Software engineering is a very in-demand field, with good benefits, flexible schedule, and interesting work. You may be wondering what it is exactly that a software engineer does.
Is this field for you?
This guide will clarify what software engineering is, and what a software engineer does. We’ll dive into what skills and qualifications you need to become a software engineer, and everything you need to get started.
By the end, you’ll have a good idea of exactly what steps are required to break into this field that the US Labor Bureau predicts will grow by a whopping 22% between 2020-2030.
Here’s how we’ve structured our guide. Feel free to use the clickable menu below to jump right to a certain section:
- What is software engineering?
- What does a software engineer do?
- What do you need to become a software engineer?
- How to become a software engineer: 5 actionable steps
- Getting into software engineering: Key takeaways
1. What is software engineering?
Software engineering is a broad term, and can mean a lot of things depending on the region, company, and/or person saying it.
Similar to the coding vs programming debate, it can be up for discussion, so learn the broad strokes.
It’s also used as an umbrella term to cover various jobs from software architect, to working with hardware, to web development.
A more strict definition might define a software engineer as someone who designs programs for computers (think your McAfee antivirus software or your Mac Pages program). Meanwhile, a software developer could be someone who builds applications and websites that you see in your internet browser.
To read a deeper explanation of the difference between a software engineer and a web developer, we’ve created a full guide.
Don’t get too worried about the language, though. In the end, it’s more important that you know what you’re interested in, regardless of vocabulary.
2. What does a software engineer do?
A software engineer is involved in the design, development, testing and maintenance of a software application.
Depending on the product and the specialty of the engineer, this could be a computer program or operating system, an app on a mobile device, or a website in the browser.
Software engineers can work freelance or at a company. They work together with the client or company to define their needs, come up with a list of requirements, and implement them alone or on a team, depending on the scope of the project.
The job can involve researching how a new feature might be implemented (or if it’s reasonable), fixing bugs in existing software, testing and reviewing other engineers’ work, and more.
Interpersonal skills are important here too, as a software engineer needs to collaborate not only with the client and/or stakeholders (depending on their role and seniority), but also work together with their UX or UI designer, product manager, other engineers on the team, QA testers, etc.
If you’re wondering how to become a software engineer in a specific area, there are roughly two major ones:
- Application engineer—develops applications for iOS, Android, Windows, or other operating systems and can be frontend, backend or full-stack.
- Systems engineer—builds and/or coordinates a business or organization’s computer systems and sets up any networks that link up computers with the company.
3. What do you need to become a software engineer?
As a software engineer, you’ll be working on software that solves some type of problem that the client/company faces.
Being able to do this requires a mix of good communication and technical skills. Now we’ll take a look at what exactly these technical skills might be.
There is no one specific qualification needed to become a software engineer.
Especially in the field of web development, people enter the industry several ways. This varies from being self-taught, to doing a coding bootcamp, or getting a university degree in Computer Science or a similar subject. If you’re looking to avoid the university route, we’ve created a whole guide to how to become a software engineer without a degree.
Interviews for software engineering jobs are very hands-on when it comes to demonstrating your technical skills.
It’s more important for a software engineer to be able to show their skills in an interview than it is to have a specific piece of paper with qualifications.
Let’s take a look at what those skills might be.
For web development, here are the top skills you’ll need:
- Knowledge of at least one web framework: React/Redux, Vue, Angular, etc.
- Git and Github flow
- MongoDB, GraphQL and/or SQL databases
For a more in depth look, check out our complete guide to full-stack developer skills.
4. How to become a software engineer: Five actionable steps
You’re thinking this field might be for you, but now what?
There’s so much different advice online about how to break into the field to be a software engineer.
Bootcamps or no bootcamps, is a university degree worth the time and money? If you’re self-teaching, when facing the mountains of resources online, where should you even start?
Ultimately, you can break how to become a software engineer down into five steps:
Step 1: Plan your career path
First you need to have a good think about how you learn best.
For example, being self-taught is obviously the cheapest path, but there are several things to consider here.
What will you do if you get totally stuck on a concept, do you have some type of community to turn to?
Do you have a good workspace at home, and regular time set aside?
Do you learn better with other people or are you quite disciplined on your own once you set your mind to a task?
A software engineering bootcamp or other immersive program is a good option if you want more structure, community and access to mentors, but don’t want to attend university for years to get a degree.
Immersive coding bootcamps can be full or part-time, ranging from 3-9 months on average depending on the program you choose.
A university degree might be a good option if you’re more interested in the theoretical aspects of software engineering and/or computer science.
For example, working in software or system architecture, writing algorithms or deciding on data structures for large-scale projects might involve using calculus or linear algebra.
Or if you want to design operating systems, compilers, computer systems, you would learn this with a computer science degree. Knowing the theory can also help you pick up languages faster.
Outside of this theoretical knowledge though, coding bootcamps tend to provide more practical skills.
Step 2: Get an education
Now that you know which path is best for you, it’s time to build up your development skills.
Whether that’s studying on your own, doing a program or getting a degree. To get you started working out what’s best for you, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best web development certification programs.
Step 3: Build experience
Once you have the basics under your belt, you’ll want to get some real experience.
This may involve working on some projects, practicing algorithms, and researching coding interview questions you might be asked about by a recruiter.
Step 4: Craft your portfolio
Interviewers will want to see some examples of your code. You can work on this before you land your first job by building your own projects or contributing to open source.
To find out what makes a good developer portfolio, what to include in one and browse through some examples, check out our complete development portfolio guide.
Step 5: Start applying
You’ll never get that job if you don’t apply!
You can search for software engineering jobs on websites like LinkedIn Jobs, Indeed, etc. You can also research companies you like and apply directly.
For this field, recruiters also often come to you, so make sure you have tidied up your LinkedIn profile with all the relevant keywords for your skills, links to your portfolio, etc. Don’t forget to turn your profile on to recruiters!
5. Getting into software engineering: Key takeaways
The concept of transitioning into the field of software engineering may seem overwhelming, but like anything, it’s all a series of steps.
When planning how to become a software engineer, most important is getting your goals in mind, coming up with the steps you need to complete to achieve them, and going one move at a time.
There is no one-way to do it, so make sure to take a realistic look at yourself, how you learn, your time, and your interests.
Software engineering is a great, in-demand field with great salaries, interesting work, flexibility and benefits. People transition into tech from all different backgrounds, and you can too if you put your mind to it. A fully mentored career-change program like the CareerFoundry Full-Stack Development Program can ensure that you complete the journey successfully, supported along the way.
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