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What is a Software Engineer?

A software engineer works with a team of software designers to design and develop software or upgrade existing software programs. They may also work with coders and programmers to plan out the program's tasks and functions needed to enhance the program or make it work properly, for which they may use flowcharts and design documents to illustrate and/or map out the procedures.

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Steps to Becoming a Software Engineer

To become a software engineer, you will need, at the least, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer engineering, or other related fields. In addition, many employers will require at least some experience and skills in coding and/or programming as well as special training since this is a field that is technically and scientifically driven.

Software engineers work in an industry that is ever-changing, and therefore, must continue to adapt to new technologies as they are developed. Due to the many shifts involved in this profession, there are multiple paths and steps that can be taken to become a software engineer. However, the following steps are the most likely to put you on the path to software engineering.

  • Step 1: Get a Formal Education with a Specialty

  • Step 2: Complete an Internship

  • Step 3: Pursue Entry-Level Employment

  • Step 4: Get Certified


Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor's Degree with a Specialty

The first step to becoming a software engineer is completing a formal education. Students may select between traditional training programs and non-traditional programs to be able to work their way up to an entry-level position.

Typically, there are two specializations you can focus on within software engineering:

systems/software development and applications. What’s more, is there are specialized fields within these areas.

You can also choose to become an expert in a variety of software development types or a single programming language such as:

  • DevOps
  • Mobile Development
  • Web Development
  • Technical Stack (e.g., Ruby, Python)

Incidentally, the educational path to your career begins in high school where you can start developing your skills and getting the training that will help you on your journey. To get a head start and maybe even earn some college credits, students can take classes in science, mathematics, and/or programming.

After earning your high school diploma, you will need to pursue a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, or software development from an accredited college or university. Here you will gain comprehensive knowledge of software testing, software architecture, and programming. Check with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology for a list of software engineering accredited programs.

A software engineering undergraduate degree shouldn’t take more than four to five years to earn if you attend full-time.

Step 2: Complete an Internship

Internship programs allow you to gain real-world experience in your chosen area and get a feel for how things are done. Some students choose a certain major, but after completing an internship, decide that it’s not really what they want and rethink their focus.

There are multiple organizations that offer these programs to students pursuing a master's degree in software engineering or a related field to develop and expand their skills in certain areas including SQL, XML, and Java.

Internships usually last from three to six months and provide students with an opportunity to experience what it’s like to work on specific field-related projects.

Step 3: Pursue Entry-Level Employment

Once you have obtained a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, or a related field and also gained some hands-on experience through an internship, you can start applying for an entry-level position in software engineering. Although you may aspire to work for a major organization like Google, Microsoft, or another, don’t get your hopes up just yet, as major businesses such as these require years of experience before you can even get your foot in the door. However, there are many small businesses that will hire individuals’ fresh out of school.

You will first need a good resume and a cover letter or a portfolio to show prospective employers, which you can create by yourself or have one professionally done for you without much cost.

Step 4: Get Certified

Gaining the credentials you receive from obtaining certification verifies your abilities, knowledge, and understanding of your craft. Combining education with certification and experience puts you ahead of the rest in a marketplace where competition is constantly increasing.

Certifications are tailored to specific areas and are available from a variety of professional organizations, like IEEE and technology vendors such as Oracle, Cisco, Microsoft, and more.

To become a licensed software engineer you will need to obtain the Professional Engineer credentials. To earn this credential, the requirements can vary by state but are basically similar to the following: hold a four-year college degree from an accredited college or university, pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, have at least four years of experience working under a professional engineer, and finally, pass the professional software engineering exam.

Once you have earned professional engineer certification, you must maintain it. To get specific information pertaining to your state requirements to earn the PE credentials as well as how to maintain it, contact your state’s board of engineering.

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What is the difference between a Software Engineer and Software Developer?

To numerous individuals, there is no difference between software developers and software engineers, but within the technical world view, there are major differences.

The real variances between the two starts with job function. Software engineering may also focus on software development, where software developers are rarely involved with software engineering duties.

To better explain, software engineers combine technology solutions applicable to the client’s needs with the software development life cycle. They do this by applying engineering principles to develop the requested software programs to provide specific functions.

Software developers are the creative driving force behind software programs and are responsible for the complete development process. They will first collaborate with the client to develop a theoretical design and then work with programmers to create the code required for the software to run properly.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Software engineers typically work during regular business hours at a computer lab or in an office environment. They combine methods of engineering and mathematics with theories of computer science to design and develop software applications, networks, and systems.

