Systems developers create, maintain, audit and improve systems to meet particular needs, often as advised by a systems analyst or architect. They test both hard and software systems and diagnose and resolve system faults.

The role also covers writing diagnostic programs and designing and writing code for operating systems and software to ensure efficiency. When required, they make recommendations for future developments.

Depending on the type of organisation, developers can become either systems or applications specialists. See also applications developer.

The work undertaken by systems developers is generally of a highly complex and technical nature and involves the application of computer science and mathematics in an environment which is constantly evolving, due to technological advances and the strategic direction of their organisation.

Job titles and descriptions in IT are not standardised. Systems developers may be called systems/software/database/web programmers, engineers or developers, depending on the 'system'. Alternatively, the programming language they use may become part of their title, such as Java or C# developer. The work of a systems developer can also form part of a software engineer or multimedia programmer's role.

Depending on the organisation, a systems developer may have a more defined role and work within a group of IT specialists, which can include systems analysts, systems designers and systems testers. Nevertheless, as systems developers often manage the support systems required to effectively run an organisation, the role can also require an employee to communicate effectively and translate the needs of different teams into systems developments.

Responsibilities

Tasks vary according to the type of organisation and size of employer, but may typically involve:

  • analysing user requirements;
  • researching, designing and writing new software programs;
  • testing new programs and fault finding;
  • evaluating the software and systems that make computers and hardware work;
  • developing existing programs by analysing and identifying areas for modification;
  • integrating existing software products and getting incompatible platforms to work together;
  • creating technical specifications and test plans;
  • writing and testing code and then refining and rewriting as necessary;
  • writing systems to control the scheduling of jobs on a mainframe computer or to control the access allowed to users or remote systems;
  • writing operational documentation with technical authors;
  • maintaining systems by monitoring and correcting software defects;
  • working closely with other staff, such as project managers, graphic artists, UX designers, other developers, systems analysts and sales and marketing professionals;
  • consulting clients and colleagues concerning the maintenance and performance of software systems with a view to writing or modifying current operating systems;
  • investigating new technologies;
  • continually updating technical knowledge and skills by attending in-house and external courses, reading manuals and accessing new applications.

Salary

  • Typical graduate systems developer salaries start from £18,000 a year.
  • The average annual salary for a systems developer is between £35,000 and £50,000.
  • At senior or management level, systems developers can earn £45,000 to £70,000 or more per annum. Bonus schemes may be available.

Salary is dependent upon the company, location and nature of the employer's business. The highest salaries can be found in the finance, pensions and telecoms sectors in London and the South East.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm. However, longer hours are often necessary towards the end of projects, as deadlines approach and also during the testing stage so that the system can be tested when it's not being used.

What to expect

  • In some cases, systems developers may be required to be on call to deal with problems. This can involve evening and weekend work in a shift pattern. Allowances may be available in these cases.
  • Projects may be undertaken alone or in small teams.
  • The work is mainly office based or in computer laboratories, although full or part-time remote working is becoming increasingly common.
  • Self-employment and freelance or contract work is possible as there is an increasing market for contract systems developers with specialist knowledge.
  • Career breaks may be difficult due to the need to keep technical knowledge up to date in a rapidly changing environment.
  • Women are currently underrepresented in this profession and gender imbalance across the IT industry as a whole is a recognised issue. Steps are being taken to redress the balance. Women who want to work in technology should visit Women in Technology for information and jobs.
  • The job involves spending many hours at the keyboard, so high levels of concentration are required. Regular breaks are essential to minimise potential adverse health effects such as eye strain or back problems.
  • Depending on the nature of the business, travel within a working day or absence from home at night may be required. This is more likely with consultancy work. More travel is involved in installation and implementation work.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, applicants will be expected to have some technical ability. The following subjects may increase your chances:

  • computer science;
  • computer software/computer systems engineering;
  • electronics;
  • information systems;
  • mathematics;
  • physics.

Many of the larger graduate recruiters will only employ graduates with proven technical skills and a good degree (2:1 or above) in a computing-related discipline.

Smaller companies generally prefer degrees of a computing, scientific or numeric nature. In some cases, however, graduates with an unrelated degree may be considered as long as their technical knowledge and enthusiasm can be demonstrated.

