Software engineering is just one of several promising computer science career paths to take if you earn your degree in computer science, data science, information technology, or other related STEM fields. As you continue reading, you should be able to glean information about what it takes to become a software engineer, where you can work and how much you'll make, and what it's like on the job to determine if it's the right career for you.
Software engineering is more than just writing code — it's the entire software lifecycle from the development process of building its architecture to ongoing maintenance of the finished product.
A software engineer receives a project from a software developer who has worked with a client in need of new software built to specifications. The software engineer gathers as much information as possible to develop methodology around building the software architecture and determining how to write the code to support that technical infrastructure. Once the engineer writes the code, they "bug-hunt" for errors by performing tests to ensure the software operates as intended; testing can be a very repetitive process but is crucial to ensuring the software is functional.
Once the software is ready to launch, a software engineer develops the success metrics they'll use to continue monitoring the software to catch any glitches in its performance over time.
Software engineering can be broken down into different roles and functions. Sometimes, different software engineers will take on these individual tasks in a project:
Back-end engineers work on the server side of development that keeps software running.
Front-end engineers work on user interface (UI) development or what a user sees when they first open software or an app.
Full-stack engineers do it all and can work on both back-end and front-end development.
DevOps engineers - development and operations - specialize in delivering software at a high velocity.
Like their name implies, game engineers work on developing computer games and gaming apps.
While there may be some overlap in skills, software engineering shouldn't be confused with computer engineering:
Software engineers have a lot of the same skills as computer engineers, but have also acquired skills in software architecture, testing, and deployment. They also understand engineering requirements for software development and how to critically think about the software lifecycle process.
Computer engineers design and build computer hardware. They build everything from personal devices and laptops to the computers that run cars and airplanes. They may build software, but it's the software systems imperative to operating these computer systems, such as device drivers and operating systems.
Software Engineering Career Paths
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates 19% job growth for software engineering through 2030, much faster than average. However, numerous career paths similar to software engineering require many of the same skills and training. As a result, they may provide a segue to entry-level software engineering jobs or help with career advancement.
Job Outlook: 13%
Web developers create and implement websites, web applications, application databases, and interactive web interfaces. They evaluate code to make sure it's correct and meets industry standards.
Mobile Application Development
Job Outlook: 19%
Mobile app software developers design computer applications for iOS and android devices consumers use. They may create them specific to a client's request for use by the general public. These developers may also create programs or databases that can be used by a company internally or online.
Job Outlook: 11%
Database managers use their knowledge of database management systems to administer, test, and implement databases. They investigate and resolve database performance issues and implement strategies to keep databases safe and secure.
Job Outlook: 5%
Network and computer systems administrators are responsible for the day-to-day operations of these systems in almost every organization. They organize and install network and computer systems, maintain network security, evaluate and optimize system performance, and problem-solve when issues arise. While the job outlook is lower than other careers in this field, it's still possible to find jobs though there will be more competition.
Job Outlook: 8%
Data engineers create and organize data information systems within an organization. They design and build new databases, ensure that data is secure and error-free, make and test modifications to database structure, and make sure these systems run efficiently.
Embedded Systems Engineer
Job Outlook: 19%
An embedded systems engineer is a type of software engineer who helps to build and maintain the microprocessor hardware systems in computers that rely on specific software to complete tasks. These embedded microprocessor systems are needed for the technology to function properly so consumers can use the device reliably.
How Much Do Software Engineers Make?
Salaries for software engineers are typically much higher than average — the median annual salary is $105,310, with the top 10% earning more than $170,000. The other career paths mentioned above similarly pay higher than the average median salary and potentially more based on location.
New York, California, Maryland, New Mexico, Massachusetts
How To Become a Software Engineer
At a minimum, software engineers rely on a solid foundation in math, technology, and analytical thinking skills. While an associate degree can be a good stepping stone to more advanced degrees, software engineers typically need a bachelor's degree in a computer programming or computer science discipline to enter the field. A prospective software engineer may also pursue a degree in other STEM majors, such as math, science, or engineering. Some software engineers may decide to return to school for a graduate degree, such as a master's degree, for career advancement.
While an associate degree can be a good stepping stone to more advanced degrees, software engineers typically need a bachelor's degree in a computer programming or computer science discipline to enter the field.
Aspiring software engineers can often complete a degree program online depending on the school and program. We've included some examples of the types of degrees to consider pursuing.
Certifications are not always required. However, they can help you keep your skills relevant and show employers your professional commitment. They may also help with career advancement for jobs that do require credentials. There are several certifications available to software engineers:
Software engineers need two kinds of skills to perform their job: soft skills and hard or technical skills. Soft skills develop from our personality, attitude, work ethic, and personal experiences — they aren't acquired through formal education. They include how we build relationships, communicate with others, approach our work, and think. Employers may find soft skills more valuable because they influence our character and how we work and live.
Data analytics company Emsi Burning Glass has identified soft skills that employers often look for.
Attention to detail
Teamwork and collaboration
Hard or technical skills can be learned in school or through training and are measurable. Emsi Burning Glass has identified specific technical skills employers often recruit for. These include skills such as fluency in coding languages, database and computer architecture, optimization, and data structures and algorithms. Employers also look for defining skills essential to performing day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. The 10 top defining occupational skills employers are looking for include:
Finding a Job
Your school's career center can be a great place to find help with entering the job market. They may be able to help you create a resume, conduct a job search, and help you with the application process.
