How to Become a Software Engineer
Software engineering is a particularly versatile and rewarding tech-focused career. This is a growing and vibrant career path for anyone who likes solving problems, thinking creatively and using technology to create new business solutions.
What is Software Engineering?
The field of software engineering encompasses technological skill coupled with engineering principles. Put simply, "software engineering is the application of engineering principles to the development of software," said Dr. Scott Overmyer, associate dean of information technology programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
However, a software engineer is “more than just a programmer,” Overmyer said. “He or she is also an engineer applying software engineering principles to all phases of software development.”
The field includes project management, analytical thinking, and collaborative skills, and offers analytical thinkers the opportunity to solve real problems so that businesses of every type may thrive.
What Do Software Engineers Do?
The key role of the engineer is to create a software solution to a business problem. This naturally means that a strong ability to solve problems both independently and collaboratively is a key skill for this field. “Software engineers have to understand how to support all phases of the software development lifecycle, and how to build software systems,” said Cheryl Frederick, senior associate dean of science, technology, engineering and math at SNHU.
The software development life cycle includes multiple phases, including designing, developing, testing and maintaining software. "Each phase requires expertise and critical thinking to ensure that business functions are properly supported by technology at every turn," Frederick said. "When software is designed well, it should be a seamless experience for everyone."
Companies of every size have a need for software developers. “I have developed software for a company as small as 4 employees and as large as 20,000 employees,” Frederick said. “The smaller company is where I wore the most hats at any given time.” This allowed Frederick to develop the project management skills she uses today as a leader in higher education after working in the field as a software developer for more than 20 years.
What’s the Difference Between a Software Developer and a Software Engineer?
"The terms 'software engineer' and 'software developer' are frequently interchangeable," said Overmyer. While the two roles do overlap quite a bit, a software engineer is the professional who applies all aspects of how to build software for a project. That can include the design, maintenance, testing, and even evaluation for continuous improvement of the software.
A software developer, on the other hand, is the professional who actually builds the software and makes sure it does what it’s supposed to do. They may “design and develop software for any industry that utilizes computer software for their business,” said Curtis George, technical program facilitator, computer science degrees at SNHU. And today, just about every business you can imagine uses computer software.
Both are rewarding, interesting careers grounded in analytical thinking with some creativity mixed in.
What Do Software Developers Do?
A software developer designs and writes computer programs and applications that help end users effectively use technology. "That involves defining what the software needs to do and how to do it, as well as working with software engineers to actually create the software," said Overmyer.
The demand for software development is great. You “may develop software for anything from computers to mobile devices to embedded software that controls all sorts of machines and hardware devices,” said Overmyer. “In other words, software developers solve real-world problems using computer software.”
Virtually any business you can imagine that uses a database or manages information requires software and teams to develop and manage it. From point of sale systems in grocery stores and anywhere that tickets are sold, to big businesses such as Apple and Amazon, software developers “apply their knowledge and skills to develop software,” said Frederick. That software can be anything from writing a Python script to reformatting a text file. It could mean writing code for a software system that manages hotel reservations or other business functions.
The fact that software engineering spans companies of any size across a variety of industries is “one reason why it is great to be a software engineer,” Frederick said. "You have a lot of options."
If you are interested in cutting-edge technology and have the grit to learn new skills, "you could write software for an industry that is using software solutions in new ways,” said Frederick.
How Does One Become a Software Engineer?
"Most software engineering jobs require at least a bachelor's degree," Frederick said. A bachelor’s degree in software engineering is ideal, but studying computer science or other STEM fields such as math, science or engineering could help as well. And because communication and teamwork skills are as important in this field as in any other, "knowing how to present oneself well on camera and how to converse with others in a synchronous online meeting is a must," Frederick said.
If you already have an associate degree in a related field, all the better. You could use that education to get started as a programmer. Time in the field from there could help you move up to becoming a software engineer. Regardless of your chosen path, “strong programming skills and an understanding of how to apply software engineering techniques” is best, said Frederick.
“If you have experience with agile methodologies for software development, even better,” she said. Many software development teams today use agile approaches such as Scrum. Students can also gain experience “from online jobs, open source code development, freelancing, internships, and their own projects,” said George.
Regardless of your path, a solid background in programming is essential, because “a person becomes a software engineer by gaining a deep understanding of programming,” said Overmyer, “coupled with a deep understanding of the principles of software engineering. Usually this is done through a combination of study, training, and experience.”
When it’s time to enter the job market, don’t forget to highlight your transferable skills. “Most employers want to see a portfolio of software projects that demonstrate your holistic skills,” said Frederick. “Teamwork and communication skills are always important.”
What Do I Need to Become a Software Engineer?
However, those technical skills won’t do any good without an “innate curiosity about how computers and software work and can be used to solve problems,” said Overmyer. “The desire to solve real-world problems in a systematic manner,” is also key.
