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How to Become a Data Engineer

Learn what a data engineer does and what it takes to land a job in one of the most in-demand careers in data science.
May 2022  · 15 min read

The role of data engineer is rapidly gaining ground in the data science ecosystem. According to the 2020 DICE Tech Job Report, Data Engineer was the fastest-growing tech-oriented occupation in 2019. The job also appeared in the 2020 LinkedIn U.S. Emerging Jobs Report among the 15 most outstanding emerging jobs of the last five years, with a hiring growth rate that has increased by 35% since 2015. 

Fastest Growing Tech Occupations Chart
Source: DICE

Are you considering becoming a data engineer? Datacamp is here to help. In this blogpost, we will explain what a data engineer is, what they do in their daily work, and why working as a data engineer is such a great option today. We will also look at the skills and qualifications data engineers normally have. Finally, we will provide you with some tips that will help you land  your first position as a data engineer.

What is a Data Engineer? 

Data engineers are responsible for laying the foundations for the acquisition, storage, transformation, and management of data in an organization. They manage the design, creation, and maintenance of database architecture and data processing systems; this ensures that the subsequent work of analysis, visualization, and machine learning models development can be carried out seamlessly, continuously, securely, and effectively. In short, data engineers are the most technical profiles in the field of data science, playing a critical bridging role between software and application developers and traditional data science positions. 

Data engineers are responsible for the first stage of the traditional data science workflow: the process of data collection and storage. They ensure that the large volume of data collected from different sources becomes accessible raw material for other data science specialists, such as data analysts and data scientists. On one hand, this entails developing and maintaining scalable data infrastructures with high availability, performance, and capability to integrate new technologies. On the other hand, data engineers are also tasked with monitoring the movement and status of data throughout these systems.


Data Science Workflow

What Does a  Data Engineer do? 

Data engineers are key players in the development and maintenance of the data architecture of any company. They are specialists in preparing large datasets for use by analysts. When an analyst needs to interpret information, the data engineer creates programs and routines to prepare data in a suitable layout.

As a result, the data engineer’s day-to-day runs, fundamentally, between two processes: 

  • ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) Processes include developing data extraction, transformation and loading tasks, and moving data between different environments. 
  • Data Cleaning Processes so that it arrives in a normalized and structured fashion into the hands of analysts and data scientists. 

But the process of data collection and storage can be extremely complex. There may be different data sources involved, and these data sources may have different types of data. As the volume, variety, and velocity of the data at hand increase, so does the complexity of the data engineer’s work. 

To ensure that the tasks performed are timely, robust, and scalable, data engineers develop the so-called data pipelines. A data pipeline moves data into defined stages, one example of which is loading data from an on-premise database to a cloud service. A key feature is that pipelines automate this movement. Instead of asking a data engineer to manually run a program every time new data is created, they could schedule the task to be triggered on an hourly or daily basis, or following a certain event.

Since the process is automated, data pipelines need to be monitored. Luckily, alerts can be generated automatically. Data pipelines aren't necessary for all data science projects, but they are when working with a lot of data from different sources, as is normally the case in data-driven companies. If you are interested in learning how data pipelines work in practice, we recommend you check out our course Building Data Engineering Pipelines in Python.

Still wondering what a data engineer does? Check out our full article to find out more. 

Educational Requirements 

Data engineering is an emerging job. As such, only a very few universities and colleges have a data engineering degree. Data engineers typically have a background in Data Science, Software Engineering, Math, or a business-related field. Depending on their job or industry, most data engineers get their first entry-level job after earning their bachelor’s degrees. However, given the highly specialized skill set required to conduct the tasks of data engineers, in many cases, knowledge and competencies prevail over education.

Hence, if you want to pursue a formal education, make sure to choose a degree where system architecture, programming, and database configuration are included in the curriculum.

Skills a Data Engineer Needs

Data engineers require a significant set of technical skills to address their highly complex tasks. However, it’s very difficult to make a detailed and comprehensive list of skills and knowledge to succeed in any data engineering role; in the end, the data science ecosystem is rapidly evolving, and new technologies and systems are constantly appearing.  This means that data engineers must be constantly learning to keep pace with technological breakthroughs. 

