What is a Software Engineer?

Individuals who are interested in the fields of computer science and/or technology may consider a career as a software engineer. Software engineering is a technical STEM field that’s focused on developing computer products. The opposite of hardware, software is any coded program that controls computer functions. Operating systems, word processors, apps, and games fall into the software category. Software engineers play a pivotal role in making people’s computers and mobile devices run correctly. Wondering whether this might be the right vocational path? Then, it’s a good idea to attain as much information about software engineering as possible.

Software Engineers – The Basics

A software engineer develops various electronic programs that enable users to accomplish computing tasks. Most software engineers focus on either applications or systems. To explain, an operating system is the core software that runs the computer or device hardware. Every computer, tablet, and phone has an operating system, such as Windows 10 or Apple iOS 13. Operating systems come already loaded on devices and are continually updated by users. An application is the add-on software downloaded to run specific computer features. Popular app examples include Instagram, TikTok, Candy Crush, Netflix, and Amazon. Applications aren’t necessary for computers to run, but they make people’s digital experience better.

Software engineers can further specialize in front-end or back-end development. Front-end development is concerned with the aesthetics of software. It’s all about what users see and experience first. Creating user-friendly designs that engage and entertain people is key. Back-end development is focused on the server-side of software functions. It’s all about what users can’t see with their eyes. Programming well-written code for the server and app or system to communicate is essential here. Sometimes, software engineers are called full-stack developers too. They’re a jack of all trades and design software from the front to back end. All engineers share the mission of solving real-life digital problems with quality, debugged software.

Often, software engineers are employed by computer systems design firms. Many software engineers work for system or app development companies. Software engineering jobs are available in diverse corporate sectors from banking to medicine. In today’s digital age, every business needs a digital platform to engage customers or clients online. Colleges and universities also hire software engineers to teach the next generation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are 1.36 million software engineering jobs nationwide. The biggest employers include Google, Apple, IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle, and SAP. Software engineers are found in all 50 states not only Silicon Valley. A software engineer can be self-employed and telecommute from home. The majority work full-time in office settings though.

Software Engineering Job Duties

Software engineers show off their technical chops by building computer solutions from the ground up. They’re responsible for ensuring new software meets the client’s and industry standards. Most software engineers work on one assigned project at a time with a cohesive design team. Engineers collaborate with web developers, graphic designers, computer architects, database administrators, and more. Software engineers typically report to an IT project manager who oversees their progress. A software engineer’s day entails performing many different job duties. Here’s a brief job description for software engineers.

  • Identify user and client needs to outline measurable software goals
  • Design every detailed component of application or system software throughout the product life cycle
  • Give programmers step-by-step directions to code functioning software
  • Determine the feasibility of software operations through problem definition, evaluation analysis, and solution development
  • Document and demonstrate software through flowcharts, diagrams, blueprints, layouts, and charts
  • Prepare and install software according to system standards
  • Protect software user information by implementing cybersecurity measures
  • Improve operations by completing systems analysis work and recommend changes to inefficient coding
  • Integrate newly developed software seamlessly into existing computer systems
  • Obtain and license software after collecting the pertinent data from vendors
  • Suggest software upgrades to better meet clients’ existing operating systems
  • Test software and subsequently approve the products to fix technical glitches
  • Develop programs for processing user feedback and performing critical maintenance tasks
  • Keep updating job knowledge through the study of new development tools, programming techniques, and modern computer hardware
  • Participate in opportunities for ongoing education, including continuing education units (CEUs), and read professional publications

Skills Each Software Engineer Needs

Software EngineeringA software engineer needs various skills to perform the job with expedience and excellence. Of course, technological skills are the most important. Software engineers must be extremely comfortable with computers. Software engineering goes well beyond the average person’s tech ability. They need to design, document, test and debug software solutions daily. Experience with computer programming is a must-have.

Software engineers know C++, Python, JavaScript, HTML, and other languages like the alphabet. They understand how operating systems from Linux to Android work inside and out. Software engineers must be familiar with the four object-oriented design principles of encapsulation, abstraction, inheritance, and polymorphism.

Atop the technical skills, good software engineers also need to possess the following abilities.