Having the education and experience under your belt to prove you can be a solid contributor and team player will also help. After all, a big part of the software engineer’s role is assisting clients in installing and using new software, so solid interpersonal skills are key. “You should also learn about software versioning software and how these applications manage and control changes to software from many contributors,” Frederick said.
From there, you’ll want to have a portfolio “with examples of developed code” to show prospective employers, said George. “Employers like to see if you bring experience they can use.”
As far as what knowledge is required, basic software development processes are key to understand, as well as how to acquire, model, and structure problems that end users and organizations have. “How to translate end user or institutional requirements into technical requirements, and how to architect, build, and test software that is being developed,” are also key skills, Overmyer said.
And the best way to learn how to be a software engineer is to “learn how to code very well in a modern programming language,” said Overmyer. “The best way to do that is to take a course, followed by writing lots and lots of programs. Couple that with study of software engineering principles and how to apply them to various kinds of software programs in different contexts, and you’ll be highly employable and in demand.”
What is a Career in Software Engineering Typically Like?
The life of a software engineer is team-oriented and project-based. One of the benefits of this dynamic role is that there are so many valuable ways to contribute to the life cycle of creating, executing, and managing new software.
“Most software engineers start with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, or a software-oriented information technology program,” Overmyer said. Applicable work experience also helps. "Many software engineers start in roles such as quality assurance specialist, where they may contribute to the testing phase of software engineering and development," said Overmyer.
Then they might “progress to writing code, then become a software team lead or manager, than to a project manager,” said Overmyer. And from there, the potential for a rewarding career at the intersection of software development and information technology operations is broad.
As a software engineer, you may “contribute to determining the requirements for a project, and then engineer the solution,” Frederick said. “You could step into the maintenance phase of an existing project, where there are some interesting opportunities for re-engineering existing software.”
On the practical side, as a software engineer, you could live virtually anywhere you like. “Throughout my career, I have always chosen the place where I want to live first and then start looking for jobs,” said George. "This is doable because software engineering is in demand across all industries, and many jobs can be conducted remotely."
A good software engineer tends to think of software projects as a holistic business solution. They see the big picture of what would be most beneficial to move a project forward. “They frequently lead teams, and focus on the architecture of the system as a whole,” Frederick said. At its core, “a software system that is easy to maintain with proper functionality is one that has a solid architecture,” and can make the most impact on business needs, she said.
Has Software Engineering Changed Post-Pandemic?
An interesting byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic is that with so many more employees working from home, "it’s more evident than ever how much people working across all fields need the flexibility to work remotely," George said. Software helps them do that.
So many remote workers also highlights the versatility available in a technical field such as this, and has even resulted in online collaborative skills being in demand. “Online collaboration among software engineering teams has been going on for many years,” Overmyer said. “Working with distributed teams is a remote skill that is very useful and in great demand.”
“The biggest soft skills in demand for software engineering are collaboration and communication,” said George. Even with an advanced degree, “employers want an employee who can work as part of a team, and who is able to communicate with team members as well as customers," he said.
Software engineering has long been an in-demand career field, but now there is more focus than ever on ensuring that technology works well behind the scenes so businesses across all industries can continue to run smoothly. “Thanks to software engineers,” said Frederick, “we now have a plethora of tools that support remote collaboration and communication.”
While not unique to software engineering, the global business landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic has not only forced more people than ever to work remotely, it has helped to highlight the importance of good teamwork and collaboration. “With the pandemic, you lost the convenience of brainstorming in a conference room, or having a side conversation in someone’s cubicle,” Frederick said. Instead, one now needs to know how to present oneself well on camera and how to converse with others in a synchronous online meeting.
What Non-Technical Skills Are Important for Software Engineers?
With more than 20 years of experience working in the field of software engineering, Frederick knows that “there is nothing worse than regularly over-talking others in an online meeting, or being so quiet that your thoughts are never heard.” These qualities are not unique to software engineering but are often overlooked in favor of technical expertise.
“Being skilled with using collaboration and communication tools such as Slack, Zoom, or MS Teams is important,” Frederick said. “You should also develop strategies for nurturing and building relationships using asynchronous and synchronous communication tools.”
What Else Do You Need to Know?
When it comes to software engineering, remember that software is needed by virtually every business running today. The insurance industry, fashion, manufacturing, transportation, even government all need software to run smoothly.
Given the versatility and wide reach of software engineering, the possibilities to work in this field are only as limited as your imagination. “Jobs may include software development, cybersecurity, game development, full stack engineering, cloud engineering, research science, artificial intelligence engineer, or even professor or product manager,” George said.
Do your research about what any new career field involves. It’s important to know your own interests and aptitude before diving into a career in software engineering, because “programming is not for everyone,” said George.
“If you are willing to spend the time to learn new programming languages, work through problems until they are solved, and can sit in front of a computer for many hours to do this, then that’s a great start," George said. "Make sure you are truly excited to see your software succeed, and you’ll create a career you are passionate about.”
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