Notwithstanding this, here is a non-exhaustive list of skills that any data engineer should have:

  • Database management: Data engineers spend a considerable part of their daily work operating databases, either to collect, store, transfer, clean, or just consult data. Hence, data engineers must have a good knowledge of database management. This entails being fluent with SQL (Structured Query Language), the basic language to interact with databases, and having expertise with some of the most popular SQL dialects, including MySQL, SQL Server, and PostgreSQL. In addition to relational databases, data engineers need to be familiar with NoSQL (“Not only SQL”) databases, which are rapidly becoming the go-to systems for Big Data and real-time applications. Therefore, although the number of NoSQL engines is on the rise, data engineers should at least understand the difference between NoSQL database types and the use cases for each of them. If you are confused about NoSQL and how it differs from SQL, our course NoSQL Concepts is a great place to gain clarity.
  • Programming languages: As in other data science roles, coding is a mandatory skill for data engineers. Besides SQL, data engineers use other programming languages for a wide range of tasks. There are many programming languages that can be used in data engineering, but Python is certainly one of the best options. Python is a lingua franca in data science, and it’s perfect for executing ETL jobs and writing data pipelines. Another reason to use Python is its great integration with tools and frameworks that are critical in data engineering, such as Apache Airflow and Apache Spark. Many of these open-source frameworks run on the Java Virtual Machine. If your company works with these frameworks, you will probably need to learn Java or Scala.
  • Distributed computing frameworks: In recent years, distributed systems have become ubiquitous in data science. A distributed system is a computing environment in which various components are spread across multiple computers (also known as a cluster) on a network. Distributed systems split up the work across the cluster, coordinating the efforts to complete the job more efficiently. Distributed computing frameworks, such as Apache Hadoop and Apache Spark, are designed for the processing of massive amounts of data, and they provide the foundations for some of the most impressive Big Data applications. Having some expertise in one of these frameworks is a must-have for any aspiring data engineer.
  • Cloud technology: Cloud computing is one of the hottest topics in data science. The demand for cloud-based solutions is rapidly changing the landscape. Today, being a data engineer entails, to a great extent, connecting your company’s business systems to cloud-based systems. With the rise of services like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Azure, and Google Cloud, the whole data workflow can take place within the Cloud. Therefore, a good data engineer must know and have experience in the use of cloud services, their advantages, disadvantages, and their application in Big Data projects. You should at least be familiar with a platform like AWS or Azure, as they are the most widespread.
  • ETL frameworks: One of the main roles of data engineers is to create data pipelines with ETL technologies and orchestration frameworks. In this section, we could list many technologies, but the data engineer should know or be comfortable with some of the best known–such as Apache Airflow and Apache NiFi. Airflow is an orchestration framework. It’s an open-source tool for planning, generating, and tracking data pipelines. NiFi is perfect for a basic, repeatable big data ETL process.
  • Stream Processing frameworks: Some of the most innovative data science applications use real-time data. As a result, the demand for candidates familiarized in stream processing frameworks is on the rise. That’s why, learning how to use streaming processing tools like Flink, Kafka Streams or Spark Streaming is a smooth move for data engineers willing to take their careers to the next level.
  • Shell: Most of the jobs and routines of the Cloud and other Big Data tools and frameworks are executed using shell commands and scripts. Data engineers must be comfortable with the terminal to edit files, run commands, and navigate the system.
  • Communication skills: Last but not least, data engineers also need communication skills to work across departments and understand the needs of data analysts and data scientists as well as business leaders. Depending on the organization, data engineers may also need to know how to develop dashboards, reports, and other visualizations to communicate with stakeholders.

How to Get Your First Job as a Data Engineer

Data engineering is one of the most in-demand positions in the data science industry. From Silicon Valley big tech to small data-drive startups across sectors, businesses are looking to hire data engineers to help them scale and make the most of their data resources. At the same time companies are having trouble finding the right candidates, given the broad and highly specialized skill set required to meet the companies’ needs. 

Given this particular context, there is no perfect formula to land your first data engineering job. In many cases, data engineers arrive in their position following a transition from other data science roles within the same company, such as data scientist or database administrator.

Instead, if you are looking for data engineering opportunities in job portals, an important thing to keep in mind is that there are many job openings that respond to the title “data engineer”, including cloud data engineer, big data engineer, and data architect. The specific skills and requirements will vary from position to position, so the key is to find a closer match between what you know and what the company needs. 

How to increase your chances to get the job? The answer is simple: keep learning.  There are many pathways to deepen your expertise and broaden your data engineering toolkit. Going for formal education is always a great option, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree in data science or computer science, a closely related field, or a master’s degree in data engineering. Other specialized programs and e-platforms for data science are also worth considering. For example, DataCamp has prepared a career track for Data Engineer with Python which will provide you with a solid foundation to enter the discipline. 

