A Beginner’s Guide to the Software Engineer Career Path

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Finding your way as a software engineer is as challenging as it is rewarding. The software engineer career path is filled with opportunities in nearly every industry, and the role is only expected to become more necessary as time goes on. 

If you’re thinking about becoming a software engineer or already have a software engineer certification, it can be helpful to set career goals to guide your future. 

This article hones in on the best career path for software engineers who want to make more money and climb higher up the ladder. But it’s important to keep in mind that there are countless possibilities when it comes to building your coding career. Let this serve as a guide to help you carve your path as a skilled developer, no matter your software niche. 

  1. Job outlook for software engineers
  2. What’s the best software engineer career path to follow?
  3. How to start a career in software engineering
  4. Wrapping up
  5. Coding career path FAQ

1. Job outlook for software engineers

Software engineering is a highly sought-after position. New technology is evolving rapidly, and software engineers help organizations keep up. Developers typically start their careers earning a salary of $40,000 to $60,000, but experienced engineers make upwards of six figures. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities in the software engineer career path are exploding at a rate of 25%, much higher than average job growth. The reason for this growth is largely due to the expansion of digital technology.

As a result, it’s expected that nearly half a million new software engineer positions will be available in the US over the next decade. 

2. What’s the best software engineer career path to follow?

When it comes to planning a career as a software engineer, there is no one-size-fits-all. But if you choose to work your way up in an organization, there are a few tried and true methods.

The beauty of working in programming is that you can take it in various directions, like gaming, data analytics, and mobile engineering. You can even make a corner of the tech world your own by specializing in a certain area, like cloud computing

In general, software engineers can work internally for organizations or as freelancers for clients. There are pros and cons to each approach, and the best route for you will rely on the goals you have for your career and your lifestyle. 

Freelance developer vs in-house

Becoming a freelance developer offers engineers the freedom to choose their clients and work on their schedules, but working your way up by adding to your education and experience comes with perks such as a consistent paycheck, company benefits, and the opportunity to work within a team.

As a freelancer, you’ll make your own business proposal to pitch your ideas to potential clients, but at an organization, you’ll be contributing to the company’s project goals. 

What is the progression of a software engineer?

A common software engineer career path includes spending the beginning of their career as a junior software engineer before they gain enough experience to apply for a senior or management position. 

Eventually, you could make your way up to become a tech leader that guides the software engineering process or even a chief technology officer. Here’s an example of a common software engineer career path: 

  • Junior software engineer. Software engineers that are just starting out or don’t have much experience will typically begin their career as junior software engineers. In this role, you’ll be responsible for developing software according to specific requirements. At this stage, focus on learning new coding skills while you gain experience. 
  • Senior software engineer. The next logical step from a junior software engineer is to advance to a senior software engineer position. At this point, you’ll have the SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) down and maybe even know a few more programming languages. As a result, senior software engineers have more responsibilities when it comes to the business side of development. 
  • Tech leader. Tech leaders manage teams of software engineers and developers. Since they are responsible for the entire development process from start to finish, they report the teams’ progress to managers and stakeholders. Another perk of being a tech leader is that you’ll have the opportunity to offer your professional opinion when making SDLC decisions. 
  • Team manager. Breaking into management is a common pathway for many software engineers as they enter the most knowledgeable and experienced point in their careers. Not only will you be responsible for managerial tasks as a team manager, but you’ll also be responsible for your team of software engineers. You’ll also guide operations and help your team members progress in their careers. 
  • Technical architect. If you’re more technically inclined, you may advance to a position as a technical architect later in your software engineering career path. Technical architects are responsible for overseeing the organization’s technical architecture and engineering design.
  • Chief technology officer (CTO). At the peak of your software engineering career, you’ll find yourself in the role of a CTO. This is an executive position that comes with both a paycheck and respect. CTOs oversee the organization’s tech landscape, including R&D.

Although this is the most common engineer or web developer career path, it’s not the only way to achieve your goals.

Not only do different organizations have various career paths, but software engineers also have the option to specialize in niche positions or even create one!

A freelance Node developer sits at her laptop in her home office smiling.

