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Guide to the Software Engineer Career Path

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The software engineer career path involves technical skills, constant learning, and collaboration. If you’re interested in a career in software engineering, here’s a breakdown of the career trajectory, what you’ll need to become a successful software engineer, salary expectations, and job outlook.

Software Engineer Career Path

The career path for software engineers moves from “individual contributor to leadership and mentoring,” Simon Farrell, VP of engineering at Forage, says. 

Moving up on the software engineer career ladder requires strengthening your hard skills, becoming more knowledgeable about big-picture technical solutions, and stepping up as a leader. 

There often is little difference in software engineering titles at each level unless the title specifies what type of software engineering the professional does. For example, early career front-end and security engineers will work on very different technical tasks, but they both might have the title “engineer I.”

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

We’ll go through each level of the software engineer career path and share more details about responsibilities and scope.

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Entry-Level Software Engineer Roles

These roles are best for those with zero to a few years of experience and basic programming skills.

“As an entry-level engineer, there should be no expectations on technical capability — it should all revolve around your willingness to learn and ability to work well in a team,” Farrell says. “Your responsibilities will range from working with others to implementing product features, fixing bugs, and writing automated tests. In most cases, you will be working directly with a product manager and starting to learn how to read and deliver on requirements. You will hopefully also be supported by more senior engineers where you will be expected to learn new concepts and start to understand the code architecture and ways of working.”

Examples of entry-level software engineer job titles include:

  • Junior software engineer
  • Engineer I
  • Programmer I
  • Quality assurance tester
  • Associate engineer

Mid-Level Software Engineer Roles

After you’ve obtained some software engineering experience and feel more comfortable with the engineering process and delivering software, you may move into a mid-level role. 

Examples of mid-level software engineer job titles include:

  • Software engineer manager
  • Software engineer II
  • Programmer II

“A mid-level software engineer typically gains more autonomy and their work can be held to higher quality standards,” says Anthony Figueroa, chief technology officer and co-founder at Rootstrap, a software development company. “They start to develop better communication skills, both with technical and non-technical people. They usually solve problems faster and have a way of working that is predictable. At this point, developers usually start to notice when some decisions are not correct and have the right confidence level to speak up and discuss with other team members.”

In mid-level roles, your work will likely be more collaborative with senior engineers, who may ask for your input on larger-scale solutions. You might also be involved in more mentorship, assisting entry-level engineers as needed, or even stepping into a managerial role. 

“As a mid-level engineer, the expectations and responsibilities will start to focus around your technical craftsmanship,” Farrell says. “You will be expected to not only deliver as an independent contributor but also start to contribute to technical solutions and future architecture.”

Senior-Level Software Engineer Roles

Senior-level software engineers are responsible for driving the technical solutions the engineering team carries out. As a senior leader, you’ll work not only to lead your team but collaborate with other relevant teams, like product, to provide the best solutions to company problems.

“People will start to look to you for guidance and you will find you will be spending much more time mentoring the team and working with product on features and solution design,” Farrell says. “Communication plays a key part in the success of senior engineers and your future pathway into technical leadership.”

Examples of job titles at this level include:

  • VP of engineering
  • Chief technology officer
  • Principal engineer
  • Senior engineer
  • Distinguished engineer

Software Engineer Skills, Education, and Certifications

Although most software engineers have degrees, there’s an industry shift to prioritize skills over degrees when hiring. 

Skills

The essential hard skills for the software engineer career path are programming skills. If you’re interested in becoming a software engineer, you should master one programming language and be comfortable using at least two others. 

Each company, and even each type of engineer, may prefer a different language. For example, front-end engineers often use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. According to a 2022 survey, the most common languages for software engineers worldwide are JavaScript, HTML/CSS, Python, SQL, and TypeScript.

>>MORE: Practice (or grow!) your coding skills with Accenture’s Know the Code Virtual Experience Program.

Depending on what type of software engineer role you’re interested in, you might need some more specific engineering skills, like:

  • Software testing: testing and debugging software to make sure it works as intended
  • Object-oriented design: an approach to software design
  • Data structures and algorithms: ways to organize data
  • Version control: a system that tracks code changes

Yet software engineering is more than just applying hard skills. You also need soft skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and communication to work efficiently with the rest of the engineering team. In addition, you’ll need adaptability skills and a desire to learn to keep up with new and changing technologies throughout your career.

“If you can work well with others, are willing to accept and work through new challenges, and have an appetite to learn new things, you will be very successful in a software engineering career,” Farrell says.

Education

How can you learn the skills you need to become a software engineer? While many software engineering professionals have a degree in computer science, math, or another related field, it’s becoming more common to join the career path without a degree.

While 73% of software engineers have a bachelor’s degree, and 20% of those engineers have master’s degrees, there’s a rise in new collar jobs that focus on a candidate’s skills rather than their degree. Companies are opening up opportunities to join technical career paths if you have the skill set, degree or not.

“There is a low barrier of entry for the software engineer career path compared to many other career paths,” Farrell says. “You don’t need a formal degree and there is a huge range of online courses, free and paid, where you can start to learn the basic skills needed to get an entry-level role as a software engineer.”

There are numerous ways to learn the engineering skills you need to enter the career path, from online courses, as Farrell mentioned, to coding bootcamps, virtual experience programs, or even open-source projects.

Your goal should be to get hands-on learning experience, whether in a virtual course or a formal degree program.

“One of the best ways to gain skills is simply to start coding,” Davo Galavotti, senior design engineer and product designer, says. “Pick one of your favorite apps or websites (e.g. Twitter, Whatsapp, Amazon) and try to build that yourself. Work through all the areas that are needed from front end, APIs, database and even infrastructure. Not only will this be a fun and great way to learn, but you’ll also have something to add to your resume for future employers to review.”

Certifications

Certifications for software engineers can help prove your proficiency in technical engineering skills; however, these are unnecessary for landing entry-level roles. Additionally, gaining these certifications often requires time (usually work experience), money, and an exam. Still, you can leverage them to move up in your career path, especially as you master new technologies. 

Some popular certifications for the software engineer career path include:

  • Certified Software Development Professional
  • Certified Software Engineer
  • Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional

You can also get certified in specific languages, software technology, and even project management methodology. 

Software Engineer Salary

The software engineering career path can be a lucrative one. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average wage for software developers (which includes software engineers) was $120,990 in 2021. The top 10% of software developer earners made more than $168,570, while the lowest 10% earned less than $64,470.

The top-paying industries included software publishers, manufacturing, and finance and insurance. The top-paying states were California and Washington.

Software Engineer Jobs Outlook

Software engineers are in high demand. According to the BLS, the job outlook for software developers is much stronger than average. Software developer jobs are expected to grow by 25% from 2021 to 2031. 

Companies hiring for software engineer roles are also facing a developer talent shortage. There are too many open roles and not enough skilled applicants to fill them. As a result, companies are desperately seeking candidates who have the skill set to be software engineers — and aren’t just looking for those with degrees or in certain locations anymore.

Ready to get your start on the software engineering career path? Check out Forage’s tech virtual experience programs.

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