What Does a Software Engineer Do? A Complete Guide

Author headshot of Rachel Meltzer.

You’re probably interested in becoming a software engineer if you’re here.

But, as with starting any new job, it can be difficult to imagine what you might actually be doing at work in this new career. 

Despite being one of the most in-demand jobs in the world (with a whopping 25% job growth predicted by the US Labor Bureau for 2022-32), might seem like a mystery to you right now. But in this article, you’ll find out what does a software engineer do, as well as how much they get paid.

We’ll even go over what you need to learn and how to learn it so that you can determine if this is the best career field for you. You should have a good understanding by the end of what’s involved and if you might want to become one. 

Here’s how this guide is structured. Feel free to use the clickable menu below to jump right to a particular section:

  1. What is software engineering?
  2. What does a software engineer do?
  3. Software engineer skills
  4. What’s a software engineer salary like?
  5. How to become a software engineer: A step-by-step guide
  6. Do you need a degree to become a software developer?
  7. Final thoughts

Are you all set? Then let’s get into it!

1. What is software engineering?

Software engineering, also known as software development, is the practice of designing, testing, and building programs for operating systems, hardware, and networks. 

It’s a combination of computer science and engineering that yields software for devices of all types, from computers to mobile devices, web applications to networks. 

2. What does a software engineer do?

A software engineer usually specializes in creating desktop programs, mobile applications, or web apps. 

Typically, software engineers work with coding languages like C++, Java, and Python. They also quite often use C#, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and SQL. 

Application software developers create apps for iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, and other native operating systems. 

Systems software developers are responsible for the hardware and software aspects of building operating systems and networks. Web developers and general software engineers create apps for the web or for multiple devices. 

Applications-focused and general software engineers are essentially full-stack developers, while systems software developers are like backend developers. 

If you’re a little turned around by all of the varying job titles—don’t be! We’ve created a useful guide to differentiating software engineers from web developers.

Typically, software engineers work on a team with other engineers, developers, data scientists, systems architects, and UX designers to build a system that will be used to meet customers’ needs. 

Learning software engineering skills can lead to a career in anything from creating computer games to building network systems, from creating productivity software to building mobile apps. 

Software engineer tasks

If you want to get a better idea of what does a software engineer do, it helps to look at their day-to-day. The following are just some of the work they can be expected to carry out:

  • Building and testing applications to meet user’s needs
  • Analysis, diagnostic, and debugging of existing software
  • Optimization of current software
  • Consulting with team members
  • System performance monitoring
  • Backend architecture design
  • Incorporating new technology into current software 

Software engineer job types

In terms of planning your software engineer career path, the options are huge. Here are just a selection of some of the different job titles you could have:

  • Associate Software Engineer
  • Senior Software Engineer
  • Senior Software Developer
  • Lead Software Engineer
  • Principal Software Engineer
  • Applications Software Developer
  • Systems Software Engineer
  • Game Developer
  • AI Engineer
  • Quality Assurance Engineer
  • Software Integration Engineer
  • Frontend Engineer
  • Full-Stack Engineer
  • Mobile Developer
  • DevOps Engineer
  • Backend Engineer

What decides their job title can be what does the software engineer do, what their area of responsibility is, and what technologies they employ.

One software engineer shows her colleague how to do something on a computer in a bright office.

3. Software engineer skills

Another way of learning what does a software engineer do is to analyze which skills they use.

As with many jobs, if you’re going to become a successful programmer, you’re going to need both some technical skills as well as soft skills to start your career. 

While you may not need all of these skills to get your first job in the field, you’ll probably need most of them. Here are some of the top software engineering skills of 2024:

4. What’s a software engineer salary like?

According to a recent analysis by TechTarget, software engineering is the most in-demand tech job in 2022

Software engineers are in demand and, in most cases, their salary reflects that. Salaries vary worldwide based on the cost of living, demand for developers, and how robust the regional software industry may be. 