In addition to education, practice is the key to success. Employers in the field are looking for candidates with unique skills and a strong command of software and programming languages. The more you train your coding skills in personal projects and try big data tools and frameworks, the more chances you will have to stand out in the application process. To prove your expertise, a good option is getting certified in data science

Finally, if you are having difficulties finding your first job as a data engineer, consider applying for other entry-level data science positions. In the end, data science is a collaborative field with many topics and skills that are transversal across data roles. These positions will provide you with valuable insights and experience that will help you land your dream data engineering position. 

What to Expect in a Data Engineering Interview

Surprisingly, despite the growing demand for data engineers, the resources on what to expect in a data engineering interview and how to prepare for it are still scarce. 

Data engineering interviews are normally broken down into a technical and a non-technical part. In the technical part, recruiters will assess your data engineering skills and your technical suitability for the job. You can expect questions related to four topics: 

  • Your resume: Recruiters will want to know your experiences that are related to the data engineering position. Make sure to highlight your previous work in data science positions and projects in your resume and prepare to provide full detail about them, as this information is critical for recruiters to assess your technical skills, as well as your problem-solving, communication, and project management.
  • Programming: This is probably the most stressful part of a data science interview. Generally, you will be asked to resolve a problem in a few lines of code within a short time, using Python or a data framework like Spark. For example, your exercise might consist of making a simple data pipeline to load and to clean data.  While the problem should not be very complex, the tension of the moment can negatively affect your performance. If you are not familiar with this kind of test, you could try to practice with some coding questions beforehand.
  • SQL: You will not go far in your data engineering career without solid expertise in SQL. That’s why, in addition to the programming test, you may be asked to solve a problem that involves using SQL. Typically, the exercise will consist of writing efficient queries to do some data processing in databases.
  • System design: This is the most conceptual part of the technical interview, and probably the most difficult. Designing data architectures is one of the most impactful tasks of data engineers. In this part, you will be asked to design a data solution from end to end, which normally comprises three aspects: data storage, data processing, and data modeling. Given the rapidly growing scope of the data science ecosystems, the options for design are endless. You need to be ready to discuss the pros and cons and the possible trade-offs of your choices.

Once you have completed the technical part, the last step of the data engineering interview will consist of a personal interview with one or more of your prospective team members. The goal? Discover who you are and how you would fit in the team. But remember that this is a two-sided conversation, meaning that you should also pose questions to them to determine whether you could see yourself as a part of the team. In other words, have a normal give-and-take conversation.

Salary Expectations

Data engineering is an emerging job and it’s not always easy for recruiters to find the right candidates. Competition for this difficult-to-find talent is high among companies, and that translates into some of the highest salaries among data science roles. According to most job portals, the average salary for data engineers in the U.S. ranges between $90K and $110K.  

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed this article. Data engineering is one of the most in-demand jobs in the data science landscape and is certainly a great career choice for aspiring data professionals. If you are determined to become a data engineer but don’t know how to get started, we highly recommend you to follow our career track Data Engineer with Python, which will give you the solid and practical knowledge you’ll need to become a data engineering expert.

Data Engineering FAQ

How long does it take to become a data engineer?

Four to five years. Most data engineers get their first entry-level job after earning their bachelor’s degree, but it is also possible to become a data engineer following a transition from another data-related role.

Can I become a data engineer without a degree?

Indeed. This happens all the time. If you prove you have the skills and knowledge, not having a degree shouldn’t be an obstacle. There are many pathways to go from a total beginner to a trained data engineer. A great option is the DataCamp's career track Data Engineer with Python.

How much are data engineer salaries?

The salary for data engineers in the U.S. normally ranges between $90K and $110K. If you are already an experienced data engineer, your remuneration can get much higher.

What degree do you need to become a data engineer?

Data engineers typically have an undergraduate degree in data science, computer science, math, or a business-related field. At present, only a small number of universities offer a degree in data engineering. 

What does a data engineer do? 

Data engineers manage the designing, creating, and maintaining the architecture of databases and processing systems. They ensure that large volumes of data collected become accessible raw material for other data specialists.

What’s the difference between a Data Engineer and a Data Scientist?

Data engineers are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining data architectures, whereas data scientists use data to perform in-depth data analysis to solve business problems. 

What’s the best way to learn data engineering online?

 DataCamp is one of the best online platforms to learn data engineering. Through our hands-on courses developed by the best-in-class instructors, you will learn everything you need to get started in data engineering. Click here to see all our data engineering courses. 

Which programming languages are most important for a Data Engineer? 

Data engineers normally utilize SQL, Python or R, and Java or Scala.

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