Responsibilities of software engineers generally include:

  • Executing the software development life cycle (SDLC)
  • Designing interactive applications
  • Determining operational viability while producing specifications
  • Ensuring software upgrades include the latest features
  • Evaluating user feedback and deploying programs
  • Writing testable well-designed code
  • Complying with industry standards and project plans
  • Integrating software components into software systems that are fully functional
  • Developing documentation, layouts, and flowcharts to identify solutions and requirements
  • Debugging, upgrading, and troubleshooting existing systems
  • Maintaining and documenting software functionality
  • Developing software in C++, Ruby on Rails, Java, or other programming languages
  • Developing quality assurance procedures and software verification plans
  • Developing web applications using a popular web framework such as Spring MVC, Wicket, GWT, JSF, or other
  • And more

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Software Engineer Skills to Acquire

In order to be successful, a software engineer must possess certain skills and traits as well as show interest in both engineering and technology since they are fundamental in this position. While different employers may require a software engineer to have particular skills, the following are typical skills that all software engineers should possess:

  • Attention to detail:
    Software engineers are often required to oversee various facets of a project, system, or an application, as there is a constant need for awareness of the different aspects involved in software development.

  • Problem-solving:
    Because a problem can have more than one solution, software engineers need to be able to choose between the selections of alternatives available and find the right solution to fit the project.

  • Being a team player:
    It is more than likely a software engineer will be working with a team, and therefore, must be able to work well with their teammates for a speedy precision outcome.

  • Creativity:
    Software engineers will need to find creative solutions to achieve desired dependencies and functionality to establish best practices and factor in constraints.

  • Current technological understanding:
    As programming languages, technologies, and processes tend to be updated almost constantly, a software engineer must be able to keep up by having a solid understanding of all software producing methods and procedures involved with software and system development.

  • Computer programming and coding skills:
    Computer programming uses algorithms, codes, and languages to program computers and therefore developers should be heavily skilled in such functions

  • Software development:
    Software development consists of analyzing users’ needs in order to develop, design, and test software to meet their needs. This requires a strong knowledge of software development and related facets.

  • Written and verbal communications:
    The ability to interact with others and send a clear message is imperative in such a complicated position as software engineering.

Alternative Paths

Generally the steps noted above are the most commonly used to become a software engineer; however, there are alternative paths that you can also take to become successful in this industry.

One alternative to a four-year college degree program is a coding boot camp. Coding boot camps are a relatively new form of alternative education that aspiring software developers or engineers can take advantage of to prepare for an entry-level position. Boot camps typically can take just six weeks to two years to complete as they are designed to be high-speed, high-impact learning.

Basically, a four-year college degree program involves classes on topics such as computing theory, operating systems, and networking as well as general courses in math, history, and more, which may or may not be of use to a real-world software developer. Coding boot camps, on the other hand, focus on only the required skills relevant to the industry. Still, both can set you on the right path to a prominent career in software development.

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Software Engineer Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Software engineers may find themselves working any place that requires software development like electronic product manufacturing companies, computer systems design firms, software publishing companies, or application development offices such as corporate institutions and insurance carriers. Another option for software engineering is education. Teaching aspiring developers the skills needed to be a successful software developer or engineer in colleges, institutions, or trade schools. There are also some software engineers who choose to be self-employed and contract their own clients for short or long-term projects.

Software developers may start off working for small firms and local businesses, but after gaining a few good years of solid experience, they may be able to move on to larger companies and become employed by a Linux developer such as RedHat, a nuclear research organization like CERN, a data mining specialist, or even a coder who predicts the energy consumption in big geographical regions. Maybe someday you can develop software for Microsoft, Google, Apple, or another one of the giants in the industry.

Potential Career Paths

Earning a degree in software engineering puts you in the front line for any number of computer software related positions where you could be developing internet applications, creating video games, implementing computer security measures, running computer networks, and more.

It is mainly due to the high growth status of software that many new jobs are becoming available in this field, and therefore, putting this occupation in high demand, which is expected to be ongoing for a very long while.

Some potential career paths:

Database Administrator
A database administrator specializes in computer systems administration and maintains a database environment by performing or directing necessary activities to secure data from unauthorized users and make it accessible to those who are authorized.