Let’s take a look at the average software engineer salaries around the world. This data is taken from our software engineer salary guide, which has even more wage information:

  • UK: £52,000 ($68,000 USD)
  • Ireland: €62,000 ($70,000 USD)
  • Germany: €65,000 ($75,000 USD) We’ve created a software engineer salary guide for Germany with more detail
  • France: €49,000 ($54,000 USD)
  • Spain: €38,000 ($​​39,000 USD)
  • Italy: €34,000 ($36,000 USD)
  • Australia: AUD$120,000 ($82,000 USD)
  • New Zealand: NZ$100,000 ($63,000 USD)
  • India: ₹900,000 ($​​10,366 USD)
  • Brazil: R$226,000 ($48,000 USD)
  • Nigeria: NGN 5,760,000 ($7,000 USD)
  • Canada: CAD$98,000 ($75,000 USD)
  • South Africa: ZAR 792,000 ($47,000 USD)

Want an even deeper dive into what programmers can earn? Then check out our guides to Python developer salaries, JavaScript developer salaries, and frontend developer salaries.

5. How to become a software engineer: A step-by-step guide

We’re going to sum up our surefire five-step plan to becoming a software engineer. 

This will give you a high-level overview of what it might take to start the path to a software engineering career. 

But there’s more to it than this. If you’d like to learn more about how to become a software engineer, take a look at this step-by-step software developer career guide.

Step One: Plan your career

Once you’ve decided you want to pursue a career in tech, you don’t necessarily need to know what type of engineer or developer you want to be–just that you want to be one. 

But you do need to determine how you want to get from knowing very little about coding to being proficient. 

You’ll need to figure out how much time you can dedicate to learning to code, when you’ll need to get a job in your new career, and where you’ll learn and do your coding work. Start exploring your options!

Step Two: Learn

You’re ready to start learning to code! You could choose self-guided learning, a coding course, a coding bootcamp with career support, or going back for a four-year degree. 

No matter how you decide to learn, it’s worth checking out our list of some the best software engineering courses to check the options. 

A handy way to kick things off is by easing your way in. Tutorials such as our free 5-day coding short course provide a gentle introduction to software engineering while also building something with your code from the start.

You can take a look at the first tutorial in this video, as Abhishek Nagekar, software engineer at Mozilla, introduces you to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript:

Step Three: Get experience

Awesome, you’ve started getting a handle on coding! In terms of learning what does a software engineer do, you’re now familiar with the ins and outs of it.

However, before you can get a job, you need experience. 

Some bootcamps will help you out with practice projects. You can also work on open-source projects, passion projects of your own, or some freelance gigs. 

You’ll also need to look into coding interview questions and practicing algorithms to get through the job interview process. 

Step Four: Build your portfolio

To get a job in tech, you need to have strong examples of your work. 

You can use that open source project you worked on, your bootcamp projects, a passion project, or freelance work to show hiring managers and recruiters what you can do.

Learn how to craft a great software engineering portfolio in this guide we’ve prepared, packed full of examples for inspiration.

Step Five: Apply

You’ve done it! You’ve developed your skills as much as you can and are feeling more confident about getting out into the job market.

Now, it’s time to apply for jobs! You can apply for jobs on job boards, reach out to companies directly, work with a recruiter, or consult your coding school for help finding a job.

Before any interviews, make sure that you’ve studied the role closely, as well as practiced as many technical interview questions as possible.

A mentor explains on a video call what does a software developer do to her student on a laptop video call.

6. Do you need a degree to become a software engineer?

The short answer? No, you do not need a degree to become a software engineer. 

While earning a computer science degree or a similar education is still a common way to break into tech, bootcamp grads and self-taught engineers are increasingly becoming popular ways to get into a tech career. 

Once upon a time, it was commonplace to need formal schooling to work in tech. But, in recent years, the demand for technical roles has been growing rapidly. 

According to Stack Overflow’s 2022 Developer Survey, less than half of professional developers have a Bachelor’s degree, and more than 70% of developers have learned to code online in some way. 

If you’re looking for more pointers, we’ve detailed how in our guide to becoming a software engineer without a degree.

7. Final thoughts

It can feel overwhelming to transition into a new career. Breaking into tech often feels unapproachable if you haven’t had much exposure within the industry. 

But software engineering is an interesting and incredibly rewarding career path. The job, and its salary, tend to have great benefits. 

While it isn’t necessary to get a university degree to get into software engineering, you will need to learn the basic skills to break in. There are a few routes you can follow to master software engineering successfully. 

You can get a job just from being self-taught, get an online certification, or attend a career-change bootcamp like CareerFoundry’s Full-Stack Development Program. If you’re ready to commit to the time and the work, it’s entirely possible.

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

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