Engineering Management vs. Systems Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Engineering Management and Systems Engineering are two career paths that professionals and students in both engineering and business commonly consider in tandem when they are preparing to further their education and advance their careers. The disciplines overlap in some areas, but are markedly different in emphasis and responsibilities.

Engineering Management

Engineering Management professionals combine their technical expertise with business knowledge and management skills to provide technical management and organizational leadership for engineering projects and technical organizations. The American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM) defines the discipline as the “…art and science of planning, organizing, allocating resources, and directing and controlling activities which have a technological or systems component.”

Systems Engineering

The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) describes systems engineering as an “…interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.”

Systems engineering professionals engage in systems thinking, a particular form of investigation that examines and addresses the interrelationships among all components of a system. They use this perspective to supervise the system development process — from concept to production to operation.

What’s the Difference Between Engineering Management and Systems Engineering?

Skills and Responsibilities

Both disciplines require a combination of technical and business expertise, including strong project management, financial management, managerial and problem-solving/analytical skills. Solid interpersonal and communications skills also are critically important for success in these fields.

Engineering Management

The responsibilities of engineering managers may vary depending on the size and type of organization for which they are employed. Engineering managers work in industries including manufacturing, scientific research and development services, engineering services, and government.

In general, their responsibilities include:

  • Developing concepts and determining technical goals for projects, programs or systems
  • Developing and implementing policies and procedures
  • Developing and implementing procedures for monitoring and for documentation
  • Reviewing, analyzing and submitting proposals in alignment with business objectives
  • Proposing budgets to management, allocating resources, and hiring and training staff
  • Negotiating contracts with consultants and vendors

Systems Engineering

Systems engineers work in three areas, defined by the Systems Engineering Body of Knowledge (SeBoK) as Product Systems Engineering (PSE), Enterprise Systems Engineering (ESE) and Service Systems Engineering (SSE). To realize and maintain a successful system, according to INCOSE, engineers lead a non-sequential, dynamic process composed of seven elements known by the acronym SIMILAR. SIMILAR can be summarized as: State the Problem, Investigate alternatives, Model the system, Integrate, Launch the system, Assess performance, and Re-evaluate.

Industries that employ systems engineers include aerospace, military defense, civil engineering, manufacturing, software development, and electronics.

In general, the responsibilities of systems engineers include:

  • Serving as the interface for all parties involved in a project
  • Planning projects including establishing a budget, timeline and resource requirements
  • Overseeing the design and development of a system, including the creation and use of models and simulations and the final evaluation process
  • Supervising engineering and other professional staff
  • Coordinating efforts to launch, market and support the project
  • Maintaining and troubleshooting the project through its life cycle

Engineering Management vs. Systems Engineering: Education, Certification, Experience and Salaries

Engineering Management

Engineering managers typically hold a bachelor’s degree in a technical discipline and many hold a Master of Science in Engineering Management (MSEM) degree. MSEM degree programs can prepare graduates for the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam.

Before advancing into a management position, engineers usually have at least five years of related experience or training including some experience working on complex projects and supervising engineering teams. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2015 the median annual wage for an engineering manager was $132,800, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $187,200.

Systems Engineering

Systems engineers typically hold a bachelor’s degree in a technical discipline and many hold a Master of Science in Systems Engineering (MSSE) degree. MSSE degree programs can prepare students for INCOSE’s Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) exam.

Before advancing into a systems engineering position, engineers commonly have at least five years of experience working in the field. The average national salary for a senior systems engineer in 2016 was $101,000, according to PayScale. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report specifically on the systems engineering field.

PMP is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.


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