Today’s world revolves around software. Whether you’re viewing an app on your phone, playing a video game, or tracking a workout on your watch, you are using software. As a result, there is increasingly high demand for individuals with the skills to design the software that operates those devices.
Software engineering can be a challenging career path. A successful software engineer must have a strong foundation in mathematics, engineering principles, and programming skills. At the same time, it can be a rewarding career, offering lucrative salaries and job flexibility.
In this guide, we’ll review everything you need to know about how to become a software engineer.
What is Software Engineering?
Software engineering is the science of building software systems, products, and applications.
Also sometimes called software developers, software engineers design, write, and launch software programs. They may also work on maintaining and creating upgrades for existing software, performing quality assurance (QA) tests, and writing technical documentation.
Software engineering offers significant room for career growth and advancement. As you gain knowledge and experience, you may choose to work on different parts of the software lifecycle.
Entry level engineers, for example, are usually responsible for writing code or QA testing. More experienced engineers may work with clients to gather requirements and focus on system design.
Types of Software Engineers
Software systems interface with nearly every part of a digital device, from the operating system that allows the device to run to the network that connects it to the internet.
Software engineering roles, therefore, are determined primarily by what the software does and where on a device or network it operates. The most common types of software engineering roles, with the most job flexibility, are:
- Front-end engineer: Responsible for the interface users interact with (sometimes also called web developers)
- Back-end engineer: Responsible for software that sits on a server or network and drives the user interface
- Full stack engineer: Designs and writes software on both the client and server side
Some specializations focus on where the software operates. Mobile app developers, for example, write applications specifically for mobile devices. Embedded systems software engineers develop operating systems that allow hardware to function. QA engineers and DevOps engineers build and support systems at specific points in the software development life cycle.
In some cases, software engineering roles stem from cooperation or overlap with other specialties.
For example, data engineers and machine learning engineers design software to process and analyze large amounts of data. They often work closely with data scientists and data analysts. Security engineers work closely with cybersecurity professionals to protect software. Cloud engineers work specifically on networks and network applications.
Advantages of Becoming a Software Engineer
There are many advantages to choosing a career in software engineering.
One of the best reasons to become a software engineer is the satisfaction that comes from building products that people actually use. There’s also the excitement of solving challenging technical problems.
Here are a few other—more concrete—reasons why you might want to consider software engineering.
It’s In High Demand
The job market for software engineers is strong coming out of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Competition among employers for qualified software engineers is fierce. And these two trends are likely to grow even stronger in the foreseeable future.
According to a report by Hired.com, for example, software engineers received more than twice as many requests for interviews in 2021 as they did in 2020.
And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for software engineers/developers is expected to grow by 25 percent over the next decade.
It Brings a Competitive Salary
As demand for software engineers increases, so do the salaries that qualified and experienced professionals can demand.
In May 2021, the average annual salary for software engineers across the United States was $120,750, according to labor statistics compiled by BLS.
However, salaries for software engineers can vary greatly depending on education, years of experience, location, and other factors.
According to Indeed.com, the average salary for an engineer with less than a year of experience is almost $88,000. Senior software engineers, with 10 or more years of experience, can expect to earn significantly more than $120,000.
Its Skills are Highly Portable
Originally, most software roles were limited to tech companies. Now, software engineers can work—quite literally—in any field or industry that involves the development of software. In today’s digital world, that’s nearly every industry.
More importantly, perhaps, software engineers can apply their knowledge and skills in different fields and industries throughout their careers.
For example, you may start your career writing code for mobile applications in the banking industry but then move into mobile applications for education, entertainment, or healthcare. Or, you might choose to stay in banking, but turn your skills to designing secure data management software.
The hard and soft skills underpinning all these roles are similar (although some moves may require upskilling in specific coding languages, for instance), giving you maximum flexibility as you advance your career.
It Offers Flexibility in Scheduling and Location
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the move to hybrid and remote work, software engineering was at the forefront of flexible working arrangements.
Laptops and secure networks made it possible—and easy—for teams of software developers to collaborate on projects from the comfort of their own homes. For many years, software teams have been composed of engineers and developers working together from different countries and multiple time zones. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated these trends—and made them a permanent feature of the software engineering career path.
What Skills Will I Need as a Software Engineer?
Software engineers need strong technical and programming skills. They must have foundational knowledge of advanced mathematics, engineering principles, and multiple computer languages.
Soft skills are equally important, however. For software engineers who are interested in moving beyond writing code, strong research, collaboration, and communication skills are a must.
And as technologies evolve and advance rapidly, you’ll also need critical thinking skills, the ability to master new technologies quickly, and the flexibility to learn new programming languages.
Knowledge of Data Structures and Algorithms
Data structures (ways of organizing data in a virtual system) and algorithms (sequences of steps required to transform an input into the desired output) form the foundation of every software system design. Together, they enable computers to find and retrieve information as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
To design effective software programs, engineers must have thorough knowledge of the different types of data structures. They must also have a strong foundation in mathematics in order to understand—and develop—the required algorithms.