  • Teamwork skills to collaborate effectively with other IT professionals
  • Analytical skills to examine every minute detail of software solutions
  • Problem-solving skills to quickly remedy bugs that hinder usability
  • Creative skills to think outside the box and develop unique software
  • Oral communication skills to keep clients well-informed of project progress
  • Writing skills to craft easy-to-understanding software plans and layouts
  • Deductive reasoning skills to grasp why software isn’t performing right
  • Time management skills to successfully complete software by deadlines
  • Listening skills to hear what clients need and build upon user feedback
  • Mathematical skills to pore over performance data and testing results

Job Outlook in Software Engineering

For 2020, the U.S. News & World Report ranked software development the #1 best job overall. Software engineers benefit from high upward mobility and above-average flexibility. They report great pay and promotion opportunities with little stress for an ideal work-life balance. Job searches for software engineers are typically short too. The unemployment rate for software engineers is only 1.6 percent. Software engineers have one of the fastest-growing careers in America. The primary reason for the rapid growth is the increased demand for computer software. Our digital world is demanding more software engineers stat. Software jobs are multiplying fast in health care, digital media, gaming, energy, data processing, and other sectors.

The United States has the globe’s largest tech market worth over $1.6 trillion. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment of software engineers is skyrocketing by 21 percent. Applications software developers will see 26 percent more jobs opening. The hiring of systems software developers will speed up slower at 10 percent. Certain specialties, such as security engineers, are growing nearly 50 percent! Before 2028, the number of software engineers will exceed 1.64 million in total with 284,100 new positions. California unsurprisingly has the most software engineers at 249,620. Texas, New York, and Washington State follow with over 75,000 software engineers each. The NYC metro has 100,470 software engineers in itself. Software engineering is also a recession-proof job because there’s no sign of computer use dropping.

Average Salary for Software Engineers

According to the Department of Labor, software engineers can expect to earn a mean annual salary of $111,620. The average hourly wage is $53.66. Median software engineering income is $107,510. Earnings typically range from $64,240 to $164,590 each year. Applications software developers bring home a $108,080 average paycheck. Systems software developers reap slightly more with a $114,000 mean wage. Software engineers working at computer systems design firms receive $109,240 on average. Software publishers compensate engineers with a median $120,250 salary. Information services companies give software engineers a mean $125,890 payment. Financial investing institutions offer a handsome $128,090 average income. The highest-paid software engineering jobs are in computer equipment manufacturing for $131,750.

Software engineers command a six-figure salary for their tech prowess in most places. Yet, some top-paying states go above and beyond. California has the biggest average annual wage of $134,370. Washington comes in second with $131,870 mean profits. Software engineers in New York garner $119,570 median pay. The District of Columbia and Maryland finish the top five with $118,580 and $116,080 average respectively. Which metropolitan areas pay software engineers the best? Silicon Valley reigns supreme with a $145,730 mean wage. The San Francisco Bay Area provides software engineers with median revenue of $145,250. Seattle has 71,940 software engineers making $134,090 on average. New York City and Battle Creek also make the top five metros at $122,230 and $121,160.

How to Become a Software Engineer

Becoming a software engineer requires post-secondary education after high school. Most software engineering jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. Baccalaureates are often called four-year degrees. However, the average bachelor’s completion time is 52 months. The National Center for Education Statistics found that 35 percent of undergrads take over five years. In-depth STEM programs especially take longer when students complete cooperative education. Hopeful developers typically pick a software engineering or computer engineering major. Computer science bachelor’s offer the broadest introduction to hardware and software tools. Computer programming majors focus on the languages needed to code optimal software. Digital media and communication degrees could aid students in seeking app development jobs. Other plausible majors include cybersecurity, information technology, video game design, and robotics technology.

Software engineers can expect at least a four-year timeline for their first job. During their undergrad years, software engineers should take a strong core of computer science fundamentals. Courses like Data Algorithms, Java Programming, and Database Management are generally requisite. Don’t forget math classes, including Multivariate Calculus and Differential Equations. Fill up electives with software design and development courses. Look for cutting-edge classes, such as Mobile App Development or Network Security. Take advantage of experiential learning opportunities to build a resume. Software engineering schools often have industry partners for paid internships and co-op placements. Prestigious tech internships at Intel, Tesla, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and the like will impress future employers. Most software engineering majors end with team-based capstone projects and presentations.

Top Software Engineering Degree Programs

What makes an excellent software engineering school? Accreditation is one major factor. Accredited colleges prove their curriculum meets high-quality teaching standards. Only pick universities with regional accreditation to ensure credits will be recognized and transfer. Look for majors accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) too. Great software engineering schools blend intensive courses and hands-on experiences. Ask colleges about their practicum and study abroad options. Tour the software design labs and computer facilities. Inquire about financial aid funds that make tuition more affordable. Low student-faculty ratios and high graduation rates are also good indicators. Here are a few examples of accredited, top-notch software engineering schools.

