Software engineers enjoy one of the most promising, diverse, and accessible careers in the information technology industry.
Like many computer professions, careers in software engineering offer an attractive blend of job diversity, growth, and high earnings. These factors contributed to a 50% growth in bachelor's degrees conferred in computer and information science between 2011-2017. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the profession boasts some of the highest median salaries and projected growth numbers among broad occupational groups.
This page explores software engineering careers, detailing available educational pathways and career potential in the field, and answers the question, "what is software engineering?"
What Do Software Engineers Do?
Software engineers oversee the development of computer applications and software packages. They determine user needs and design solutions, along with testing, optimizing, and upgrading existing software. Throughout development, engineers work with consumers, programmers, and other information technology and management professionals.
When completing projects, software engineers must identify consumer and organizational needs, then use their design and programming knowledge to conjure a solution. They may also use models and diagrams to communicate with programmers and other personnel. Many engineers need leadership skills to manage their time, costs, and team members.
Depending on the position or project, software engineers can work in varied settings. They may oversee an entire software package project or they may work on one small piece of an application. Some may specialize in software development and create specialized programs for organizations, while others — like systems software developers — create more general use technology, such as operating systems or interfaces.
Where Do Software Engineers Work?
With approximately 1.5 million software engineers and developers employed across the U.S., work environments vary considerably. According to BLS employment data, software engineers typically work full-time in office settings or remotely, collaborating with other IT professionals. In some cases, however, they may need to work longer hours.
In terms of major industries, computer systems design organizations employ 33% of software engineers; manufacturers and software publishers employ 11% and 9%, respectively; 5% of software engineers work in management; and 4% work in the insurance industry.
The best software engineers bring their own unique style and creativity to each project, but there are some broad skills that most professionals share. Typically, the best engineers have a great deal of creativity, allowing them to dream up new and exciting software and applications. They also need analytical and problem-solving skills to assess user needs and find solutions.
Software engineers need to be detail-oriented to manage the many tasks that make up a project. Interpersonal skills help these professionals communicate with other departments, programmers, and consumers. Aspiring engineers should begin developing these skills during their initial training, but they can also hone them through experience and continuing education.
Software Engineer vs. Software Developer
Many refer to software engineers and software developers interchangeably, though the roles can differ considerably. Engineers typically provide software solutions for consumer problems, while developers create the actual software. Additionally, engineers often work in concert with stakeholders to arrive at solutions, while developers work more independently or with programmers.
Regarding duties and abilities, developers tend to lean more heavily on their software skills, designing and developing applications that run as smoothly as possible. Engineers need more project management skills, such as budgeting, scaling, and logistics.
How to Become a Software Engineer
Software engineers can develop their skills in many ways, including through the formal higher education system, at coding bootcamps, or through courses and certifications. While most professionals have bachelor's degrees, these different paths can all lead to positions with high salary potential. Master's degree-holders can usually access higher-paying management roles more easily.
While a bachelor's degree in software engineering offers the most direct route to the field, aspiring software engineers can also pursue disciplines like computer science, information systems, or computer engineering.
Compared to software engineering programs, computer science degrees are more general, including courses from other disciplines outside of pure programming. Both bachelor's degrees take four years to complete, but software engineering is more specialized, whereas computer science students may need to choose concentrations to get the same emphasis in their training.
Regardless of discipline, bachelor's degrees typically have the same credit requirements. Enrollees need a high school diploma or its equivalent and SAT or ACT scores, and some programs also require computer, mathematics, and science prerequisite courses.
After graduation, software engineers can advance their careers by pursuing master's degrees in software engineering, which open up managerial positions or specialized career options.
Coding bootcamps are another option for aspiring software engineers — one that's often less time-intensive and costly. Bootcamps can vary considerably in structure, often costing $3,000-$20,000 and running between 2-12 months. Unlike bachelor's degrees, coding bootcamps typically omit general education courses and electives, focusing only on coding and directly related materials.
Coding bootcamps typically feature project-based learning, with students tackling assignments in practical environments. They often learn the most popular programming languages, such as Python, C++, and Ruby, along with UX/UI design and cybersecurity.
Completing a bootcamp program can lead to the same professional opportunities afforded by degrees, though some employers prefer formal higher education training. Professionals looking to pursue management positions or a master's degree will find coding bootcamps more limiting than degrees.
Certification and Licensure
For software engineering, certifications help professionals demonstrate their knowledge, experience, and technical abilities. While the software engineering industry at large does not require licensure or certification, some employers do. Software engineers can improve their skills and qualifications by adding certifications to their resumes.
