What’s the Difference? Data Engineer vs Data Scientist vs Analytics Engineer?

The modern data team is, well, complicated.

Even if you’re on the data team keeping track of all the different roles and their nuances gets confusing – let alone if you’re a non-technical executive who’s supporting or working with the team.

One of the biggest areas of confusion? Understanding the differences between a data engineer vs data scientist vs analytics engineer roles.

The three are closely intertwined. And as Josh Laurito, Director of Data at Squarespace and editor of NYC Data, tells us there really is no single definition for each of these roles and the lines between them. You can listen to our full discussion with Josh Laurito below.

But still, there are some standard differences everywhere you go. And that’s exactly what we’ll look at today.

What is a data engineer?

A data engineer develops and maintains data architecture and pipelines. Essentially, they build the programs that generate data and aim to do so in a way that ensures the output is meaningful for operations and analysis.

Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Managing pipeline orchestration
  • Building and maintaining a data platform
  • Leading any custom data integration efforts
  • Optimizing data warehouse performance
  • Developing processes for data modeling and data generation
  • Standardizing data management practices

Important skills for data engineers include:

  • Expertise in SQL
  • Ability to work with structured and unstructured data
  • Deep knowledge in programming and algorithms
  • Experience with engineering and testing tools
  • Strong creative thinking and problem-solving abilities

What about an analytics engineer?

An analytics engineer brings together data sources in a way that makes it possible to drive consolidated insights. Importantly, they do the work of building systems that can model data in a clean, clear way repeatedly so that everyone can use those systems to answer questions on an ongoing basis. As one analytics engineer at dbt Labs puts it, a key part of analytics engineering is that “it allows you to solve hard problems once, then gain benefits from that solution infinitely.

Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Understanding business requirements and defining successful analytics outcomes
  • Cleaning, transforming, testing, and deploying data to be ready for analysis
  • Introducing definitions and documentation for key data and data processes
  • Bringing software engineering techniques like continuous integration to analytics code
  • Training others to use the end data for analysis
  • Consulting with data scientists and analysts on areas to improve scripts and queries

Important skills for analytics engineers include:

  • Expertise in SQL
  • Deep understanding of software engineering best practices
  • Experience with data warehouse and data visualization tools
  • Strong capabilities around maintaining multi-functional relationships
  • Background in data analysis or data engineering

So then what’s a data scientist?

A data scientist studies large data sets using advanced statistical analysis and machine learning algorithms. In doing so, they identify patterns in data to drive critical business insights, and then typically use those patterns to develop machine learning solutions for more efficient and accurate insights at scale. Critically, they combine this statistics experience with software engineering experience.

Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Transforming and cleaning large data sets into a usable format
  • Applying techniques like clustering, neural networks, and decision trees to gain insights from data
  • Analyzing data to identify patterns and spot trends that can impact the business
  • Developing machine learning algorithms to evaluate data
  • Creating data models to forecast outcomes

Important skills for a data scientist include:

  • Expertise in SAS, R, and Python
  • Deep expertise in machine learning, data conditioning, and advanced mathematics
  • Experience using big data tools
  • Understanding of API development and operations
  • Background in data optimization and data mining
  • Strong creative thinking and decision-making abilities

How does it all fit together?

Even seeing the descriptions of data engineer vs data scientist vs analytics engineer side-by-side can cause confusion, as there are certainly overlaps in skills and areas of focus across each of these roles. So how does it all fit together?

A data engineer builds programs that generate data, and while they aim for that data to be meaningful, it will still need to be combined with other sources. An analytics engineer brings together those data sources to build systems that allow users to access consolidated insights in an easy-to-access, repeatable way. Finally, a data scientist develops tools to analyze all of that data at scale and identify patterns and trends faster and better than any human could.

Critically, there needs to be a strong relationship between these roles. But too often, it ends up as dysfunctional. Jeff Magnuson, Vice President, Data Platform at Stitch Fix, wrote about this topic several years ago in an article titled Engineers Shouldn’t Write ETLThe crux of his article was that teams shouldn’t have separate “thinkers” and “doers”. Rather, high-functioning data teams need end-to-end ownership of the work they produce, meaning that there shouldn’t be a “throw it over the fence” mentality between these roles.

The result is a high demand for data scientists who have an engineering background and understand things like how to build repeatable processes and the importance of uptime and SLAs. In turn, this approach has an impact on the role of data engineers, who can then work side-by-side with data scientists in an entirely different way. And of course, that cascades to analytics engineers as well.

Understanding the difference between data engineer vs data scientist vs analytics engineer once and for all – for now

The truth remains that many organizations define each of these roles differently. It’s difficult to draw a firm line between where one ends and where one begins because they all have similar tasks to some extent. As Josh Laurito concludes: “Everyone writes SQL. Everyone cares about the quality. Everyone evaluates different tables and writes data somewhere, and everyone complains about time zones. Everyone does a lot of the same stuff. So really the way we [at Squarespace] divide things is where people are in relation to our primary analytical data stores.”

At Squarespace, this means data engineers are responsible for all the work done to create and maintain those stores, analytics engineers are embedded into the functional teams to support decision making, put together narratives around the data, and use that to drive action and decisions, and finally, data scientists sit in the middle, setting up the incentive structures and the metrics to make decisions and guide people.

Of course, it will be slightly different for every organization. And as blurry as the lines are now, each of these roles will only continue to evolve and further shift the dynamics across each of them. But hopefully, this overview helps solve the question of what’s the difference between data engineer vs data scientist vs analytics engineer – for now.

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