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 what software engineer career is the best fit for you?
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- What a Software Engineer Does
- Breaking It Down: Types of Software Engineers
- How to Know What Type of Software Engineering Is Right for You
What a Software Engineer Does
Software engineers plan, develop, build, test, and release software, which are programs that tell a computer how to operate. While these professionals all need programming and engineering skills to do their jobs, they can work in various industries, from health care to finance.
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There are also 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.
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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.
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.
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A back-end engineer 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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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 what type of software engineer you want to be is more about what you find exciting and enjoy when you’re actually doing it — not what seems best on paper.
Start exploring a day in the life of various types of software engineers with Forage’s tech virtual experience programs.
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