Software Developer Versus Software Engineer: How Are They Different?

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 8/25/2022

Even if you have some idea of how to define software, you may not understand the various roles of the people who design, write, build, and test it. It doesn't help that two of these occupations have such similar titles: software developer and software engineer. Despite the comparable names, these professions carry different responsibilities corresponding to their education and training. On this page, we compare and contrast software developer and software engineer roles so you can decide whether one of them interests you as a career.

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What Is a Software Developer?

The clue is in the title: They develop the software that we use for a vast array of purposes every day. Software developers determine what people want their technological devices to do, then work to satisfy those demands.

What Does a Software Developer Do?

Software developers tend to specialize in one part of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). This could be analyzing market research of their customers' needs, designing programs to meet those needs before handing them off to computer programmers to write the code, thinking about novel ways to fill any capability gaps, or testing software's functionality.

Software developers don't just create new software systems; they also work on regular updates and emergency patches for existing platforms. All of this work may be done in consultation with software engineers.

Education and Training

Most software developers enter the field with a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, such as cybersecurity or web development. According to the labor-market analytics company Emsi Burning Glass, 90% of employers required software developer candidates in the 2021-2022 period to hold a bachelor's degree.

Skills

To do their jobs well, software developers need to understand a range of computer science fundamentals. These include computer programming languages, algorithms, database structures, programming for the web, scripting, and network security.


Emsi Burning Glass's database of job posts from the past year shows that employers commonly ask for aptitude with Java, SQL, Python, agile development, object-oriented analysis, and analytical skills when posting positions for software developers.


Careers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) paints a rosy picture for future software developers. People in these positions earn median yearly salaries of $110,140, more than twice the nationwide median for all jobs ($41,950). In addition, BLS projections put new job growth at 22% for the 2020-2030 period, which is much higher than the average rate of 8% for all jobs combined.

Emsi Burning Glass shows technology as the top industry for developer jobs, which is no surprise. However, large numbers of developers also find work at technical consulting firms, architecture and engineering companies, and scientific R&D employers.

What Is a Software Engineer?

These engineers shepherd software projects through the various stages of the SDLC. They possess many of the same technical skills as software developers, but are able to use their engineering knowledge to make the development process smoother and more efficient.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Software Engineers start by determining what end users want and then work with developers to pitch ideas for how to build a high-quality platform. They approve potential software designs, patches, bug fixes, and upgrades, and ensure that everything is thoroughly tested before release.

At the beginning of the SDLC, software engineers open lines of communication with stakeholders that they maintain throughout. These stakeholders include customers and managers with budget authority. They may also supervise the work of developers, coders, and testers. Hence, communication and relationship development are important parts of a software engineer's job.

Education and Training

Many employers prefer to hire software engineers who have at least a bachelor's degree in software engineering. These degrees contain lessons on formal engineering methods that distinguish them from computer science or software development programs. For example, software engineering students typically learn the agile development process, which can speed projects in relation to the traditionally phased waterfall method.

Skills

As with other types of engineers, software engineers need a good head for mathematics. Their degree curriculum typically includes calculus, linear algebra, statistics, and macroeconomics amid courses on operating systems and software design tools. But becoming a software engineer requires more than math and computer science. As discussed, these professionals require strong organizational and communication skills to follow project progress and keep stakeholders informed.


According to Emsi Burning Glass, creativity, planning, and an eye for detail are among the soft skills that employers include in software engineering job descriptions.


Careers

The BLS doesn't publish specific data for software engineers, but it does include this role in the software developer category. This means that the median annual salary for software engineers is $110,140, and the 22% job growth rate also applies. The reasons the BLS cites 22% job growth are also true for software engineers:

  • Public appetite for mobile apps
  • The proliferation of smart devices and the Internet of Things, which also requires application development
  • The healthcare and insurance industries adopting more digital tools

What Is the Difference Between a Software Developer and a Software Engineer?

The key difference is that software developers tend to specialize in one part of the development process, whereas software engineers work across the entire SDLC and liaise with stakeholders about the project.



Software developers tend to specialize in one part of the development process, whereas software engineers work across the entire SDLC and liaise with stakeholders.

It's important to understand that not all industries or employers draw a sharp line between the two roles. Some companies might hire for nominal software engineering roles that mainly consist of software development work, but others may refer to their big-picture engineers as developers. You should read each job description carefully before applying and ask questions during interviews to ensure you're willing and able to perform the functions the employer needs. 

Should I Be a Software Developer or Engineer?

Ultimately, the answer comes down to what you're interested in working on. If one part of the SDLC appeals to you more than others (e.g., functionality testing and debugging), you might be more suited for development work. But if you like to plan long-term projects and think about the bigger picture, you may prefer an engineering role.

Based on pay and career outlook, both fields are good bets. They pay median yearly wages of $110,140 and should enjoy 22% growth in new jobs during 2020-2030.

FAQs About the Difference Between Software Engineers and Software Developers

Is a Software Engineer the Same as a Software Developer?


There's usually a distinction between the two roles: Developers tend to focus on one or two stages of the software development lifecycle, while engineers oversee every step of the process. However, individual employers might not make this distinction.

Can a Software Developer Be Called a Software Engineer?


Yes, it's possible that titles and duties can vary among employers. If you're worried that your job title doesn't reflect your duties, understand that you'll have a chance to explain the scope of your work in any future interviews. You can also pursue a professional certification with either "engineer" or "developer" in the name, such as the Professional Software Engineer credential from the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals, to help define your area of expertise.

Which Is Better, Software Engineering or Software Development?


There's no objective answer to this question, because everyone has different criteria for how attractive a career is. Both careers require technical expertise and a math-heavy education, but engineers also tend to learn more about — and practice — engineering principles for problem-solving and project management. Developers usually focus heavily on one aspect of software development, such as design or testing. If one of these roles sounds more appealing, you can research degree programs in that discipline and contact professors for informational chat sessions.

Who Earns More, Software Engineers or Developers?


Our trusted source for salary information, the BLS, groups software developers together with software engineers when discussing pay, so it's not clear which job pays more. The BLS claims the whole category earns median salaries of $110,140 per year, with software publishing firms and manufacturing companies paying the highest wages.

Bottom Line

Both software developers and engineers use their technical acumen to create and update software platforms. Developers tend to work on tasks relating to one step of a development project, whereas software engineers shepherd the project from conception through testing. You might find a degree of overlap in duties at some employers.

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