Many employers require at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field; however, higher level positions will require a masters.

Computer Programmer
A computer programmer tests, codes, maintains, and debugs computer programs for devices to allow them to accurately execute their available functions. These professionals may also be known as a coder, developer, programmer, or software engineer.

At least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information systems, or mathematics, is typically desired for this position.

Mobile Application Developer
Mobile application developers employ platforms and languages like .NET, JavaScript, and Objective-C to create websites and applications for mobile devices such as iPad, iPhone, and Samsung Galaxy. Utilizing Android, iOS, and other mobile operating systems, developer’s code, design, debug, test, and document software applications.

A degree in computer engineering or computer science is recommended for this position.

Quality Assurance Engineer
Quality Assurance Engineers design and implement tests and quality reviews to check for issues while developing software and work with software developers to identify ways to improve software development. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 100,000 new job openings in this field between 2012 and 2021.

A Bachelor of Quality Assurance Science or Science in Quality Engineering Technology is sufficient education for this occupation.

Applications Architect
Applications Architects manage the development of enterprise-level applications while bringing together front-end developers, users experience, quality assurance specialists, and programmers for every project.

Traditional education requirements include earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology or computer science.

Software Engineer Career Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Software Developer $63,000 $83,000 $98,000
Computer and Information Systems Managers $59,000 $79,000 $99,000
Computer and Information Research Scientists $105,000 $120,000 $154,000
Computer Hardware Engineers $73,000 $92,000 $109,000
Computer Network Architects $83,000 $111,000 $131,000
Computer Programmers $56,000 $70,000 $86,000
Computer Support Specialists $45,000 $54,000 $70,000
Computer Systems Analysts $56,000 $72,000 $85,000
Database Administrators $56,000 $79,000 $99,000
Information Security Analysts $60,000 $82,000 $102,000
Web Developers $51,000 $67,000 $80,000

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Career Outlook

Although the demand for software engineering is competitive, it is still quite high due to the advance of software, and it isn’t expected to change anytime soon. In fact, between 2014 and 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the projected growth of software engineers will almost triple the growth for all occupations as it is expected to increase by 17%. Moreover, the BLS also estimates between 2016 and 2026 there will be around 255,400 new job openings for software developers, which is a 30.7% employment growth rate. This increase in employment will be due to computer software being in high demand.

In addition, the Department of Employment predicts that by 2019 the information and communications technology industry will have 14,600 new roles for applications and software programmers. Forbes voted software engineering the number one entry-level position due to its high demand. They also consider it the number one best of STEM jobs.

Advancing From Here

After gaining some experience in software engineering, you may be able to advance your career to a higher level and receive higher wages as well. Obtaining certifications and more education will also aid in your pursuit of career advancement.

Opportunities available for you to consider that can help advance your career:

Work for a bigger organization
You don’t necessarily have to change your career title to earn more pay, just your employer. In other words, you can still be a software engineer, but with enough experience, you may qualify to work for a larger organization that pays more.

Move up to a management position
After you have done your part as a software engineer and gained enough experience, watch for openings in management and apply, not just at your place of business but anywhere that may interest you.

Become an Expert in a Specific Area
Specialize in a particular area that is more in demand, such as big data specialization, architecture, embedded systems, or other.

Enjoy a Career as a Researcher
Get into the theoretical side of computer science and begin a career as a researcher, which is a very interesting choice for advancement.

Earn a Master’s degree
Go deeper into your software engineering career, develop advanced knowledge, and gain new skills by pursuing a Master’s degree in science. Most master’s degree programs can be completed in two to three years but can lead to more responsibilities and a more lucrative income.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you advance your career in software engineering?

The best way to advance your career in software engineering is to read relevant publications, enroll in programs and certifications, and network. Postgraduate certifications are available to improve your knowledge, skills, and abilities.

How to start your career in software engineering?

Most jobs require a bachelor's degree but some employers may hire a candidate with an associate's degree.

What's the difference between a software engineer and a software developer?

Software engineers design and analyze full software systems. Software developers lead the process of implementing the creation of the software.

What non-technical skills are important for software engineers?

The non-technical skills needed to be a good software engineer include: collaboration, communication, creativity, and attention to detail.

How long does it take to learn software engineering?

It can take anywhere between six months to a year to lean software engineering on average. You can also get a formal four year education in software engineering.

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