What Does a Software Engineer Do?
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.
From mobile banking apps and online booking systems to telehealth appointments and remote work platforms, the tools of today’s technology-driven world would not be possible without the work of software engineers. So, what does a software engineer do?
Software engineers combine engineering principles with computer programming and coding languages to design, build, maintain and repair software solutions for companies, government agencies and consumers. Software engineers can work on everything from computer games and cloud-based applications to business software or data analysis tools for major corporations.
“A software engineer designs and implements software on different platforms in different (coding) languages,” said Olga Mill, a software engineer and adjunct faculty at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “Sometimes we troubleshoot existing software or write new software.”
As technology becomes more ingrained in everyday life, the work of software engineers continues to grow and evolve. If you’re interested in a fast-paced tech career, understanding what a software engineer does and exploring career opportunities in the field is key.
What is Software Engineering?
Software engineering is a broad field that plays a role in virtually every industry today, from healthcare and financial services to manufacturing, education and government. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software engineering is a type of software development.
Do Software Engineers Only Code?
While software engineering is often compared to computer science and programming, it’s actually a much broader career path, said Mill. Software engineers and programmers both play a role in developing software, but their scope of work is very different.
While programmers may be responsible for writing specific code or creating a certain functionality within a piece of software, software engineers look at the big picture, said Mill. Software engineers help ensure a piece of software not only works but that it functions in a way that aligns with industry needs, compliance standards and the needs of end-users.
“You really need to know your industry and know the latest software development practices,” Mill said.
What Does a Software Engineer Do Day-to-Day?
The daily responsibilities of a software engineer will vary depending on the industry you’re working in and your specific role.
Mill said that the role of a software engineer is constantly changing, thanks to regulatory and technology shifts across many industries, as well as the introduction of new software development tools like artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud-based systems.
If you’re interested in becoming a software engineer, Mill said, be ready for a career-long learning experience.
“Don’t be afraid to learn new things,” Mill said. “Adopting new technologies and being open-minded is a requirement.”
Despite these many shifts, there are some common duties for which many software engineers are responsible on a regular basis. According to Mill, these include:
- Designing new software and updating existing software using a variety of coding languages
- Documenting the design and functionality of existing software for future reference
- Investigating, identifying and fixing software problems
- Ensuring the security of software programs and development environments
- Writing reports to communicate software updates, requirements or performance with all stakeholders
Where Can Software Engineers Work?
Because just about every industry and company today relies on software for some aspect of their day-to-day work, the opportunities for software engineers are virtually limitless.
Mill said software engineers can find work in fields including:
- Aerospace, aviation and manufacturing
- Banking and financial institutions
- Cybersecurity, data analysis and software development
- Healthcare and insurance
- Hospitality and marketing
According to BLS, 1.6 million software developers, including software engineers, were employed in 2022. The industries that employed the most software development workers were:
- Computer systems design and related services (33%)
- Software publishers (11%)
- Finance and insurance (10%)
- Manufacturing (8%)
- Management of companies and enterprises (5%)
Do Software Engineers Work From Home?
Many software engineers across many industries do work from home. While it’s not a guarantee, if you’re looking for remote work, software engineering is ripe with opportunities.* According to a 2022 survey from Stack Overflow, about 43% of software developers worked in fully remote positions that year. Another 42% worked in partially remote jobs.
How to Become a Software Engineer
The journey to becoming a software engineer typically starts with education. While some engineers who have been working in the field for a long time may be self-taught or only have a software development certificate, Mill said most companies today are looking for workers with a four-year degree or higher.
Find Your Program
How Long Does it Take to Become a Software Engineer?
According to BLS, most software developers need a bachelor's degree to land a job. So you could get started in the field in just a few years.
Earning a software engineering bachelor’s degree can give you the knowledge and hands-on learning experience you need to succeed in the field. In a degree program, you’ll learn the principles of designing software on time, on budget and within certain specifications, exploring a variety of key topics, including:
- Approaches to reverse engineering code
- Emerging trends in systems architecture
- Secure coding techniques
- User interface/user experience (UI/UX) design and development techniques
Many software engineering degree programs will also include opportunities to solve real-world problems through hands-on software design and development and internships, letting you build a portfolio of your experience that can help you land a job.