In some cases, certifications come from technology companies and cover specific technologies within the organization's suite of applications and services. For example, Microsoft offers certifications for developers in technology services like Azure and the Power Platform. Other information technology organizations offer certification packages covering more general practices, such as the Project Management Institute's Agile certified practitioner or the IEEE professional software developer certification packages.
With no industry regulations governing certification, software engineers do not need to update or maintain their credentials. While they do not expire, certifications do become outdated as programs, techniques, and skills fall out of use. Some employers encourage software engineers to take certifications for upcoming projects or for continuing education credits.
What to Look for in a Program
When choosing a software engineering degree, students should ensure that the potential program meets their demands. While the process inevitably requires some give and take, degree-seekers should consider specific critical factors, especially in online programs.
Most importantly, students should always check the accreditation status of their prospective schools. Regional accreditation is the gold standard for software engineering. Though not mandatory, programmatic accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology can also influence a software engineer's future. Students should also consider the program's curriculum and beck that the offered courses and concentrations align with their professional goals.
Without a regulatory body overseeing coding bootcamps, choosing between these programs can be more difficult than choosing a degree. To make the best decision, learners should look through the best coding bootcamp and best online coding bootcamp lists.
Choosing a program run by an established, reputable organization is the best way to ensure your credentials won't become obsolete any time soon. You can also look at recent software engineering job postings or speak with employers to see what programming knowledge and skills stand out, and then find the coding bootcamps that cover those skills.
Jobs for software engineers can earn salaries of over $86,000, but wages fluctuate significantly depending on factors like location. As the data below shows, large technology hotbed cities, like San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and New York, offer median wages exceeding $100,000.
Average Software Engineer Salary
Highest Paying Cities for Software Engineers
|San Francisco, California||$121,230|
|San Jose, California||$116,340|
|New York, New York||$103,100|
Web developers create websites for individuals and organizations, ensuring the site looks and performs at the level they need. The profession requires programming skills and an understanding of how to integrate applications. Web developers use many of the applications designed by software engineers.
Database administrators establish, maintain, and oversee the software that organizations use to store and track information. These professionals secure and monitor databases, ensuring they operate as expected and are secured against data hacking threats. In some cases, database administrators design and create their own databases, much like software engineers.
These analysts manage the security and protection of organizations' networks and data. They work with software to identify threats, assess vulnerabilities, and thwart attacks on the system. In some cases, these security professionals may even develop their own security software.
Ask An Expert
To better understand what a career as a software engineer looks like, we interviewed an expert. Read about his experience below.
Pieter VanIperen is a 20-year software architect and security expert. As an industry authority and influencer, he provides thought leadership and execution to develop widely adopted processes, methodologies, and technologies at the forefront of digital innovation and software development. Pieter has founded or co-founded several companies, advised and mentored several early-stage startups, and held the titles of software executive, software security executive, consultant, and professor. Most recently, as the founder and managing partner of PWV Consultants, Pieter leads a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security, and design industries.
Why Become a Software Engineer?
As a software engineer, most of your career is a rollercoaster ride of high points and challenges. There are breakthrough moments and streaks where you are in the flow, and then you hit a brick wall. So, you either figure out the best way to do something, debug something you have to work with that may be poorly documented, or it could just be that old hide-and-seek partner: a semicolon.
In general, the highest points are when you see something you have architected come to life to solve real-world problems. That exhilaration never goes away. The biggest challenges are the complexity of making computers behave more and more like actual humans. These are fun challenges to solve but can be prickly when non-technical colleagues don't understand the complexity of what, to them, seems like a simple ask.
One of the key growth challenges of new software engineers is going from understanding code to learning to translate real-world problems into code, followed by learning how to build and design systems and, finally, how to make others understand the system you are building.
The best software engineers I know share several common qualities.
They are problem-solvers or creative by nature. Often they speak other languages, are musicians, poets, part-time detectives, or mechanics. They see the world and the rules as malleable.
Good engineers are lazy. That doesn't mean they show up late or don't care. They care deeply, but when they build something or solve a problem, they only want to do it once. They want to build a system that doesn't need them to maintain it and keep adding to it.
You have to be somewhat stubborn to be an engineer. You will hit walls, bang your head, and spend days hunting down what you will later call a stupid bug. You have to have a stick-to-itiveness to work through the headbangers.
Patience has to balance out stubbornness. You have to be willing to wait, walk away, and give space to problems and let your brain think. Get fresh eyes and understand that any time you work with something new, there is an inherent learning curve you need to go through.
The key here is a balance of these traits. If you have all of these characteristics, but you are super stubborn, you might just give up because you can't get things working. If you are too creative or obsessed with solving problems, you might take everything too far and over-build everything.
Sometimes it may just feel like it's one person, but the truth is, software is eating the world. We are building a parallel world in the digital sphere that has advantages, like being able to instantly work with folks around the world, buy something from anywhere, help understand how the world itself works, etc. This role affects others and is a positive contribution to the world when mastered.