Taylor Jones, Senior Software Engineer at Bestow, offers advice for marketing yourself when job hunting. "There are a lot of resources available to you to help you put together a great resume," Jones says. "A helpful tip is to look for key/buzz words from job postings that match your skills and include them in your resume." She also says that when writing your resume and interviewing, "Be confident, but don't oversell. Only put the tools you are comfortable with on your resume and be open and honest in an interview about what you know (and don't know). For example, admitting when you don't see an answer to a technical question is better than trying to make one up."
Be confident, but don't oversell. Only put the tools you are comfortable with on your resume and be open and honest in an interview about what you know (and don't know).
Jones says that when it comes to looking for jobs, networking has been integral throughout her career. "Having connections in the industry can help make getting your foot in the door easier," she says. "Plus, those connections can give you insights into the companies they work for to help you determine if they would be the right fit for you. I landed my first job through a referral from a classmate that had graduated a semester earlier. They helped me prepare for the interview and gave me great insight into the team, the projects they were working on, and the company culture."
Advice From a Current Software Engineer
Kris Silvey of Craft Designs, Inc. has worked as a software engineer for over nine years and is currently a senior software developer. Kris was "over the moon" when he landed his first job and emphasizes the importance of internships. "Even though it was an internship, I knew that it was an excellent opportunity to get started in my career," Kris says. "My college had a cooperative education program, which meant that I alternated working one semester, and then going to school full-time the other. While this did push back my graduation date, I got great experience, and a head start on my career."
Kris also speaks of the value of networking through school and these career opportunities. "I made numerous connections in my field, which helped me land my current job."
While focusing on the technical skills he learned at school is important, Kris says it's his soft skills he values most. "I use many technical skills in my work, but the most important is my ability to work with others," Kris says.
I use many technical skills in my work, but the most important is my ability to work with others
Kris believes software engineers have opportunities for job advancement. "My career growth potential is pretty good. I'm now a senior developer in my field, but I always feel like there are new things to learn," Kris says. "Additionally, the company I work for is doing very well and growing rapidly, so there are opportunities for advancement."
Kris says he's happy being a software engineer. "I am very satisfied with my current job because it is challenging and enjoyable. I feel like I am making a difference and contributing to something larger than myself."
FAQs About Software Engineering Careers
Is Software Engineering A Good Career?
Yes, software engineering is a good career if it matches your interests and goals. It pays well — software engineers earn a $105,310 annual median salary — and can expect to see 19% job growth which is significantly higher than average. In addition, the work environment is diverse, from high tech and retail to healthcare and warehousing, and there may be opportunities for advancement.
Is It Hard To Become a Software Engineer?
Becoming a software engineer takes a lot of focus and attention to detail. It helps to have an aptitude for and interest in STEM subjects. The coursework in school may be challenging and take years to complete, but it can be done. Making connections at school through networking or internships may make it easier to find a job after graduation in this in-demand field.
What's the Difference Between a Software Engineer and Software Developer?
Software engineers are much more hands-on than software developers. They use their technical skills to build the software architecture and test it to make sure it works. Software developers know enough about fundamental software engineering principles to work with clients who need software built to ensure their needs are met and oversee the team creating the product.
What Basic Knowledge Is Needed for Software Engineers?
Software engineers need technical skills and knowledge of programming languages, such as Java, Python, and SQL. They also need to understand concepts such as object-oriented analysis and design (OOAD), continuous integration (CI), and software architecture.
How Do You Switch Careers To Become a Software Engineer?
Start networking with other people to talk about your plans — LinkedIn may be a great place to start. You may also be able to find a mentor who can help you navigate this new career path. Coding classes or bootcamps can help you start building your skillset, many of which you can complete online. There may also be opportunities to work on group coding projects so you can start applying your new skills. Any of these actions may lead to job opportunities.
Should You Pursue a Career In Software Engineering?
It's ultimately up to you to decide whether software engineering is the right career for you. While it's an in-demand career that pays well, it'll depend on your interests, aptitudes, career goals, and financial situation. There are other aspects of a software engineering career that you should consider as well:
You'll be sitting at your computer the majority of the time. Sitting and staring at a screen all day can cause eye and body strain and is not heart-healthy. With this in mind, it's important to get up and walk around or exercise throughout the day as well as stare off into the distance once in a while to give your eyes a break.
Clients can change their mind — a lot. A software developer may change the scope of a project from time to time based on a client's evolving needs. It helps to remain flexible and resilient to change as you may have to back-track and re-do work based on updated requirements.
Being a software engineer takes a lot of focus and attention to detail while working autonomously. It can be somewhat solitary work when you're not actively engaging and collaborating with others. A large part of time will be spent coding which will take your undivided attention.
Software engineering offers opportunities to grow and learn new technologies. Taylor Jones offers this advice to those considering entering the field: "Tech is constantly evolving, so it is vital to stay curious and continue learning. If you hear about new tools, don't be afraid to try them out, and if you need help, don't be scared to ask for it."