Comparing the Roles of Engineer and Administrator

  • We hear these terms used often, and there is a tendency for them to be thrown around loosely, especially in IT and this can cause many problems and a bit of confusion. The names themselves tell us a lot about the intention of a role, but explicitly looking at what the terms mean and how they should be used can make defining a role (regardless of given title) much clearer.

    First we must note that many small firms give out the "cool sounding" title of engineer to non-engineers in place of a promotion or instead of a senior title. This is noted and is, of course, wrong. Engineer is not a senior admin. The term engineer means something specific, as does administrator. They are peer roles, not levels of roles. But we must recognize that many shops that do not take due diligence in their IT titles use them in this misleading way.

    Engineer: Cambridge defines an engineer as "a person specially trained to design and build machines, structures, and other things," The key here is that engineers "design and build" things. They are planners and designers. In the IT space, we have a few key engineering roles that we see occur with great regularity. Primarily these are systems and network engineers. Systems engineers, of course, design operating system platforms (such as designing base images, deployment tools, and the like) and network engineers design networks. Engineering is needed at all levels of IT, of course, from designing database implementations to storage systems, but few are as common or broad as systems or especially network engineers. Commonly only the largest firms in the Fortune 500 can employ any full time engineering IT staff.

    Outside of IT, the sister field of Software Development is primarily staffed with Software Engineers. Designing and building new software is an engineering process and discipline. IT does only a tiny percentage of engineering, while developers are primarily tasked with it.

    Engineers are valued for productivity, creativity, and a design mindset. Engineers design systems to be handed over to Admins.

    Administrator: Cambridge defines as administrator as "someone whose job is to control the operation of a business, organization, or plan." In IT we traditionally referred to administrators (or admins) as operations or shortened to ops. In IT, the admin roles focus on the running of (or the administration) of systems, networks, databases, applications, etc. Administration is the largest non-user focused area in IT, by far.

    Administrators are valued for availability, reliability, and an operational mindset. Admins run live systems and deal with the critical functions of keeping a system functional.

    Generally admins should earn more and have more responsibility than engineers (of the same level) because admins must be alert, available, responsive and are overseeing the availability and safety of the systems and, therefore, the business. The two roles obviously overlap and utilize identical skillsets within their domains (e.g. a Linux Admin and a Linux Engineer have essentially identical skill and experience sets) but one prepares new systems for use and the other manages the ones going into or already in production. It is the admin that "owns" systems and is on call to respond when things fail.

    Engineers typically work fifty hour weeks, get vacations, have flexible work schedules, can work from anywhere, are not on call, etc. Admins typically work more than fiften hours a week, vacations are questionable, work schedules are tightly coordinated for continuous support availability, should be able to work from anywhere if access is good enough and are essentially always on call. These are not hard rules, but the nature of these roles makes these things pretty typical.

    In the majority of businesses smaller than the Fortune 500, no separate role for engineer is possible as system design efforts almost never happen and so engineering tasks end up being added to administration roles as a side task compromising generally less than 2% of work time.

  • You should add "architect" in there. The role itself is typically interchangable with Engineer from business to business, but some businesses have different delegated duties for infrastructure architects vs. infrastructure engineers.

    Not just infrastructure, I've also saw "systems engineer, systems architect, software engineer, software architect", etc.

  • TIL I am a Systems Architect Engineer Administrator Helpdesk CoOrdinator Flunky


  • Thanks for writing this up.

  • Good write up. I've seen this exact situation where a company will offer to change your title in lieu of a promotion. So wrong.

  • @fuznutz04 said in Comparing the Roles of Engineer and Administrator:

    Good write up. I've seen this exact situation where a company will offer to change your title in lieu of a promotion. So wrong.

    That is sadly way too common. To the point where certain titles make me just plain wary. Anyone with "directory" in their title I immediately assume was the most junior guy that was willing to work harder without more money for the best title he could think of.