Software engineers are in high demand these days. They generally command comfortable salaries, and can have a good work-life balance.
But what do software engineers do? And how can you become one yourself?
In this article, I will explain the tasks and responsibilities of software engineers, and I will go over some of the areas they most commonly specialize in.
I will also list some of the most important skills needed if you want to become a software engineer yourself.
Here is what we will cover:
- What is software engineering?
- What does a software engineer do?
- What are the software engineering specializations?
- Why should you choose a career in software engineering?
- How to become a software engineer
Let's get started!
Every day, you likley visit various web pages and use web and mobile applications.
These modern tools have hundreds or even thousands of lines of code behind them. And those lines of code have been written by a software engineer.
Software engineering is the process of designing, building, testing, deploying, and maintaining customer-facing software products, complex computer information systems, and useful tools. Software engineers do this using software engineering methodologies, computer science principles, and programming languages.
Software engineers write code for hardware, operating systems, embedded systems, networks, enterprise applications, websites, or video games.
They come up with strategic solutions that meet the needs of end-users and the business they work for. The code they write solves a particular real-world problem.
In general, here are some of the tasks and responsibilities of software engineers on a day-to-day basis:
- Gather and analyze the needs and requirements of users and understand how they use the software.
- Organise user requirements into individual categories to implement the user suggestions and feedback.
- Use programming languages to design and build software systems and applications that meet user requirements.
- Create efficient, reliable, secure, accessible, and easy-to-use software.
- Test, debug, troubleshoot, and maintain existing software systems.
- Optimise code for quality, performance, speed, and scalability.
- Solve problems that will arise and help the business achieve its goal(s).
- Create flowcharts, documentation, and technical specifications that outline the whole process from start to finish to help share findings and solutions with other team members.
- Consult with members from different teams in the organization.
- Present new features and updates to stakeholders and customers.
That said, the tasks and responsibilities depend on the area the software engineer specializes in.
Software engineering is a diverse field, meaning there are many areas a software engineer can specialize in.
Here are some of the most common specializations in software engineering:
Front-end web development
Front-end web development is an area that involves designing, building, and testing the User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI), and the parts of websites and web applications users see and interact.
Back-end web development
Back-end web development, also known as server-side development, is an area that involves building and maintaining the parts of websites and web applications that users don't see and interact with – essentially, the behind-the-scenes functionality of websites.
It deals with databases, web architecture, servers, user authentication, authorization, handling and processing user requests, Application Programming Interfaces(APIs), and ensuring the appropriate logic is in place for the front-end to have what it needs to perform efficiently.
Full-stack web development
Full-stack web development is an area that involves designing, building, testing, and deploying both the front-end and back-end of websites and web applications from start to finish.
Mobile development is an area that involves designing and building software applications that work on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets running iOs and Android operating systems.
Game development is an area that involves designing and building games that run a variety of platforms, such as PCs, game consoles, web browsers, and mobile phones.
Desktop application development
Desktop application development is an area that involves building software applications that run on your local desktop computer and have a graphical user interface (GUI) such as a word processor or image editor.
Operating system development
Operating system development is an area that involves developing the hardware and platform for other software applications to run on such as Linux, macOS, and Windows.
DevOps is an area that involves using processes, methodologies, and tools that automate, manage, and improve the infrastructure and operations of software applications throughout the software development life cycle.
Cloud computing is an area that involves designing and developing cloud-based services to build scalable and reliable systems.
Cybersecurity is an area that involves ensuring the security of software applications and systems and protecting them from hacking, malware, threats, vulnerabilities, and different types of cybercrimes.
Why Should You Choose a Career in Software Engineering? Reasons to Pursue Software Engineering as a Career
You might want to choose a career in software engineering for a few reasons.
First of all, technology evolves at a fast pace and is constantly changing – there are new developments pretty much every other day.
Software engineers constantly learn new things to stay up to date with the latest changes. They are life-long learners.
If you are curious and enjoy learning new skills and ways of doing things and don't like remaining stagnant and doing monotonous tasks, you might enjoy playing around with the new technologies and tools that emerge.
Another indicator that software engineering might be the right career choice is that you enjoy solving difficult problems.
Software engineers are problem solvers. They use logic and creativity to solve the problems of their employer or client.
If you are rational, analytical, and methodical, you might enjoy the process of solving complex logical problems and building useful things.
You might also want to choose a career in software engineering because software engineers are in high demand.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 25% increase in growth for the job outlook until 2031, which is much faster than average.
Many industries need software engineers, including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, startups, consulting firms, educational institutions, finance and healthcare companies, as well as retail and entertainment businesses, to name just a few. Almost all companies are tech companies nowadays.
Software engineers also generally command comfortable salaries.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for software engineers is $109,020 per year.
That said, the salary will depend on your location and years of experience.
Google the average salary for software engineers in your location who have the same level of experience as you to get a better idea.
Another reason you might want a career in software engineering is that it allows for remote work, flexibility in where you work from, flexible working hours, and a good work/life balance.
To learn more about finding a remote developer role, give this article a read.
In the following sections, I will go over how to become a software engineer and list some of the technical and soft skills you will need to learn. I will also provide some resources for you to get started.
Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of the skills you will need, but serves as some key suggestions of what might be helpful for your learning journey.
Software engineering requires a lot of studying and learning.
So, the first step to becoming a software engineer is to think about your education options and what route you want to take.
Computer science degree
One of the options, and the more traditional one for becoming a software engineer, is to obtain a four-year university degree and major in Computer Science or a related math and science degree program.
A Computer Science degree from an accredited university is highly respected by certain employers and considered an impressive (and for some, still necessary) credential on your résumé.
