June 15, 2023

What is Data Engineering? Your Path to a Promising Tech Career

7 min read

Behind every successful operation, there are vital roles performed by talented experts, and the tech industry is no exception. In a world of social media, digital marketing, and machine learning, data is the building block of success, and Data Engineers are the builders, crafting the infrastructure that many organisations rely on for their success.

That’s why Data Engineers are in such high demand and why we need more of them here in Aotearoa. Read on to find out more about this critical job, and why it’s such an exciting career opportunity for any IT enthusiast!

So, what is a Data Engineer?

The world is full of data sets, statistics, and research, but in its raw form, this data can be difficult for a business or analyst to make sense of. Or the data might exist, but no one has a way of getting at it. Enter…the Data Engineer.

Data Engineers create, maintain, and optimise the infrastructure needed to convert raw data into a usable format.

They’re the ones who access and collate data from different sources, structure the data, maintain databases and data management systems, and ensure the data provided is accurate and easily accessible. Any organisation that uses any sort of data to make business decisions can benefit from having a Data Engineer.

Take Netflix for example; how would they know which new shows to invest in, without first understanding what type of content audiences like? It all comes back to the data.

Without a Data Engineer and the infrastructure they set up, organisations end up making decisions without having the full story, and this can be detrimental to their customers – or even the organisation or indsutry as a whole – so it’s a pretty important role!

As Netflix’s Data Engineer, Kevin Wylie puts it:

“I want to make the lives of data consumers easier and enable them to be more impactful…through better access to information and insights.”

Top Tip: Connect with Data Engineers and data professionals online places like Facebook, LinkedIn and Reddit have communities where you can learn more about their real world experiences.

Skills to pay the bills

Now you know what a Data Engineer does, let’s look at what type of skills you might need to become one:

  • Programming expertise – managing data sets requires understanding and practical use of programming to ensure solutions are configured properly. Some common languages that are applied in this discipline are Python and SQL.
  • Database design – working with various and possibly unfamiliar sources of data requires skills in handling and optimising this information. A complex or large scale database needs to be built in a way that allows rapid access to data by anyone who needs it.
  • API and integration skills – Data Engineers spend a lot of time working out the best way to get different systems to talk to each other. Data insights often require taking raw information from many sources and combining them.
  • Cloud computing – lots of data is migrated to and managed in the cloud, especially in recent years where business continuity was put to the test. A good Data Engineer knows how to get the most out of cloud systems like AWS.
  • Quality Control – data extracted from different systems often needs fine-tuning and some clean up before it can be reliably used by data scientists and business analysts.
  • Strategy – while data engineering is highly technical work , Data Engineers still need to understand, apply, and communicate the high level business impact of their efforts.

Top Tip: These are just some of the skills that are often needed, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t meet 100% of the requirements in a job ad; employers may look for soft skills and personality traits instead, and may be willing to train you in any other skill gaps!

A day in the life of a Data Engineer

A data engineer’s role is a real mixed bag. A typical day or week can involve proactive design and building of databases, or configuring data integrations, but a Data Engineer won’t always be doing ‘hands on’ work either.

You may also need to problem solve and respond to issues, as rapidly evolving tech stacks and business needs aren’t always rolled out perfectly. As any experienced IT professional would tell you, putting out a fire is par for the course!

You might be involved with one or more projects at the same time – any organisation going through ‘digital transformation’ will need Data Engineers to support the handling and connectivity of data.

You should expect to work alongside lots of different people, from software engineers and back end developers to front end designers. You could even end up supporting a senior leader. For example, you may be asked a question or presented with a strategic business goal, and tasked with figuring out how to get the best data to help provide a solution or make a decision.

Providing guidance around the implications data can have on decision-making means you’ll become strong at communicating technical knowledge with non-technical people, a skill that can unlock dozens of doors in your tech career.

Top Tip:  A Data Engineer’s daily role can vary depending on the employer and project. To get a better sense of what a role would entail, make sure you read the job description carefully, then call and ask the recruiter or manager specifically what the team’s typical day is like, and what the expectations are for the role.


Career progression for Data Engineers

Like many disciplines in IT, the demand for and the still-evolving nature of data engineering means that you can find both junior and senior level roles in this space. If you’re really interested in how data is connected, accessed, and used, but only just starting out your IT career, aim to get into this space soon.

There’s no sign of New Zealand’s data needs slowing down, with many organisations still in a state of transition from traditional, manual methods into the new digital era.

There’s only going to be more roles and demand for data engineering expertise. As far as earning potential and fulfilment, this is a great field to work in.

You may have heard about Data Scientists – those who can interpret data sets and provide forecasting, modelling and other useful functions to the business. While Data Engineers can become Data Scientists, this isn’t necessarily the typical progression. Many Data Engineers are demanding equitable and often higher salaries. Again, the pay and duties will vary between organisations, so we’d suggest following the discipline you’re most passionate about.

Top Tip: Many skills you develop in IT will be highly transferable across the industry, so whether you start in data or work towards it via other roles, take time to identify the relevant skills you bring to each new role.

A better future depends on data

So many big calls are being made by organisations around New Zealand based on data. Given the shortage of data professionals across Aotearoa, the quality of data isn’t always top shelf. Often the better/worse the data served to analysts and decision makers is, the stronger/weaker the outcomes.

In this sense, a Data Engineer is fundamental to an organisation being able to make smart, informed decisions. It’s just one of many reasons why data engineering is such an exciting career path.

Whether it’s improving agricultural systems to enhance economic growth sustainably, identifying ways to better support underprivileged communities, or educating our next generation in a way that secures a happy, healthy New Zealand of tomorrow data will power a lot of the key decisions made.

Top Tip: Data roles exist across virtually all industries now, so find one you’re passionate about!


Are you our next data hero?

If you love the complexities and detail of data but also enjoy thinking broadly about how technology and information is utilised in an organisation, then you need to explore data engineering as a potential option, whether as a long term career path or an invaluable chapter in your IT story.

Explore our available Data Engineer roles today

Check out our latest Data Engineer jobs or chat to one of our friendly team today.

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If you’re interested in reading more, head over to the our blog where you can find insights about a range of topics including job interviews, CVs and personal skill development.

Absolute IT