A software engineer helps architect and build many of the digital technologies and applications that we now rely on everyday.
In the digital age, software is a crucial part of how companies do business and interact with their customers. In order to build and use this software, these businesses need software engineers.
The field of software engineering is only growing as companies look for more talent capable of architecting and building the software that they need. This makes it an ideal career path for those with the necessary interest and skills.
In this guide we’ll take a deeper dive into the role of a software engineer, including a look at the recommended skills and background, and steps needed to become a software engineer.
What is a Software Engineer?
Software engineers apply the principles of mathematics and computer sciences to design and architect software that meets customer needs. Often, the terms software engineer and software developer are used interchangeably, but there are some differences. In general, a software engineer is more responsible for “big picture” considerations, such as the architecture of the software, while developers are more responsible for implementing this design and creating a positive user experience.
Two types of software engineers exist:
- Applications engineers: Applications engineers create code for end users. This is software like Microsoft Office, web browsers, etc.
- Systems engineers: Systems engineers design and build underlying systems, such as operating systems. Their “customers” are often more other software engineers and developers than end users since end users rarely interact with their code.
Within these categories, software engineers can have a number of different specializations. For example, one software engineer may create websites while another builds desktop applications and a third creates mobile operating systems.
What Does a Software Engineer Do?
At the core, the job of a software engineer is to build computer programs. However, this can include a few different responsibilities, such as:
- Requirements collection: Software engineers typically write applications for other people. An important part of this is figuring out what those other people want the software to do so that they can design it appropriately.
- Architecture and design: Responsibility for software architecture is what differentiates software engineers from developers. Software engineers are supposed to ensure that an application’s design meets requirements and is based on the principles and best practices of computer science.
- Development and debugging: Software engineers can also participate in the code development process, especially in small teams. This is why they need to know how to program and use tools like debuggers.
- Testing and quality assurance: Testing and quality assurance is an important part of the role of the software engineer. This stage involves testing to ensure that the code meets requirements (i.e. does what it is supposed to do) and does so correctly (following best practices, avoiding vulnerabilities, etc.)
- Maintenance and updates: The responsibility for software does not end at release. Software engineers may be called upon to help with modifying existing code to add new functionality or fix issues.
Not all software engineers perform all of these roles. A job’s responsibilities often depend on the organization. For example, a company may have a dedicated testing and quality assurance team or may want their software engineers to focus on “big picture” design, while tasking a team of developers with implementing this vision. On the other hand, a small organization may have a software engineer that is involved in every stage of this process.
How to Become a Software Engineer
The first step towards becoming a software engineer is building up the required knowledge and experience. Employers typically look for two things here:
- Education: Many job descriptions for software engineers require applications to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in computer science or a related field. One reason for this is that software engineers are expected to apply the theory of computer science to application design, and a degree demonstrates that an applicant has a familiarity with this theory as well as coding skills.
- Experience: Many employers want to see some evidence of experience with software development in addition to a degree; however, this does not need to be previous work experience. Internships or participation in events like bootcamps or hackathons can also be used to demonstrate experience.
Software engineers also need to have the ability to bother design and create software applications this requires knowledge of:
- Programming Languages: Software engineers are developers and are expected to know how to code. Which language(s) to know depends on an applicant’s desired role. For example, a software engineer working on web applications needs to know very different languages than one working on operating system internals.
- Development and Design Methodologies: Software engineers are expected to design and architect applications based on best practices. An understanding of common design methodologies and best practices is important for the role.
Proving this knowledge and experience can be difficult during an interview, especially since live coding interviews are so bad. To help them gauge a candidate’s experience, employers typically look for:
- Portfolio: Employers are increasingly looking for samples of an applicant’s work during the interview process. Having a Github repository with some past work can help with getting a job as a software engineer.
- Certifications: Like many technology roles, software engineers are expected to engage in continuing professional education. Earning certifications, demonstrating skills with certain platforms, languages, design methodologies, etc., can help with meeting these needs and earning and demonstrating new skill sets.
Hard skills are not enough to be successful as a software engineer. Software engineers also need certain soft skills, such as:
- Organization: Software engineers are commonly responsible for designing and architecting large, complex projects and applications. Doing so effectively and correctly requires software engineers to be organized and detail-oriented.
- Communications: Software engineering is not a role for individual contributors. Software engineers need to be able to work together with customers, stakeholders, developers, and other parties. This means that a software engineer must have strong communication and collaboration skills.
Software Engineer Career Outlook and Salary
Software engineering is a career path that is always in demand. As organizations become increasingly reliant on computers as part of their daily business, they need people to design, build, and maintain their software. This is why the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 22 percent growth in the field between 2019 and 2029, which is “much faster than average.”
The BLS does not specifically track software engineers, but it does have information on software developers.
As discussed above, software developer is often used interchangeably with software engineer, but the “engineer” title often carries more weight.
According to the BLS, the median pay for software developers in 2020 was 110,140 per year or 52.95 per hour. In general, this is with a bachelor’s degree and no work experience, so candidates with a higher degree or provable previous experience can likely expect higher salaries.