We are at a tipping point where the world is turning digital, and there are not enough hands to catch everything. We need more folks to build, maintain, and secure the digital world.
How to Get Hired
That really depends on the graduate. The most important thing you can do as a student is get yourself an internship or apprenticeship and work on practical things. Theoretical software engineering, in a vacuum with artificial problems, is very different from doing it in the real world. It's a bit like a physician.
You don't dissect cadavers for two years and read anatomy books and then go do surgery on your own. There are internships, residencies, fellowships, etc. Software engineers need to work on gaining real-world experience. The best place to do that is in a real internship or apprenticeship. Then look for similar entry-level opportunities at companies. Companies need engineers, but be wary of small companies that may not provide you with space to learn.
It is important, especially for novice software engineers, to be provided an opportunity to continue to learn and grow. The field is always changing and education is ongoing.
Being a successful software engineer depends on the person, not the pedigree. A strong self-earner will excel in either a bootcamp or with a traditional degree and essentially learn to fill the gaps with either form of education. However, a weaker self-learner will flame out hard in a bootcamp.
I have seen both. Regardless of education, those who are not motivated toward self-learning will have difficulty progressing in software engineering careers. Technology changes fast. I could fill a book with what has changed since I started coding. The first serious language I used is dead, so are others I know, which is why it is important for software engineers to be knowledge-seekers.
It depends on the company. Some companies love certifications. However, certifications, with the exception of security certifications, are almost always a waste of time for two reasons. First, anyone can learn a bunch of information in a short period of time and then pass a test. It doesn't mean they know how to practically apply the information or that they are better than someone who does what the cert is for every day.
Second, in the real world, it is rare to just handle Java, Microsoft tech, or AWS Cloud Networking. You have to know how to do a bit of everything — the days of siloed specialization are behind us in almost all companies. Security is useful because it applies to everything we do, and there is virtually no security taught in most degree and bootcamp tracks. The only other worthwhile certs would be in data science and machine learning because it is a way to get experience with deeper concepts that are hard to learn on your own.
The thing I always tell people about certs is to think about some weird elective you chose to take in college. You probably did well in it at the time. But if I asked you today, from the top of your head (even with Google at your fingertips), to go write me a 15 page paper about everything you learned, you might turn in two pages of some really thin concepts. Guess what? You spent more time in that elective than many training courses for cert tests.
They look for practical experience, the ability to solve problems, take direction, and integrate new concepts. They will also look for soft skills. There are many software engineers with hard edges. It can be hard when working on software, where things are binary, to remember that in the real world, everything is a shade of gray — there aren't really hard and fast rules.
Being able to listen, understanding what holds value, knowing whether a problem is even worth solving, or simply just having the ability to work well with a designer who may have changing user test data, and therefore changing designs, are all very valuable skills.
I can't stress how important getting real-world experience is for a new software engineer. There are very few programs that effectively address practical experience and working with a multifunctional team. Try to get an internship or apprenticeship and be willing to work with others to gain experience, even if it's just to learn. Software engineering can be a lucrative career, but to maximize that, you need to choose mentorship and more learning opportunities over money when starting out.
As a leader and voice in the industry, ACM advocates for computer professionals, promotes professional standards, and supports overall growth. This association connects the industry's leading professionals, academics, and researchers to help them share ideas, solve problems, and drive innovation.
AWC advocates for women working in the computing field and helps set professional standards for the field as a whole. This association offers professional networking, continuing education, and mentorship opportunities for its members.
With its network of computer science and engineering professionals, the IEEE Computer Society strives to empower its members. The organization offers networking events and provides members with access to continuing education and professional resources.
Frequently Asked Questions
Becoming a software engineer requires a solid understanding of the software development life cycle and various programming languages. While the job can be complex, aspiring professionals have multiple pathways to land employment, including through higher education degrees and coding bootcamps.
Software engineering income varies by experience, location, and job duties, but they typically receive high salaries. According to BLS employment data, software developers in 2019 earned a median salary of over $107,000 — close to three times more than the average for all occupations.
Depending on the professional, a number of subfields could provide the best career. Software publishing, for example, pays the most of the major industries. The best field for you is the one that fulfills your professional and personal goals.
Software engineers can take on entire development projects or receive assignments for only a piece of an application. They can design, test, or create software, or they might be in charge of upgrades, maintenance, or improving functionality.
Software engineers often work within inflexible timeframes, which can add stress and additional work hours, especially when a deadline is looming. However, many engineers enjoy being able to express themselves creatively within their work, which can alleviate stress.
Header Image Credit: Luis Alvarez | Getty Images
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