How to Become a Software Developer

by Doug Wintemute
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Software developers enjoy a very promising job outlook, with high projected growth numbers and strong salary potential.

What do software developers do? As the creative forces behind video games, computer programs, and cellphone applications, these professionals create products that many people benefit from but may not fully understand. This guide answers the questions: What is a software developer, and what does a software developer do?

In the ever-changing and competitive business and technology landscapes, organizations need innovative and dynamic software solutions to distinguish themselves from competitors. Software developers use their expertise and problem-solving skills to enhance technological possibilities, increase safety and privacy, and improve user and client experiences.

While most software developers possess bachelor's degrees, these professionals can come from many different backgrounds. Continue reading to learn more about the available educational and professional pathways to this rewarding career.

What Is a Software Developer?

Software development is made up of several related disciplines, including engineering, programming, and design. Software developers develop and manage systems, programs, databases, and applications. The field covers the design, development, testing, and use of software for computers, cellphones, automobiles, and robots.

Software developers may collaborate with different professionals or work independently. They often specialize in one aspect of the field or work under different job titles.

Alternate Job Titles for Software Engineers

  • Application integration engineer
  • Applications developer
  • Computer applications developer
  • Computer applications engineer
  • Database developer
  • Software applications architect
  • Software applications designer
  • Software applications engineer

What Do Software Developers Do?

Software developers design and develop applications for various technologies. They may assess system problems and identify software solutions or manage organizations' software performance upgrades. They test and implement new software, write code, and manage teams of programmers and designers.

Software developers typically use many different tools, such as database management systems, web development platforms, and various programming languages. These professionals also use integrated development environments for writing, editing, and compiling code. They may manage entire projects, specialize in front-end or back-end development, or handle hardware-specific software.

While software developer and engineer roles may overlap, the following information highlights some differences.

Software developers use their design and coding skills to create software for clients and users. Developers apply coding principles to create complete programs. They primarily focus on the design and development process and work alone or with programmers. Software engineers develop software by following engineering principles. They may also create an ordered development process and the tools required for projects. Engineers often manage the entire software development lifecycle. They work with teams and consider all relevant hardware components and stakeholder needs.

Where Do Software Developers Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software developers work traditional hours in a collaborative environment. They work with programmers most often, ensuring their development and design ideas are effectively translated into code. Developers also work with clients, designers, engineers, and management.

While many professionals work in office settings, some work remotely. The computer systems design services industry employs 33% of software developers, while 11% work in manufacturing, 9% in software publishing, 5% in company management, and 4% in insurance.

Software Developer Skills

Software developers need both soft and hard skills to thrive in the industry. While most professionals learn these skills in software development degrees or related programs, coding bootcamps also provide an effective way to acquire new and lasting skills. In the best coding bootcamps, learners can obtain coding and programming expertise, along with many of the following skills.

Soft Skills

  • Problem-solving
  • Time management
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Creativity
  • Analytical

Hard Skills

  • Cloud computing
  • Database
  • Object-oriented programming
  • Computer networks
  • Scripting

Steps to Become a Software Developer

Aspiring software developers can take several pathways to the profession, but many tend to follow a similar route. The following sections highlight some requirements that help aspiring developers land their dream jobs, including degree and experience demands, portfolio and resume expectations, and additional credentials.

1. Earn Degree(s)

Though not mandatory, software developers typically possess bachelor's degrees in computer-related fields, such as computer science, software engineering, or information technology. These programs usually take four years to complete, but accelerated options offer shorter pathways.

Most employers want candidates with computer science backgrounds, such as data science, computer programming, and software design and architecture. The best bachelor's degrees in computer science provide practical training opportunities, along with comprehensive training in various networks, databases, and programs.

In addition to a bachelor's degree, a software developer can also start their career with a two-year associate degree. A two-year master's degree can help candidates earn senior-level and management positions in some of the most desirable organizations. A Ph.D. in computer science, which typically takes 4-7 years, helps professionals advance the field with new research or teach the next generation of developers.

2. Gain Experience

Many employers prefer candidates with relevant work experience, which can help satisfy industry certification requirements and provide some of the most effective learning environments. Work experience introduces new professionals to software developer responsibilities, including common challenges and project management techniques.

Current students may find acquiring meaningful experience challenging, which makes getting an internship all the more important. Internships allow degree-seekers to join development teams to code, test, and design prototypes for actual web and systems applications. When choosing internships, learners should consider the role, responsibilities, and mentorship potential above all else.

3. Build Your Portfolio

A portfolio demonstrates your skills and experience to employers. Ideally, your portfolio highlights a diverse set of accomplishments and projects from school, internships, hobbies, and extracurricular work.