Does Software Engineering Require Math?
A software engineering bachelor’s degree program will absolutely include math courses as part of the requirements.
Mathematics courses may include applied linear algebra, discrete mathematics and mathematics for computing.
But Mill said that while math is part of the preparation for software engineering, most jobs don’t require advanced math work.
In fact, Mill said that equating the field with math is one of the most common misconceptions about software engineering. Instead, she said the logical thinking and problem-solving strategies gained in a bachelor’s degree program are often even more important than math skills.
Do You Need a Master’s Degree to Be a Software Engineer?
If you want to advance your career, take on leadership or teaching roles or focus on a specific area of software engineering, earning a master’s degree in software development can give you a leg up.
A master’s degree will not only dive deeper into software design and development techniques; it can also help you build key soft skills that Mill said are needed for a successful software engineering career, such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
Is Software Engineering a Good Career?
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, challenging career with lots of opportunities to learn new things, software engineering could be right for you. It’s also a growing industry with great earning potential and strong career prospects.*
Do Software Engineers Get Paid a Lot?
That depends on how you define a lot. Workers in the software engineering field have a lot of earning potential. Software developers earned a median annual wage of $127,260 in 2022, according to BLS data.*
Depending on where you work, your earning potential could be even higher. According to BLS, software developers working in software publishing and manufacturing earned $134,430 and $132,130 in 2022, respectively.* The highest-paid 10% of software developers earned more than $198,100 the same year.*
Are Software Engineers In Demand?
Much like the earning potential of software engineers, the number of job opportunities in the field can vary depending on the industry you work in. But across many industries, there is high demand for software engineering professionals.
According to BLS data, employment of software developers and similar workers is projected to grow 25% between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the national average.* While some of this growth is due to the need to replace retiring workers or workers moving to other occupations, much of the increase in demand stems from the growth of new technology like AI, robotics and other automation technologies, according to BLS.
Mill said that while the software industry can be a competitive field, with many applicants going after each job, there are plenty of ways to advance your career after landing your first job.
“In the software industry, it’s common to advance very rapidly,” Mill said.* “It’s very common to take an entry-level position and move up from there. Just find something you’re interested in, you’re passionate about and go for it.”
Advancing a Software Engineering Career
While specific job titles can vary among companies, Mill said the hierarchy of software engineer positions is pretty standard across the industry.
Entry-level positions are typically classified as Software Engineer I. As you gain more experience, take on bigger projects and expand your education, it’s possible to move up to positions including (in order):
- Software Engineer II
- Software Engineer III
- Staff Software Engineer
- Senior Software Engineer
- Principal Software Engineer
The more advanced software engineer positions typically require more strategic thinking and collaboration with other departments and may include mentoring of newer workers, Mill said.
“As you move up, you could get more responsibilities,” she said. “It could also mean you’re working on more complicated and bigger projects."
Eventually, Mill said, you may also take on leadership roles and manage a team of other engineers.
Is It Hard to Be a Software Engineer?
Mill said that no matter what level your software engineering career is at, it can be a challenging field.
Because being a good software engineer requires strong knowledge of coding languages and a solid understanding of the industry you work in, it can take a long time to feel comfortable in a new job, Mill said. And with rapid changes coming to the tech world all the time, there’s always something new to learn or software to update.
“People don’t realize how fast-paced this field is,” Mill said. “Every time we get a job, we have to learn a lot.”
Still, Mill said that while all of these changes can make a career in software engineering stressful, it also makes it highly rewarding. Surveys of software engineers back this up.
According to a 2022 survey of software engineers from Stack Overflow, nearly 70% of workers in the U.S. are happy in their jobs. Survey respondents reported that salary, work-life balance, flexibility and opportunities for growth were some of the top reasons for their overall satisfaction.
See Yourself Succeed in Software Engineering
Ready to start your own software engineering career? Mill said the best thing you can do is to focus on building relationships and commit to being a life-long learner.
“Stay open-minded and maintain your professional connections,” she said. “Continue learning and be enthusiastic about new technology.”
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.
*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.
Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Explore more content like this article
About Southern New Hampshire University
SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.
Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.