Graduates in non-computer-related subjects may consider taking a postgraduate IT conversion or technical postgraduate course. Many employers will also look for evidence of continuing professional development (CPD) outside of the classroom. Project programming experience be used as evidence during the application process to show that a candidate is technically adept and also has effective problem-solving skills.

An HND in a computer-related subject may improve chances of entry and candidates with substantial systems development experience may be considered.

Entry without a degree or HND is unlikely, although it may be possible after gaining considerable experience in systems development as an assistant.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • knowledge of computer systems and technologies;
  • technical competency;
  • the ability to communicate with clients, colleagues and management to explain complex issues clearly and concisely;
  • a meticulous and organised approach to work;
  • a logical, analytical and creative approach to problems;
  • thoroughness and attention to detail;
  • business skills and commercial awareness;
  • the ability to work both in a team and alone and to manage your own workload;
  • career motivation and a willingness to continue to further your knowledge and skills;
  • an ability to learn new skills and technologies quickly;
  • an awareness of current issues affecting the industry and its technologies.

Recruiters may measure aptitude for the role via psychometric testing and programming tasks at interview.

Entry is fairly competitive. Project management and commercial acumen can strengthen an application.

Work experience

Relevant work experience is a good way of demonstrating a genuine interest in computing and is regarded favourably by employers. Experience can be gained through course-related placements, opportunities to work shadow or a year in industry.

Employers

The range of sectors in which a systems developer may be employed is very broad and includes:

  • specialist IT firms - such as IT consultancies, large IT providers, software development, internet providers and training firms; organisations that use IT software, systems and equipment - these include retailers, law firms, business intelligence and market research organisations, education providers, the armed forces, the public sector and voluntary sector organisations;
  • manufacturing industry - including automotive, navigation, telecommunications, manufacturing and construction companies;
  • financial services - including global investment banks, financial/banking organisations, security market specialists and the pensions sector;
  • public utilities - covering energy and water supply, energy extraction and transport.

Depending on the setting, systems development may be offered as part of a wider role, so look beyond the job title.

Consultancy is another area where systems developer jobs arise. The role may include other elements, such as analysis, implementation and support. Small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are a growing part of the IT industry and may also have opportunities.

Look for job vacancies at:

There are a number of specialist IT recruitment agencies which handle vacancies.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

It's vital to keep up to date with changes and developments in the industry, which may involve using your initiative and taking responsibility for updating your technical skills and knowledge. Systems developers will often take ownership of their training needs, particularly in smaller organisations where they may not be managed by someone with technical IT knowledge.

Large, graduate employers often offer a structured programme where you'll gain experience in a number of team-related projects in different work areas. Most companies offer ongoing training, either in-house or via external courses.

If you're a freelance contractor or employed by a smaller company, you may need to consider the cost and time implications of taking responsibility for your own training.

You can complete courses to obtain a variety of software-specific certifications, such as:

These courses can be expensive but are recognised throughout the industry and can enhance your career prospects when combined with experience.

Other professional qualifications are available through the BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT). BCS Professional Certificates come in foundation, intermediate, practitioner and higher levels. The BCS can also help by providing information and guidance to members on recognising and planning learning needs and developing areas of expertise.

Up-to-date information on training and relevant industry-recognised qualifications is also provided by the Institution of Analysts and Programmers (IAP).

To further your career progression, you may wish to undertake training in areas such as business, management and finance.

Career prospects

There are different levels of systems developer and promotion is usually dependent upon both ability and experience.

An entry-level post typically involves working under supervision, formulating the scope of, and objectives, for systems and designing codes. After around three years, you may progress to preparing detailed specifications from which programs may be written and be competent to work at the highest technical level.

A senior systems developer often supervises the activities of a team of systems developers for a large project or several smaller projects. This usually requires a minimum of five years' experience.

Progression is mainly into management via team leadership and project management roles, or to designer/consultant via technical specialisation. Transfer between organisations for advancement is often possible.

Systems developers are specialists and may remain within one organisation, and frequently in one role, for much of their working lives. However, others expand and develop their roles to the extent that systems development becomes part of a much wider role in positions such as technical writing, IT training and education.

Both the BCS and the IAP provide up-to-date information and advice on career development.

The Tech Partnership undertakes an annual survey on trends in demand for specific programming skills, which is summarised on their website. Information on careers and skills in demand is also provided by IT Jobs Watch.