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What Is a Software Engineer?

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Software engineers tell computers what to do by developing, testing, maintaining, and debugging software. Their work is used in various ways, from developing exciting video games to life-saving patient portals. So if you’re interested in a technical role that requires collaboration, innovation, and continuous learning, being a software engineer might be right for you.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Software engineers work to develop software, which is a set of instructions for a computer. Software is used to create applications like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and internet browsers like Google Chrome.

While software engineers spend a lot of time writing code, their jobs require much more than programming — especially as they advance in their careers. Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Designing pieces of software applications
  • Listening to client’s needs and developing software to meet them
  • Recommending software upgrades
  • Documenting how the software works, how to use it, and how to maintain it
  • Identifying issues in code that cause errors and fixing them
  • Meeting with team members to discuss progress on software development
  • Running tests to make sure the software works as expected
  • Keeping up with new software technologies and tools

Not all software engineers work on every part of the software development process. For example, some work closely on the systems side (also known as the back end), building computer systems that help support the applications side (also known as the front end). Some work more on the security of the software; others on testing its efficiency and functionality.

>>MORE: What Is Software Engineering?

A Typical Day in the Life

“Most teams will start their days with a standup,” Arun Godwin Patel, director of Halo Technology Lab, CTO and co-founder of Audico, and Forage program consultant, says. “[This] is a short meeting at the start of the day where each person expresses what they are working on, what they may have achieved yesterday, and anything blocking their progress. The goal is to identify any blocking issues and ensure that everyone can keep making progress.” 

In most organizations, engineers’ work is split into sprints, Godwin Patel says. Each sprint leads to a specific software feature or other measurable outcomes. Multiple engineers might be working on the same sprint simultaneously or spread out among numerous different sprints. Daily standups serve as a way for engineers to give status updates so the team can understand progress and roadblocks toward sprint completion. 

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“Throughout the day, you may have some alone time where you’re focusing on your specific body of work and you’ll also have some time to work more collaboratively and to share ideas or problems with colleagues,” Godwin Patel says. “At the end of the day, you may have a quick summary meeting with your team to review progress, identify any issues, and to think about how to keep moving forward tomorrow.”

What Kinds of Jobs Can a Software Engineer Have?

While “software engineer” is a common title in the field, there are also many different types of software engineers depending on what part of the software you work on. For example, other job titles include:

  • Front-end engineer: Front-end engineers work on the part of the software that users see, focusing on software elements like functionality, layout, speed, design, and user experience
  • Back-end developer: Back-end engineers work on the parts of software that keep the application up and running, but that users can’t see. Usually, this type of work involves how software data is collected and stored and software maintenance. 
  • Full-stack engineer: Full-stack engineers traverse between both the front end and back end of software.
  • QA (Quality Assurance) Engineer: QA engineers focus on testing software to identify any issues and ensure it works as intended.
  • DevOps (Development Operations) engineer: DevOps engineers work with the company’s software development (dev) and operations (ops) teams to make sure software is delivered quickly, efficiently, and iteratively.
  • Security engineer: Security engineers implement security protocols to ensure company’s network and computer systems are protected from cyber attacks

>>MORE: Types of Software Engineers (and How to Know Which One’s Right for You)

Software Engineer Salary

Software engineering is typically a lucrative career choice. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for software developers (which includes software engineers) is $132,930 as of May 2022. 

Software engineering jobs pay well even if you don’t have much experience. According to Glassdoor, entry-level software engineers make an average of over six figures.

Average salary, according to GlassdoorBase payAdditional pay
0-1 years experience$105,198$87,495 $17,703
All years experience$139,720$109,918$29,801
15+ years experience$173,900$132,846$41,053

Software engineer salaries also vary by what type of software engineer you are. QA engineers, who are typically more junior engineers, make the least, on average, while back-end engineers (who often need more advanced technical skills) make the most on average.

Average salary, according to Glassdoor
Front-end engineer$109,724
Back-end engineer$146,852
Full-stack engineer$123,177
QA engineer$91,015
DevOps engineer$123,667
Security engineer$142,616

The job outlook for software developers, according to the BLS, is also strong. Software developer jobs have an estimated 25% growth rate from 2021 to 2031; the average growth rate for all jobs is 5%. 

How to Become a Software Engineer

To become a software engineer, you’ll need to gain the right hard skills through formal education, bootcamps, or hands-on experience.

What to Study to Become a Software Engineer

What should you study to become a software engineer? Most students major in computer science, computer and information technology, mathematics, or other related fields. These majors often have courses that focus on software engineering skills like coding languages, object-oriented programming, and database architecture.

