Home > Careers > What Is a Software Engineer?

What Is a Software Engineer?

two software engineers sitting and looking at a computer

Forage puts students first. Our blog articles are written independently by our editorial team. They have not been paid for or sponsored by our partners. See our full editorial guidelines.

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 live-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.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

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 other responsibilities include:

  • Listening to client’s needs and developing software to meet them
  • Designing pieces of software applications
  • Recommending software upgrades
  • Performing software maintenance and testing

Not all software engineers work on every part of the software lifecycle. For example, some work closely on the systems side (also known as the backend), building computer systems that help support the applications side (also known as the frontend). 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. 

>>MORE: Explore a day in the life with JPMorgan’s Software Engineering Virtual Experience Program.

“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’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. 

Software engineers, on the other hand, use technical skills in addition to analytical and communication skills. Their work is typically more focused on the big-picture management of development and applying engineering principles to improve team workflow, efficiency, and production. In addition, they usually use interpersonal skills to communicate with clients and meet their needs.

Overall, engineers and developers have similar skills and responsibilities, so much so that many in the industry use both terms equally. However, depending on the company, there can be slight differences in each role’s scope.

Find your career fit

Discover if this is the right career path for you with a free virtual work experience.

How Much Does a Software Engineer Make? 

Software engineering is typically a lucrative career choice. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for software developers is $120,990 as of May 2021. 

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

What Kinds of Jobs Can a Software Engineer Have?

While “software engineer” is a common title in the field, you can also have a job title specific to the type of work you do. For example, other job titles include:

  • Front-end engineer: works primarily on applications that users and clients see and use
  • Back-end engineer: focuses on developing software and its underlying performance
  • Full Stack engineer: has the skills of both front-end and back-end engineering
  • QA (Quality Assurance) Engineer: tests software for quality management
  • DevOps (Development Operations) engineer: go-between for operations and engineering, overseeing the software development process
  • Security engineer: concerned with the software’s security

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

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

Most software engineers have a bachelor’s degree — and some even a master’s — in computer and information technology, computer science, or mathematics. However, not all employers require degrees.

“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.

Other than a degree, there are certifications that demonstrate your ability, including:

  • 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. 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 2022 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. 

>>MORE: Building your programming skills with Accenture’s Know the Code Virtual Experience Program.

Other hard skills software engineers use:

  • 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

You don’t need all these hard 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 skillset. 

“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?

How long it takes to get into this field depends on whether you decide to get a formal degree or learn your skills in an alternative setting. If you’re pursuing a bachelor’s, it will generally take you four years to complete your degree and learn the necessary skills. If you pursue a master’s, that’s generally 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 bootcamps in as little as three months. Most bootcamps consist of intensive, full-time 12-week programs.

Ready to learn the skills you need to be a software engineer? Learn more about Forage’s software engineering virtual experience programs.

Image credit: Christina Morillo / Pexels