Programming Skills in Multiple Computer Languages
Software engineering requires strong programming and coding skills. Therefore, software engineers must be fluent in multiple computer languages.
Some of the most common computer languages used in software development include:
- Structured Query Language (SQL)
- C / C++ / C#
Other computer languages include Rust, Perl, and Go. These languages are newer and less frequently used. However, they are examples of how computer languages evolve quickly. Software engineers must be prepared to learn new languages throughout their careers.
Knowledge of Engineering and Design Principles
Software engineers must have extensive knowledge of design principles used to create software systems. This is especially true for individuals seeking to move from entry-level developer roles into senior positions.
One of the most common design methodologies in software engineering today is object-oriented design (OOD). Object-oriented design helps ensure software programs are flexible, simpler to write, and easier to adapt and maintain over time.
Agile Project Management
While project management skills are not absolutely required to become a software engineer, project management is important for anyone seeking to move into a leadership role.
Most software development projects are managed through Agile project management. It’s a flexible and iterative approach in which large projects are broken down into small tasks and organized into two-week “sprints”.
Understanding the software development lifecycle and managing software development projects through Agile is critical for individuals who hope to advance their careers into senior-level roles.
Soft skills can be just as important as technical and project management skills for successful software engineers.
Research skills, critical thinking, and problem solving, for instance, enable engineers to explore different potential design options and select the best one for each project.
The ability to work collaboratively as part of a team is also critical. Software systems are often large and complex. An individual engineer may work on a single aspect of the system, which must then integrate seamlessly with the rest of the system.
Excellent communication skills enable software engineers to work closely with executives and clients. This is important for gathering requirements, defending design decisions, managing teams of engineers, and coordinating with other teams to create a unified system.
While these skills aren’t necessarily taught in the classroom like technical skills, they are developed over time in both school and the workplace. They can be an important driver in your career path.
Do You Need a Degree to be a Software Engineer?
Most software engineers in the United States have an undergraduate degree, usually but not always a bachelor of science (BS) degree. Many senior-level engineers and engineers seeking to move into a management role also have a master’s degree.
It is possible to start your career in software without a formal degree. Undergraduate certificates in coding and web development and coding bootcamps can give you the basic programming skills you need to get an entry level role as a software developer or web developer.
However, alternate educational paths like these are less likely to offer the foundational math, design principles, and other technical skills you’ll need to advance your career. Moreover, engineers with formal degrees are more likely to have a higher starting salary and advance their careers more quickly.
While one or more formal degrees are recommended for a career in software engineering, there are many possible degree pathways.
A degree in software engineering is, perhaps, the most obvious choice for individuals seeking a career in software.
However, degrees—both graduate and undergraduate—in computer science, applied mathematics, electrical engineering, and data science, for example, may also lead to successful careers in software engineering.
A common degree pathway today is an undergraduate degree in a broad field such as computer science, followed by a master’s degree in a more specialized field like software engineering, data science, or cybersecurity depending on your interests and desired career path.
Software Engineering Courses
Most software engineering and computer science degree programs require similar foundational courses.
You’ll be required to demonstrate strong knowledge of math through courses such as linear algebra, calculus, and discrete mathematics. You’ll study today’s most common programming languages and methodologies. And you’ll learn basic knowledge of operating systems, data structures, and algorithms.
You may also choose to specialize in specific applications, such as networks or embedded systems, cybersecurity, machine learning, or even artificial intelligence.
Is Software Engineering a Difficult Degree to Get?
The coursework required to complete one or more degrees in software engineering can be challenging.
You may find it easy to master multiple computer languages but struggle with the advanced math courses. Or you may feel at home in the world of algorithms but find you don’t have an eye for front end website design.
The good news is that most students need help at one or more times throughout their educational journey. And most universities have support structures in place to help you succeed.
Take advantage of office hours to get extra help from your professors and teaching assistants (TAs). Form study groups with fellow students. Ask if your school has a tutoring program or a resource center where you can make an appointment to get assistance on challenging assignments—most do.
How Long Does it Take to Get a Software Engineering Degree?
For most students in the United States, the traditional route to an undergraduate degree is attendance at a four-year college or university. If you choose to continue your education full-time, a master’s degree can take an additional two years.
However, this traditional route is by no means the only route to a career in software engineering, or even the best one for many people.
You may choose to start working immediately after completing your BS, then pursue a master’s degree part-time while continuing to work full-time. In this case, how long it will take to finish your degree will depend on how many classes you take each semester and whether you take time off between semesters.
What is the First Step I Can Take to Become a Software Engineer?
Software engineering can be a rewarding—potentially lucrative—career choice.
There are many different pathways to take if you choose to pursue software engineering; where you start will depend on your personal background and existing knowledge base.
If you have an undergraduate degree and basic computer programming skills, a master’s degree in computer science offers the specialized knowledge you need to take the next step in your career as a software engineer.