>>MORE: Top 16+ Jobs for Computer Science Majors in 2023

Yet not all software engineers build their skills by majoring in these subjects.

“Others, myself included (my degree is in English) built up their experience through being self-taught and publishing apps as a sole developer,” David Smailes, director and iOS engineer at My Learning Apps Ltd and Forage program consultant, says.

According to Stack Overflow’s 2023 Developer survey, nearly half (47%) of professional developers have a bachelor’s degree, and about a quarter (26%) have a master’s degree. 

While this means a majority of these professionals have an advanced degree, there’s still a good percentage who don’t — and more and more of them are learning their skills online. Eighty percent of respondents in the Stack Overflow survey said they learned how to code online, up from 70% just last year. The most popular type of online learning was online courses or certifications. 

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Two common certifications in the software engineering field include:

  • Certified Software Development Professional: certification from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; requires a degree, two years of professional experience, and passing an exam
  • Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional: shows your proficiency in developing and maintaining software through its lifecycle; requires four years of software engineering experience and passing an exam

There are also more specific certifications, including ones for web development, cloud computing, and database administration.

Skills Needed

Knowledge of programming languages is essential to becoming a software engineer. Yet you don’t need to learn every programming language; mastering one and knowing two to three other languages well is enough to get you started.

The most common programming languages software engineers use are JavaScript and HTML/CSS, according to a 2023 survey. Python, SQL, and TypeScript also made the top five.

>>MORE: What Are Programming Skills?

“It’s helpful to have experience contributing to existing codebases,” Becca Miller, freelance software and game developer and Forage program consultant, advises. “Open source projects can be a good way to get started with this.” 

Open source projects, which are projects anyone can use and modify, are a great way to get hands-on experience coding while learning from what others have done. 

working at Accenture

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Other skills software engineers need are: 

  • Software testing and debugging: to test software and maintain its performance
  • Object-oriented design: a common approach to software design
  • Cloud computing: helps improve performance and speed of software development
  • Version control: a system that tracks changes to code
  • Data structures and algorithms: knowing how to organize, store, and retrieve data, and using algorithms to solve problems or perform a task
  • Attention to detail: being able to think on a line-by-line level and identify small errors in code
  • Communication skills: sharing information, insights, and updates with team members effectively
  • Collaboration skills: working with team members efficiently and being able to respond quickly to their feedback, especially if working in an DevOps software environment

You don’t need all these skills to land an entry-level role in this field. Instead, focusing on programming, at first, can help you build a foundation in this career path. Once you land your first role, you can expand your skill set. 

“The most important [skill for being a software engineer] is having a growth mindset,” Smailes says. “Software development is a constantly evolving field — particularly when working with platforms like iOS that introduce new features on at least an annual basis.”

As technology continues evolving, even senior engineers must learn new skills.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Software Engineer?

Becoming a software engineer generally takes about four years if you decide to get a bachelor’s degree. If you pursue a master’s, that’s usually another two years. 

>>MORE: Guide to the Software Engineer Career Path

However, if you pursue this career path without a degree, you can get the necessary skills from online bootcamps in as little as three months. Most bootcamps consist of intensive, full-time 12-week programs.

Becoming a Software Engineer: The Bottom Line

Software engineers are technology professionals responsible for the development of software. There are tons of opportunities (lucrative ones, at that) to get into this field and work on various parts of the software development cycle. If you’re interested in this career path, you don’t necessarily need a degree, but you do need technical skills — especially knowledge of programming languages. 

Get started on building your software engineering skills with Forage’s software engineering career path. You can explore dozens of free job simulations that teach you real-world job skills and guide you on your journey to landing a dream entry-level software engineering role.


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

“Software engineer” and “software developer” are often used interchangeably, but some companies differentiate between these two roles. Both positions require the same technical skills, but software developers tend to work more closely with the code and technological development of the software. 

>>MORE: Software Developer vs. Software Engineer: What’s the Difference?

What exactly does a software engineer do?

A software engineer develops software by designing, coding, building, testing, and deploying software. Depending on the type of software engineer you are, you might work on different parts of the software, like the front end or the software’s security.

Do software engineers have a high salary?

Yes, software engineers have a high salary, with an average annual salary of $132,930, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

How hard is it to become a software engineer?

Becoming a software engineer can be difficult because there are so many different technical skills to learn; however, you can build many of these skills through online courses, videos, software engineering job simulations, and open-source projects.

Image credit: Christina Morillo / Pexels

Zoe Kaplan is a Senior Writer at Forage. Prior to joining Forage, she wrote and edited career and workplace content for Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women.

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