What is a Data Engineer & What Do They Do?


What is a Data Engineer & What Do They Do?

With the growth of data and the need for organisations to extract meaningful insights, data engineers design, build, and maintain the infrastructure required for effective data management. In this article, we look into what a data engineer is. We examine what they do, the type of skills they possess, and how someone can become one.

What is a Data Engineer?

A data engineer specialises in designing, building, and maintaining the infrastructure and systems that enable organisations to collect, store, process, and analyse vast amounts of data. They work closely with data scientists, analysts, and other stakeholders to ensure that data pipelines and workflows are efficient, scalable, and reliable.

What Does a Data Engineer Do?

Data Pipeline Development

Data engineers design and implement data pipelines to extract, transform, and load (ETL) data from various sources into storage systems or data warehouses. They use programming languages like Python, SQL, or Scala to develop efficient and scalable ETL processes.

Data Modeling and Architecture

Data engineers design and build data models and architectures that allow for efficient data storage, retrieval, and analysis. They work with technologies such as relational databases, NoSQL databases, data lakes, and data warehouses to structure and organise data for optimal performance.

Data Integration and Transformation

Data engineers collaborate with stakeholders to understand data requirements and ensure that data from multiple sources are integrated and transformed appropriately. They apply data quality and data governance principles to maintain consistency and accuracy throughout the data lifecycle.

Performance Optimisation

Data engineers continuously monitor and optimise data systems to improve performance and scalability. They identify and resolve bottlenecks, fine-tune queries, and implement caching mechanisms to ensure that data is accessible in a timely manner.

Data Security and Privacy

Data engineers play a critical role in ensuring data security and privacy. They implement measures to protect sensitive information, comply with data regulations, and enforce data access controls.

Data Engineer Skills

To excel as a data engineer, several key skills are necessary. These include:


Data engineers should have a strong foundation in programming languages such as Python, Java, or Scala. Proficiency in SQL is also crucial for working with databases and querying data.

Data Processing Frameworks

Familiarity with data processing frameworks like Apache Hadoop, Apache Spark, or Apache Kafka is important for handling large-scale data processing and streaming.

Database Systems

Knowledge of both relational databases and NoSQL databases is essential for designing and managing data storage systems. Examples include: 

Relational Databases

  • MySQL 
  • PostgreSQL 

NoSQL Databases

Data Warehousing

Understanding concepts related to data warehousing, including data modelling, dimensional modelling, and ETL processes, is vital for building efficient data warehouses.

Cloud Technologies

Familiarity with cloud platforms is increasingly important as many organisations leverage the cloud for their data infrastructure. Learn more about the following: 

  • Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  • Microsoft Azure
  • Google Cloud Platform (GCP) 

How to Become a Data Engineer

Becoming a data engineer requires a combination of education, practical experience, and continuous learning. While specific courses are not mentioned here, a fundamental aspect of the journey is learning how to code. Here are the general steps to help you get started:

Gain a Strong Foundation

Start by learning programming languages like Python and SQL. Understand the basic concepts of data structures, algorithms, and relational databases.

Acquire Data Engineering Skills

Learn about data processing frameworks (e.g., Apache Spark), database systems, and data warehousing concepts. Practice building data pipelines and working with large datasets.

Gain Practical Experience

Look for internships, entry-level positions, or freelance projects that allow you to work with data engineering technologies and gain hands-on experience. This practical exposure will be invaluable in developing your skills and understanding real-world data engineering challenges.

Build a Portfolio

Create a portfolio showcasing your data engineering projects. Include examples of data pipelines you have built, data models you have designed, and any other relevant work. This portfolio will demonstrate your abilities to potential employers.

Continuous Learning

Stay up to date with the latest trends in the field of data engineering. Be an active networker and engage in self-study to enhance your skills and expand your knowledge.

Problem-Solving and Analytical Thinking

Develop strong problem-solving and analytical thinking skills. Data engineers often encounter complex challenges that require logical reasoning and the ability to find efficient solutions.

Communication and Collaboration

Effective communication and collaboration skills are essential for data engineers. You will need to work closely with 

  • Data scientists
  • Data analysts
  • Other stakeholders 

to understand their requirements and ensure that the data infrastructure meets their needs.


Consider obtaining relevant certifications to validate your skills and knowledge. Certifications such as the Certified Data Management Professional (CDMP) or certifications offered by cloud providers can enhance your credibility.

Big Data Technologies

Data engineers often work with large-scale datasets, requiring knowledge of big data technologies. Get to know tools like: 

  • Apache Hadoop – which enables distributed processing of big data.
  • Apache Spark – a powerful data processing framework for handling massive datasets in parallel.

Data Streaming

Real-time data processing is becoming increasingly important. Data engineers should be familiar with streaming frameworks like Apache Kafka, which facilitates the ingestion and processing of continuous data streams.

Data Governance

It is data engineers who are responsible for ensuring data quality and governance. They implement data validation processes, define data quality rules, and establish data governance frameworks to maintain the integrity, consistency, and reliability of the data.

Data Visualisation

While data visualisation is primarily associated with data analysts and data scientists, data engineers should have a basic understanding of visualisation techniques. It helps them communicate insights effectively and collaborate with other teams within an organisation.

Machine Learning Integration

Data engineers often collaborate with data scientists to deploy machine learning models into production environments. Understanding the basics of machine learning workflows, model deployment, and integrating machine learning pipelines with data pipelines is valuable for data engineers.

Automation and DevOps

Embracing automation and DevOps principles is essential for data engineers. They leverage tools like Jenkins, Ansible, or Kubernetes to automate deployment processes, manage infrastructure as code, and ensure continuous integration and delivery of data pipelines.

