Software engineering is a great career path for those with programming skills who want to work on applications people use in their everyday lives. Yet software engineering requires many different kinds of work, from designing what users see to ensuring the software is secure. As a result, there are numerous types of software engineers. So what does each type do, and which of the software engineer roles is the best fit for you?
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What Is a Software Engineer?
Software engineers plan, develop, build, test, and release software (which are instructions for telling a computer how to operate). There are many different components of the software engineering process — from design to building, testing, and deploying — to making sure the software is functional.
There are also different parts of the software. For example, the part that users see is called the front end. The part that makes the software operate that only the engineering team sees is called the back end. Because there are so many elements to software engineering, many types of software engineers focus on different aspects of the process.
Software engineers work in various industries, from health care to finance. For example, you can be a software engineer who works on a web portal to help patients find doctors easier. Or, you could be a software engineer working on an algorithm that automates the buying and selling of stocks and bonds.
Introduction to Software Engineering
Build beginner programming skills while you work on real-world software projects.
Avg. Time: 3-4 hours
Skills you’ll build: Networking, React, Git, npm, OBS studio
Breaking It Down: Types of Software Engineers
Depending on the industry, company, and team, software engineering roles can vary in scope, yet there are numerous similarities among software engineers and the tasks they work on. Here are some of the most common types, what they work on, their responsibilities, and average salaries, according to Glassdoor.
A front-end engineer works on the (you guessed it!) front end of the software, which is the part that users or clients interact with. They’re concerned about the software’s look, user experience, functionality, and layout. These engineers also work closely with the product or design team to ensure that the software fulfills that team’s vision.
- Job summary: develop and optimize the front end of software
- Salary: $103,000
Experience a day in the life as a front-end engineer by building a calendar in a basic web app to help people find the travel arrangements they need.
Avg. Time: 1-2 hours
A back-end engineer, or back-end developer, works on the software’s back end, the backbone of an application often called the server side. This type of software engineer builds the structure of the software and focuses on its speed, security, and data storage. While their work isn’t visible to the user’s eye, it enables the entire software to function.
- Job summary: ensure the back end of software collects and stores the right data, processes information, and is secure
- Top skills required: back-end programming languages (Python, SQL, and PHP), back-end frameworks (Symfony, Django, and Ruby on Rails), databases (MySQL, MongoDB, and PostgreSQL), APIs (STACK API, Firebase, and Spring Boot)
- Salary: $130,000
Design clean architecture for an existing, unfinished component as a back-end engineer in the Lyft Rentals team.
Avg. Time: 4-5 hours
Skills you’ll build: Software architecture, Python, Unit testing, refactoring
A full-stack engineer has the best of both worlds: they work on both the front and back end of the software. “Full stack” means all the parts of a computer’s application. Therefore, these engineers are involved with all aspects of the software building process — both what users see and the structures needed to support it. Because of the breadth of these roles, full-stack engineers are often higher-level professionals or managers.
- Job summary: work across the software, both front end and back end
- Salary: $116,000
Build full-stack skills by developing a new feature for the Sims 4 game as a junior software engineer.
Avg. Time: 5-6 hours
Skills you’ll build: Object-oriented design, code analysis, data structures, feature design
A DevOps engineer is like a full-stack engineer who moves between two parts of the software engineering process. However, DevOps engineers work with two teams in the process: development (another name for the engineering team, shortened to “dev”) and operations (shortened to “ops”). This type of software engineer focuses on key DevOps principles of continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) to ensure engineering teams are constantly building, releasing, testing, and deploying software efficiently.
- Job summary: make the software development process faster, more iterative, and feedback-driven
- Top skills required: scripting languages (Python and Bash), programming languages (Python, Ruby, Go, and Java), cloud skills, version control, CI/CD pipelines and tools, automation, configuration management, infrastructure as code
- Salary: $109,000
Know the Code
Get real-world experience with continuous integration by setting up automated builds to validate code changes on every push.