  • University of California Irvine – The Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences awards an 180-unit, ABET-accredited B.S. in Software Engineering with hands-on projects in the Software Design and Collaboration Lab. Money Magazine crowned Irvine the #1 best value with average student debt of $16,500.
  • Arizona State University – The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering offers a 120-credit, ABET-accredited Software Engineering BS in Mesa or online with two specializations: Web & Mobile Applications or Embedded Systems. Times Higher Education ranked Arizona State the fifth top impact school with 93 percent job placement.
  • Florida Institute of Technology – The College of Engineering & Science provides a 120-credit, ABET-accredited Software Engineering B.S. in Melbourne with ProTrack Co-Op partners like Harris Corp., Microsoft, Mozilla, and Zynga. The Chronicle of Higher Ed named Florida Tech the 16th fastest-growing university.
  • Drexel University – The College of Computing & Informatics has a 180-unit, ABET-accredited B.S. in Software Engineering where Philadelphia students choose from 1,700 employers across 45 global locations for cooperative education. The Princeton Review placed Drexel 11th for game design with a 75 percent admission rate.
  • Iowa State University – The College of Engineering currently enrolls 825 Software Engineering B.S. majors at Coover Hall in Ames for a 125-credit, ABET-accredited curriculum with Scalable Software Engineering Research Lab work. The U.S. News & World Report ranked Iowa State 43rd for engineering with 88 percent retention.

As of May 2020, the ABET accredits 35 institutions nationwide with bachelor’s majors in software engineering. Other outstanding options include San Jose State University, Auburn University, Clarkson University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Mississippi State University. Finishing a bachelor’s degree in 48 months or longer is typically sufficient. Some software engineers advance their skills in graduate school though. Software engineering master’s degrees require at least 30 more credits for 12-24 months of full-time coursework. Graduate school can help develop both engineering proficiency and leadership aptitude. Upper-level IT jobs increasingly go to professionals with master’s training. Master’s degrees could lead to titles like senior developer, project manager, software architect, system administrator, chief information officer, and chief technology officer.

Software Engineering Boot Camps

Already have a degree in another field? It’s not too late to enter software engineering. Spending $50,000 or more on another degree isn’t necessary. The internet is packed with software engineering boot camps to attend online. Boot camps are short-term training programs that normally last six to 30 weeks. Software engineering boot camps teach students fundamental tech skills at home. Attendees log into the online platform anytime 24/7 to tackle the guided curricula. Instructors are expert software engineers who offer help with coding snafus. Classmates are like-minded tech lovers dreaming of careers developing software. Boot camps can be completed without commuting to campus or quitting a day job. Flexible financing plans based on future income are also common.

For Razorfish’s Talent Acquisition ManagerNick Easlick, “a coding bootcamp is able to turn over their curriculum quickly as the tech landscape changes. I hate to be crushing four-year universities because they definitely have their place in the tech space, of course, but it’s hard for a four-year university with a very solid locked-in curriculum to change at that same pace. Bootcamps are teaching things that are more applicable, more emerging, more innovative than someone out of a four-year university.” – Course Report (February 2020)

Software engineering boot camps come in every shape and size to meet everyone’s needs. For instance, the Flatiron School has offered a 15-week boot camp since 2012 with monthly start dates and 1:1 job search sessions for 94 percent employment success. Hack Reactor runs a $1.3 million scholarship fund to cover its 12-week, immersive software engineering boot camp and project-based learning with Fortune 1000 companies. The Fullstack Academy has a 17-week coding boot camp 100 percent online with 15-30 hours of live weekly sessions to master HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and more. The UC Berkeley Extension Office even has an $11,995 software engineering boot camp online with a 24-week, part-time schedule. Other trusted boot camp providers include App Academy, Wyncode, Galvanize, Grace Hopper Academy, Brain Station, Software Guild, and Codesmith.

Great Certifications for a Software Engineer

The U.S. Department of Education counts more than 1.9 million bachelor’s graduates each May. Getting a bachelor’s degree in software engineering won’t necessarily be enough. Stand out from the pack of job applicants with industry certifications. Certification is a voluntary process run by third-party organizations to prove a professional’s knowledge and talents. Certification is like a stamp of approval that people are qualified. Certain software publishers and design firms require certification before hiring. Others use certification as an incentive to refresh skills and receive high-paying promotions. Certification programs also ensure individuals stay up-to-date throughout their careers. Many require continuing education units (CEUs) to keep certification. Let’s look at some popular IT certifications held by software engineers.