Some possible projects might include games or app design, websites, and coding assignments that showcase different languages, such as HTML 5, JavaScript, and SQL. Aim to include projects that relate to your target position, along with work that demonstrates multiple skills, such as full-stack development.

4. Earn Certificate(s)

Certificate programs can help aspiring software developers enter the field or develop skills to advance their careers. The training can fill in weaknesses from previous degrees and refresh outdated abilities. Certificates conferred by colleges and universities also provide higher education credits, which learners can apply toward their degrees.

Certificates offer condensed training that takes a few months to complete, allowing software developers to easily remain informed on changes in technologies, tools, and methods. Some popular and useful certificate options include:

5. Earn Certification(s)

Professional certifications help software developers highlight the industry technologies they have mastered. These credentials demonstrate that candidates can manage projects using a specific developer program, along with the determination and commitment to continue their education and advance their careers.

To earn certifications, professionals typically need to possess a certain level of relevant experience and training. They must then complete an examination, which may require completing a course or program. Individuals must renew their certifications every 2-5 years.

Popular professional certifications include Microsoft developer credentials, AWS certified developer credentials, and Oracle certifications.

6. Create Your Resume

To create the best resume, software developers should emphasize the skills and achievements that best relate to their ideal role. They should only include the courses and credentials that are relevant to the job being applied for. Resumes should also include any professional experience that demonstrates leadership, project management, and software development work.

Applicants can include a section on personal projects to showcase any extracurricular work. Look at the job description and application requirements to best understand each employer's ideal candidate.

What to Look for in a Software Development Degree Program

When choosing a software development program, students usually consider tuition, location, and program options. Candidates should also look at the program's faculty, internship opportunities, and transfer credit policies and make sure the institution holds regional and programmatic accreditation.

When choosing an online college, prospective students should research delivery formats, out-of-state tuition discounts, and residency requirements.

Accreditation

Accreditation can affect financial aid, employment, and certification eligibility. Regional accreditation depends on school location, but students should seek software development programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This recognition assures employers that the candidate possesses training that meets industry standards.

Software Developer Salary Information

While software developers earn very competitive salaries, wages depend on several factors, including employer, candidate qualifications, and location. The following information includes job outlook data for software developers and the states with the highest salaries.

Software Developer Career Outlook

$110,140
Median Salary

22%
Job Growth (2019-2029)

WA, CA, NY
Highest-Paying States (May 2020)

Source: BLS

Similar Careers

In addition to a career as a software developer, a computer science degree or training in a related field can lead graduates down several similar professional paths.

Computer engineers design and develop software and hardware to improve the effectiveness of computer systems. A computer engineering degree differs from computer science in that the former focuses on integrating all computer elements, while the latter emphasizes device processing and communication. Web developers design and create websites and their various components. They improve functionality, intuitiveness, visual appeal, and traffic management. Developers typically code and secure websites as well. Software engineers design and create software to perform various functions for clients and organizations. These professionals typically manage the entire development process and lifecycle, including planning and testing products.

Software Development Professional Organizations

IEEE strives to advance technology by developing industry standards, improving access to information and research, and supporting a large professional network. Members can access events, professional development opportunities, and training programs. This trade association for software developers provides members with a professional network and a supportive social learning environment. Members can also access publications, industry standards, and events. ACET promotes industry standards and professional protocols for software professionals. Members enjoy access to professional and personal services, discounts, and career support. WIT seeks to help more women in tech advance their careers. The organization provides educational and networking opportunities, leadership support, and mentorship programs

Interview with an Expert

Meenakshi 'Meena' Das is a software engineer at Microsoft. Through her writing and speaking engagements, she has shared her expertise with individuals and organizations on making software accessible to users with disabilities. She is the founder of the 'Working with Disabilities' support group for working professionals with disabilities, which has over 2000+ members on social media. For her tech inclusion work, Das was inducted into the National Susan M. Daniels National Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame. She is also a member of the Accessibility Leadership Committee of a nonprofit organization named Disability:IN and has been quoted by Forbes, CNET, Salon, and ABC News for her views on disability inclusion in tech.

Why become a software developer?

Working as a software developer allows you to write code that influences millions of people's lives. Our society is highly digitalized, and almost every entity — such as a Bank's ATM machine, the web apps used for ordering groceries, or playing video games — is possible due to code written by software developers. It is quite an amazing feeling to have a job impacting so many people's lives positively.

Becoming a software developer opens up opportunities to work not just at big technology companies, but also at several nonprofits and governmental agencies, or even your own startup. The possibilities are endless.