Avg. Time: 4-5 hours
Skills you’ll build: DevOps, continuous integration, software development lifecycle, Java
A QA engineer, also known as a quality assurance engineer, tests the software to ensure it’s error and bug free and functions as intended. In addition, this type of software engineer identifies and addresses errors after the software is deployed.
- Job summary: ensure a software works as intended and doesn’t have any bugs or errors
- Top skills required: programming languages (Java, Python, C#, and Ruby), testing, debugging
- Salary: $88,000
>>MORE: What is QA (Quality Assurance)?
A security engineer ensures that a company’s digital information is secure. Sometimes called a network security engineer or information security engineer, they use cybersecurity tactics like firewalls and VPNs to protect access to company information.
- Job summary: create and execute cybersecurity solutions to keep information and software secure
- Salary: $121,000
Shields Up: Cybersecurity
Alert your team of a security vulnerability and use Python to respond to a ransomware attack.
Avg. Time: 3 hours
Skills you’ll build: Vulnerability triage, security advisory, Python, security engineering, data analysis
Data engineers work to make a company’s data accessible through data pipelines and architecture. Their job isn’t to analyze the data. Rather, they put raw data in a usable format so data scientists, decision-makers, and company stakeholders can use it.
- Job summary: build and manage data storage solutions
- Salary: $104,000
Global Tech Advanced Software Engineering
Learn how to design databases and export and manipulate data in a business context.
Avg. Time: 3-4 hours
Skills you’ll build: SQL, Python, Java, data structures, data munging,
Mobile engineers work on developing software for mobile devices, like your phone or a tablet. Because these software engineers work across the entire software, they work on back-end tasks like coding and development and are mindful of the front end — ensuring that the application they’re working on has a good user experience.
- Job summary: develop software for mobile applications
- Salary: $89,000
Work on developing features in the Lyft mobile app like ride history, maps with user location, payment info, and finding the closet driver.
Avg. Time: 4-5 hours
Skills you’ll build: Mobile app development, UI, Swift, Android, GitHub, GitLab
Machine Learning Engineer
Machine learning engineers work on artificial intelligence (AI). They build and develop AI software that mimics how humans learn. When the software runs, it learns something new and gradually improves every time it runs. A machine learning engineer’s goal is to create these AI systems and optimize their learning ability. Machine learning engineers usually work alongside a larger data team.
- Job summary: build and develop artificial intelligence software
- Top skills required: neural network architectures, programming languages (Python, Java, and C++), applied mathematics, natural language processing, data modeling and evaluation, audio and video processing
- Salary: $123,000
Use machine learning knowledge to assist a hypothetical client on a supply chain issue.
Avg. Time: 3-4 hours
Skills you’ll build: Python, machine learning, model interpretation, development, evaluation
How to Know What Type of Software Engineering Is Right for You
With so many types of software engineers, how do you know which one will best fit your career goals? It’s all about jumping in and experimenting.
“My recommendation is to learn a bit of everything,” Anthony Figueroa, CTO and co-founder at Rootstrap, says. “Any back-end developer has to know the basics of how a front end is built and needs some foundational knowledge about how a front-end developer works. The best way to really align your career with your strengths is to do at least some work, even if it’s for personal or training purposes, in different aspects of a typical software development stack.”
Davo Galavotti, senior design engineer and product designer, recommends joining practical experiences like hackathons and coding challenges. These exercises will help you strengthen your skills, get into the habit of building quickly, and learn about different types of engineering.
By doing the actual engineering work, “you’ll discover your passion, and you’ll figure out what things feel less exciting,” Galavotti says.
He also suggests spending less time worrying about the technicalities between things like front-end and back-end engineering and more on what you’re enjoying when you’re doing the actual work.
“You can split the world by thinking about front end vs. back end,” Galavotti says. “Stuff like Jamstack challenges that notion, with front-end developers building full applications connected to back-end services with minimal setup.”
Knowing which of the software engineering roles you want is more about what you find exciting and enjoy when you’re actually doing it — not what seems best on paper.
Ready to explore what software engineering is like in a real-world context? Get started with Forage’s software engineering career path.
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