3. How to start a career in software engineering

The evolving world of technology has an ever-increasing need for software engineers and developers. Are you ready to start a career in software development? Here are the steps you need to take on the software engineer career path: 

Step One: Start with the basics

Start by learning one programming language like HTML/CSS or Python, then move on to the next. Our free coding short course is a great start for this.

Software engineers are expected to have in-depth knowledge of programming languages and the design principles behind them.

Many employers look for software engineers with a bachelor’s degree, but education from a coding bootcamp or another applied program will also show employers that you know your stuff and have the practical skills. 

Step Two: Get certified 

You know how to program in several languages, and you’ve worked on numerous projects to hone your skills. Now it’s time to get certified.

Choose a specialty and find an accredited certification program like the ISC, big names in tech like Oracle, or web developer certification programs like CareerFoundry. Certification programs are especially helpful if you want to expand your skills or advance your career. 

Step Three: Keep learning

Post projects in an engineering community, collaborate with other software engineers or play with open-source tools to increase your skill set over time.

Software engineering is always changing since new tools and ideas for the future are constantly taking developers further. If you want a successful software engineering career, be sure that you are always working on some kind of project and never stop learning. 

If you’re setting out becoming a software engineer in 2024, this is where adding some AI training to your toolbelt is key. The excitement (and the fear) has died down somewhat, and what’s important is that not only should you be able to use some AI programming tools, but also should be able to get the most out of them. We don’t mean that you have to become a full prompt engineer with a certification, but you should definitely be able to use the right prompts for ChatGPT or whatever LLM you’re working with.

Note: These are just a brief summary of some of the steps you’ll need to take on the software engineer career path, but if you want more pointers we’ve created a detailed guide to how to become one.

4. Wrapping up

Software engineering is a highly sought-after role because of its necessity in everyday life. Companies (and consumers) in every sector need software engineers to design computer applications and programs that solve problems and push ahead into the future of technology. 

The most common software engineer career path takes you from a junior to a senior engineer, followed by a tech leader, team manager, and technical architect position. The end goal for some software engineers is to reach CTO status, but there are countless opportunities for software engineers within and outside of tech. 

A great way to get started and get your foot in the door is the CareerFoundry Full-Stack Developer Program, which allows you to learn at your own pace, with the help of a dedicated mentor, tutor, and career specialist.

If you’d like to learn more about software engineering and the world of development in general, check out these articles:

5. Coding career path FAQ

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about the coding career path: 

Is it hard to be a software engineer?

Yes and no. Anyone willing to learn to code can become a software engineer. There’s a lot of debate about whether coding is hard or not, but ultimately it’s different for everyone.

Some skills may come more easily to you than others, but it definitely takes a lot of time, effort, and dedication.

Is coding high paying?

As you progress along the coding career path, yes. Experienced software engineers make an average salary of $120,000 per year, according to Business Insider. 

Is being a software engineer a 9-5 job?

Some software engineers work 9-5, but a large majority make their own hours. It all depends on your organization and the clients you serve. 

Is web development a long-term career?

Web development is an excellent career choice for those seeking a role in a field that is growing at a rapid pace. Coding skills are essential for businesses to thrive today. 

Learn how to get there in our guide to how to become a web developer.

Which coding job has the highest salary?

There’s no one coding job that has the definitive highest salary. This is because it depends on industry and location.

However, experienced data scientists and coders with a lot of management responsibility such as CTOs (Chief Technology Officers) have one of the highest salaries among coders, with earning potential well over $200k.

Will software engineer salaries always be high?

You can expect to earn a comfortable salary as an experienced software engineer, and the tech skills gap means this will continue for the foreseeable future.

And according to a McKinsey survey, 61% of HR professionals believe hiring developers will be their biggest challenge in the years ahead.

Obviously this varies depending on where you are based and your skillset, but our software engineer salary guide illustrates that you can earn a paycheck well above the national average wage in most countries.

Is Python enough to get a job?

No. You’ll have to know how to program in many languages, as well as have an understanding of the tools and technologies used in software engineering. Soft skills such as problem-solving and communication are also vital additions to your resume. 

Is it hard to get a career as a software engineer?

Many software engineers say that getting your foot in the door is the hardest part. But once you gain a few years of professional experience on the software engineer career path, employers are more likely to select you for the position. 

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