  • Oracle Certified Java SE 8 Programmer – Oracle, the $39.50 billion software company in Santa Clara, awards this certification to high-level software engineers. Becoming a Java SE 8 Programmer requires earning at least 65 percent on a 150-question exam priced $245. Live Oracle University courses online can help study.
  • CIW Certified Mobile Application Developer – Since 1997, the CIW in Tempe has certified over 210,000 tech professionals in five series from web design to web security. The Certified Mobile Application Developer credential measures knowledge of HTML5 and CSS3. Passing a 75-minute exam of 54 multiple-choice questions is required.
  • IEEE Certified Professional Software Developer – Based in Piscataway, the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is an organization of 420,000 members that offers certifications. Becoming a Certified Professional Software Developer requires taking two three-hour, 160-question proctored online tests.
  • Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional – The International Information System Security Certification Consortium has credentialed over 140,000 field experts since 1989. The CSSLP designation goes to software engineers with 4+ years of experience. Pearson VUE centers deliver this 125-question, three-hour test.
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer – Started by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975, Microsoft is a Fortune 100 corporation worth $286.5 billion that also certifies software engineers. The Certified Solutions Developer program entails the 120-minute Mobile App Builder exam at Pearson VUE centers in 140+ countries for $165.

Software engineering certification options don’t end there. The C++ Institute partners with 5,000 proctor sites to deliver the 75-minute Certified Professional Programmer (CPP) exam for $295. SaltStack provides the $2,195 Enterprise I training course online on Zoom for five half-day sessions before delivering the free Certified Software Engineer exam. The 130-question Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Developer exam is delivered in three languages for $150 online. The Ruby Association offers the Certified Ruby Programmer Gold exam online with 90 minutes for 50 multiple-choice questions and a $150 cost. The Project Management Institute also has a $435 Agile Certified Practitioner (ACP) test for individuals with 16 months of IT project experience.

Other Computer Science Jobs to Consider

Since software engineers work on teams, there are many closely related IT careers. In January 2020, CIO Magazine outlined the 10 most in-demand tech jobs. Artificial intelligence architects came in #1 for developing computer systems that perform human-like tasks. Cloud developers create virtual storage systems to access files on network devices. DevOps engineers oversee the coding and scripting needed to run successful software releases. Quality assurance testers check that newly developed software meets rigorous IT standards. UI designers craft appealing on-screen user interfaces for every kind of downloaded software. Network systems specialists work in IT departments to ensure companies can properly connect to reliable software. Here are a few more career ideas.

  • Computer hardware engineer – Unlike software engineers, hardware engineers build computing machinery from keyboards to central processing units. It’s their job to connect the wiring circuits and fire up the motherboard for digital performance. America’s 64,400 computer hardware engineers are rewarded median pay of $117,220.
  • Information security analyst – Information security analysts develop, install, and upgrade software like firewalls to safeguard computer networks against hackers. It’s their responsibility to prevent cyber breaches by protecting system data and testing for vulnerabilities. Security analysts are compensated $102,470 on average.
  • Database administrator – Database administrators select top-notch specialized software to securely archive a business’s private information. It’s their duty to configure organized databases, monitor system functioning, troubleshoot glitches, and recover lost data. Database administrators can expect a mean yearly wage of $96,110.
  • Computer scientist – Computer scientists conduct in-depth empirical research to study complex digital problems and form effective solutions. It’s their mission to develop new tactics and programming languages to code better software. Computer scientists with at least master’s degrees have $122,840 average earnings.
  • Computer support specialist – Computer support specialists man help desks to assist organization employees who struggle with using hardware or software tools. It’s their purpose to walk clients step by step through troubleshooting to remedy glitches fast. Computer support specialists are given a mean salary of $63,460.
  • Clinical applications specialist – Clinical applications specialists are employed by hospitals and medical practices to adopt new software into patient care. It’s their goal to improve health care by teaching doctors, nurses, and other clinicians how to embrace tech. Clinical applications specialists report an average income of $77,000.
  • eLearning director – Directors of eLearning work for PreK-16 educational institutions to coordinate online instruction that fills students’ minds with knowledge. It’s their obligation to design or select existing eLearning software for engaging virtual classrooms. eLearning directors report a median wage of $82,000 on PayScale.

Overall, the field of software engineering is an interesting and dynamic sector. It offers opportunities for job advancement, competitive pay, and high career satisfaction. Software engineers can be gratified by developing computer programs that truly make life simpler and more fun. Whether dating apps, operating systems, e-commerce platforms, or addictive games, the software is what makes computers useful. Software engineers are also superheroes who fight against the malware and viruses that infect computers. Carefully review the job duties and necessary skills before deciding to become a software engineer. Don’t only look at the great job outlook and a big six-figure salary. Decide whether software engineering is the best computer science career to accomplish your professional objectives.

Related Resources: