How to Become a Software Engineer
Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.
Software engineering is a particularly versatile and rewarding tech 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.
First of All: What is Software Engineering?
The field of software engineering encompasses software development skills coupled with engineering principles. Put simply, "software engineering is an area of applied computer science that designs, develops, tests and maintains software application using defined engineering processes and best practices," said Dr. Gary Savard, associate dean of computer programming at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
Software engineers aren't only focused on programming, though. The field also typically requires project management, analytical thinking and collaborative skills, and it offers analytical thinkers the opportunity to solve real problems so that businesses of every type may thrive.
What Do Software Engineers Do on a Daily Basis?
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 crucial 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 Dr. Cheryl Frederick, executive director of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) 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 four 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?
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 Dr. Curtis George, an associate dean of information technology at SNHU. 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 interact with technology. They can work within many areas of software engineering, including requirements, design, testing, configuration and quality, among others, according to Savard.
The demand for software developers is great. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the career to grow by 26% between 2021-2031, adding approximately 370,600 jobs. There is also demand within similar careers that may be of interest, including quality assurance analysts and testers. Employment in those roles is expected to grow 21% over the same time period, BLS reported, adding 40,800 jobs.
Virtually any business you can imagine that uses a database or manages information requires software and people who can develop and manage it. From point-of-sale systems in grocery stores and anywhere that sells tickets 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 Can a Beginner 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 programs such as math, science or engineering could help as well.
If you already have an associate degree in a related field, all the better. You might use that education to become a computer programmer, and you could also transfer the credits you've already earned into a bachelor's degree program, allowing you to finish the four-year credential faster.
Learn more about why it pays to advance from an associate to a bachelor's degree.
Time in the field could also help you achieve your software engineering goal.
"Beginners can become a software engineer through many avenues," Savard said. "Some start in support engineering, quality control, testing or requirements analysis. Others may begin as entry-level programmers."
Whichever path you choose, “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.
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.”
And no matter what level of experience you're at, Savard recommends looking into IEEE Computer Society's certifications. They have offerings at various levels:
- Associate Software Developer for entry-level engineers
- Professional Software Developer for more experienced developers
- Professional Software Engineering Master for the most experienced engineers
Ongoing professional development and education through certifications are an especially helpful way to upskill in this field, according to Savard.
What Skills Do You Need as a Software Engineer?
In addition to a bachelor's degree in software engineering, computer science, information technology or another related field, a good command of programming and technical skills is a must.
You might consider taking an online coding bootcamp to help you gain some of those technical skills. For example, a software engineering bootcamp can help you build foundations in Java as you create and implement realistic software projects within Agile Scrum teams.
However, those technical skills need to be coupled with solid soft skills.
"Curiosity, drive and persistence are key attributes of a software engineer," Savard said. "We work in a rapidly changing field, and that requires a great deal of drive and a love of solving problems."
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.”
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, George. said. “Employers like to see if you bring experience they can use.”
As far as what knowledge is required, basic software development and business processes, as well as the software development lifecycle, are necessary to understand, according to Savard. In addition, knowing how to acquire, model and structure problems that end users and organizations have is also important.
"Most software engineers start in programming positions. It may be in tech support debugging released code, developing test harnesses or even in production development," Savard said. "The best way to learn how to be an effective programmer is to know the language you are using inside and out."
Beyond that, he recommends studying all aspects of software engineering — beginning with the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK).
"Having an in-depth knowledge of each of the areas of SWEBOK opens up many new opportunities in the software engineering field," he said.
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.
"Software engineers typically start in non-production development jobs such as testing, quality assurance or support," Savard said.
After gaining experience and coding proficiency, he said you might be able to move into a development role or become a manager of teams or projects. Systems engineering and software architecture are other areas you could advance to as a software engineer, he said.
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 can 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 highlight the versatility available in a technical field such as this. It also resulted in online collaborative skills being in even greater demand than ever before. And because communication and teamwork skills are as necessary 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.
While distributed workforces may be newer for many industries, Savard said it's not for software engineers.
"Many software engineering teams are at least partially online and may be international. In my years as a software engineer, most of the teams that I have been on have had at least one person not located with the rest of the team," he said. "In the past few years, all of the teams that I have worked on were completely online."
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.
“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.
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 and even the government 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 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.”
Discover more about SNHU's software engineering degree. Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.
Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is a freelance content writer and editor.
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