremendous amount of math and sciences skills, and not everyone is cut out for it. But the funny thing is that I have met degreed engineers who think that what I do is so difficult. Back when I was in computer school for my CNE, my friend’s uncle, who went to school for electrical engineering, thought that being a CNE was a big thing.

I also feel that the term “systems engineer” is overused and needs to be more specific such as IT Server Systems Engineer or Telephony Systems Engineer. There is actually a college major for “systems engineering” which basically consists of learning about all the major engineering disciplines with the goal of being able to understand how to utilize that knowledge to design a complex system.

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