Data Ethics and Privacy

As custodians of data, data engineers should be aware of data ethics and privacy concerns. They need to understand regulations such as GDPR and HIPAA and implement measures to protect sensitive data, and comply with legal requirements.

Collaboration with Data Scientists

Data engineers work closely with data scientists, collaborating on projects to ensure data availability and accessibility. They assist in data preprocessing, feature engineering, and providing data pipelines that meet the requirements of the data scientists’ models.

Scalability and Performance

Data engineers design data systems with scalability and performance in mind. They optimise data processing and storage techniques to handle growing volumes of data and ensure that the infrastructure can handle increasing demands without compromising performance.

Continuous Learning and Adaptation

The field of data engineering is constantly evolving. Stay updated with new technologies, frameworks, and best practices. Embrace a growth mindset, be adaptable, and continuously seek opportunities to expand your skill set.

Remember, becoming a data engineer requires dedication. To be successful, you will need to learn and build up experience continuously. By having a foundation in programming, data processing, and database systems and staying updated with the latest industry trends, you can position yourself for a successful career as a data engineer.

Data Warehousing Solutions

Data engineers work with data warehousing solutions to manage structured and unstructured data. Examples include Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, and Snowflake. Understanding different data warehousing solutions is essential for designing efficient data architectures.

Data Governance and Compliance

Data engineers need to be knowledgeable about data governance frameworks and compliance regulations, especially in industries with strict data regulations such as finance, healthcare, and government. This includes understanding data security protocols, access controls, and data privacy regulations to ensure data integrity and compliance.

Data Cataloging and Metadata Management

Data engineers play a crucial role in organising and documenting data assets. They implement data cataloguing solutions that enable easy discovery and understanding of available datasets. Additionally, metadata management practices help capture and maintain information about data structure, source, and quality, facilitating efficient data integration and analysis.

Data Pipelines Orchestration

As data engineers design and develop complex data pipelines, they often leverage workflow orchestration tools such as Apache Airflow, Luigi, or AWS Step Functions. These tools provide capabilities to schedule, monitor, and manage the execution of data workflows, ensuring timely and reliable data processing.

Data Streaming Technologies

In addition to batch processing, data engineers work with real-time data streaming technologies. Platforms like Apache Kafka, Amazon Kinesis, or Google Cloud Pub/Sub allow streaming data ingestion, processing, and analysis, enabling immediate insights and actions based on real-time events.

Collaborating with Data Analysts

Data engineers collaborate with data analysts to understand their data requirements and develop solutions. By establishing effective communication channels and understanding the analytical needs of data analysts, data engineers can provide optimised data structures and queries to support their analytical workflows.

Containerisation and Deployment

Containerisation technologies like Docker and container orchestration platforms like Kubernetes have gained popularity in the data engineering field. Data engineers leverage containerisation to package and deploy data applications and services, making them portable, scalable, and easier to manage across different environments.

Monitoring and Troubleshooting

Data engineers implement monitoring and logging mechanisms to track the data system’s health. They use tools like Prometheus, Grafana, or ELK stack (Elasticsearch, Logstash, Kibana) to monitor data pipelines. These tools also identify bottlenecks and help ensure smooth data processing.

Collaboration with IT Infrastructure Teams

Data engineers often work closely with IT infrastructure teams to ensure proper provisioning of resources, security configurations, and network optimisation for data systems. Collaborating with IT infrastructure teams helps address infrastructure-related challenges and ensures the availability and reliability of data infrastructure.

Cloud Migration and Optimisation

Data engineers should be familiar with cloud migration strategies, cloud-native technologies, and optimising data architectures in cloud environments to leverage the benefits offered by cloud providers.

By exploring these additional aspects of data engineering, you can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the role and its responsibilities. Remember, data engineering is a dynamic field, and staying curious, adaptable, and open to learning will enable you to thrive in this rapidly evolving domain.

What does a data engineer earn? 

If you want to get an idea of what a data engineer earns, check out this blog

Importance of data engineers

Data engineers are crucial in enabling organisations to manage and leverage their data assets effectively. Their expertise in data infrastructure ensures that data pipelines are reliable. To become a data engineer, you need strong programming skills. You should continuously update your knowledge of data engineering technologies. Learning how to code is essential for this data engineering. Code forms the foundation for building robust data pipelines and systems. So, start coding, explore data engineering technologies, and embark on an exciting career in the world of data engineering.

Download the free Salary Guide

Want to know what you could earn in other areas of software development? See our comprehensive salary guide. Download for free through the form below.

Coding the Future: Developer Spotlight - Sian C.

In October 2022, Sian C. joined Code Institute’s Level 5 Diploma in Web Application Development programme, which is run in association with Cardiff and Vale College and is funded via the Welsh Government’s Personal Learning Accounts (PLA) initiative. The course aims to equip learners with full-stack software development skills, preparing them to enter the digital […]

Coding the Future: Developer Spotlight - Nathan Parsley

In May 2023, Nathan Parsley joined the Level 5 Diploma in Web Application Development programme, delivered at East Kent College Group (Ashford) by Rachel Furlong using the Code Institute learning platform. The course equips learners with full-stack software development skills, preparing them to enter the digital workforce in various roles. Nathan has completed the programme […]

Coding the Future: Developer Spotlight - Wendy Bovill

In March 2023, Wendy Bovill joined the Level 5 Diploma in Web Application Development programme, which is delivered at Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES) using the Code Institute learning platform. The course equips learners with full-stack software development skills, making them ready to enter the digital workforce in various roles. Digital Academy leader Candice Fanning […]