If you are an individual who enjoys problem solving, becoming a software developer is a great profession for you. Even within software development, there are a number of subfields, such as frontend, backend, or low-level operating systems development, and almost anything else you can think of to contribute to our society's tech ecosystem. There is high demand for software developers with great pay and generous benefits.

What skills do employers look for when hiring software developers?

Employers generally look for strong problem-solving and programming skills. They are more interested in seeing your approach to solving the problem rather than the right solution.

To develop strong programming skills, it is important to have mastery over common data structures in programming, such as Stacks, Linked Lists, Arrays and Trees, etc. Websites such as LeetCode and Hackerrank provide ample practice programming questions based on those topics so that you can prepare for your software engineering interview.

Make sure to attend your college recruiting events and conferences such as Grace Hopper or Tapia, and join communities such as Canvas and Linkedin to network with potential employers and land an interview!

What can students do to make themselves stand out to employers?

To make their resumes stand out to employers, I recommend students work on side projects in their free time to build their programming skills. This is especially important if you don't have prior experience in software development.

It is also crucial to practice mock interviewing skills with your friend or an experienced programmer. Websites such as Pramp offer free mock interviewing opportunities, which help to develop code communication skills.

I also advise participating in competitive programming competitions to build up time management skills.

Last, but not the least, remember it is okay to struggle at programming questions. If it is not a hard question, you will probably not be asked about it in an interview! So focus on breaking down the questions into smaller parts and communicating your thought process, instead of directly jumping onto the solution.

What's a typical day for a software developer?

Most software companies these days follow agile software development practices, which in simplest terms refers to breaking up a project into several iterative phrases. As a result, there are multiple planning sessions, daily standups to share your progress, and collaboration between developers, project managers, UX designers, customers, and stakeholders.

I typically work for around eight hours a day, from 9 am to 5 pm, with lunch and coffee breaks in between. Depending on the kind of project I am working on, I typically focus on development, writing tests, resolving bugs, attending planning or standup meetings with my co-workers, or just answering emails. My coworkers range from summer interns to senior software engineers, and I learn something new from everybody.

I utilize my software development knowledge learned in school and previous jobs/internships. There is sometimes a misconception that software development is just about writing code, but it is definitely more than that. You also need to be familiar with programming tools such as Git to collaborate with your fellow developers on code, continuous integration tools such as Jenkins, writing good code documentation, code reviews, and automated and manual testing tools.

These skills are quite easy to pick up on the job, so do not be intimidated if you don't already know them. Tech stacks and tools are advancing at a rapid pace, so every day as a software developer is a chance to learn new and keep honing your existing skills.

How has the field of software development adapted in terms of being more accessible to individuals with disabilities? Where is there still room to grow?

Software development careers are definitely accessible to individuals with disabilities due to availability of flexible remote options to work. Tech companies such as Microsoft spearhead a lot of disability hiring initiatives and are paving the way in making interviews and workplaces more inclusive to people with disabilities. For example, Microsoft's inclusive hiring program is dedicated to hiring more candidates with disabilities and ensuring all accommodation requests are met.

I encourage every person with a disability to read about accommodations they can request and ask for them if they need it. For example, if you are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, you have the right to request for captioning or a sign language interpreter at your interview.

For more details on the kinds of accommodations you can request for coding interviews, read my post here. A lot of technology we utilize is still inaccessible to the one billion disabled users on this planet, so we need more disabled software developers and their lived experience in this field!

Common Questions About Software Development

true What Do Software Developers Make?

The median annual salary for software developers was $110,140 in 2020, according to the BLS. However, salaries for these professionals may fall within a wide range.

true What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Software Developer?

According to the BLS, software developers typically have bachelor's degrees in computer science-related fields. Most developers possess a combination of education and experience.

true How Long Does it Take to Become a Software Developer?

Most software developers take four years to complete their bachelor's degrees and enter the field. However, professionals can take many different pathways to software developer careers.

true How Do I Start a Career in Software Development?

While pursuing a bachelor's degree, aspiring software developers can gain experience and job opportunities through internships. Prospective developers should also create projects in their free time, which they can add to their portfolios to improve their chances of employment.

Doug Wintemute is a Toronto-based freelance writer with professional writing interests in higher learning and entertainment. He completed his BA and MA in English at York University, graduating summa cum laude and earning academic merit, research, and writing awards at both levels. Since 2014, he has contributed content and editorial work for award-winning digital trade publications, global SEO copywriting projects, and hugely popular online brands. He can be contacted through LinkedIn.

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