With that said, getting a degree is an investment and a pricy route to take – university degrees are not cheap.
But according to the Stack Overflow Developer survey for 2022, most developers (87%) have a post-secondary education of some kind, having some college or more.
While you don't necessarily need a degree to become a software engineer, and employers care whether you have the necessary skills and experience, it may be a worthwhile investment and open up more job opportunities.
Another option is to enroll in a software engineering bootcamp.
Bootcamps are intensive training programs and learning environments that teach you the necessary technical skills to land a software engineering job. The average duration of a bootcamp is around twenty to thirty weeks.
It is typically project-based learning, and by the end of the program, you will have a portfolio of work to showcase to prospective employers.
With that said, it is still an expensive route to take. Some bootcamps charge up to five-figure sums just for a couple of months of training, and it also may not be the right environment for you and your life circumstances.
Teach yourself to code
Another option is to learn to code on your own and create your self-directed learning plan using either free or paid resources such as books, video tutorials, and interactive courses.
Learning on your own is a great option if you are busy, have life responsibilities such as taking care of family, or cannot quit your full-time job to pursue a career change.
You can learn at your own time and pace and create your individualized schedule according to the spare time you have.
You can get started with freeCodeCamp's curriculum, which is free and project-based.
In summary, while for many years getting a formal degree has been considered the standard way to work as a software engineer, there are other avenues these days to choose from, such as attending a bootcamp or self-teaching.
No matter what style of education you choose, you will need to learn how to learn effectively to make the most out of your studies and solidify your learning.
Learning how to learn allows you to pick up anything faster and make it stick, which will serve you well as a software engineer. The profession requires constant learning on the job.
There are learning techniques that, despite feeling intuitively right, do more harm than good and are ineffective since they require low cognitive effort.
Those ineffective techniques are passively re-reading, taking notes, and highlighting/underlining.
Active recall involves quizzing yourself and recalling the main ideas of what you just read/learned.
The brain makes stronger connections when it retrieves information, not when it receives information – the retrieval process enhances deep learning.
Spaced repetition is a practice that flattens the forgetting curve we naturally have as humans. You are bound to forget the things you learn.
Spaced repetition involves frequently reviewing what you learned – this helps build your knowledge over time.
A good tool for practicing spaced repetition is using Anki, a flashcard app with an algorithm behind it that surfaces the content at intervals – just when you are about to forget it.
To learn more about learning and creating effective study habits, check out the Learning how to learn course on Coursera.
As a software engineer, you will need an in-depth understanding of at least one or sometimes two or more programming languages.
You will need to understand concepts such as variables, data types, conditional statements, boolean logic, loops, arrays, operators, and input/output, to name just a few.
There are hundreds of programming languages to choose from. And each one has its specific use cases.
The programming language you choose to learn will depend on the area of software engineering you want to specialize in.
Some of the most popular ones are the following:
- Python – a general-purpose server-side language, commonly used for back-end web development.
- Java, – an all-purpose language commonly used for developing applications for various platforms, including Internet and Android applications.
- C++ – a popular language for developing operating systems, applications, and games.
To learn more about those languages, check out the following resources to get started:
- Free Python Programming Course
- Learn Java – Free Java Courses for Beginners
- Learn C++ Programming for Beginners – Free 31-Hour Course
Data structures and algorithms are topics that will likely come up often during your software engineering job interviews.
A solid foundation in data structures and algorithms allows you to become better at problem-solving, find the most efficient and practical solutions to problems, and write more scalable and maintainable code.
Data Structures are storage areas for storing and organizing data elements so that computers can perform calculations with those data elements more precisely and efficiently.
An algorithm is a series of well-defined and precise step-by-step instructions. These instructions tell a computer how to perform a particular task that will solve a specific problem.
An algorithm receives some input and produces some output that solves the problem at hand.
To learn more about data structures and algorithms, check out this course.
Knowing how to store, maintain, manage, and design the architecture of a database will come in useful as a developer. You'll need to know how to perform database operations, namely CRUD operations (which stands for Create, Read, Update, Delete), and write basic SQL queries. After all, complex and large-scale software applications need to handle large amounts of data.
You may want to learn about the different types of databases, such as the differences between relational databases and non-relational (also known as NoSQL databases).
And you may want to study SQL as well. SQL, which stands for Structured Query Language, is a query language for querying and manipulating data in relational databases.
To learn more about handling databases and writing SQL queries, check out the relational database certification by freeCodeCamp.
As a software engineer, you'll use various tools in your day-to-day work.
Some of the ones you will use the most are the following:
- Git is a version control system and collaborative tool. With Git, you can work with other developers on the same project and track changes in the code.
- GitHub is a popular hosting service that allows you to share your code with the world.
- The command line is an application that allows you to interact with your underlying operating system and your filesystem using text-based commands.
- An IDE (or Integrated Development Environment) is a software application that allows you to write code efficiently and productively. Specifically, it is where you write, edit, run, test, and debug your code. IDEs offer features like syntax highlighting that make code easier to read and catch errors and keyboard shortcuts that save time.
Although developing your technical skills is necessary to become a professional software engineer, you cannot neglect your non-technical (often referred to as soft) skills.
The stereotype of software engineers working in isolation, alone in a room, and not talking to anyone is far from reality.
As a software engineer, you will typically be collaborating with others and be a part of a team. You need strong social and interpersonal skills to be a valuable team member.
Effectively communicating your ideas in a way that is clear and easy to understand is necessary, as you will often work with other team members who won't have the same level of technical knowledge as you.
And as you will build software applications for a diverse audience, you need to empathize with your end users and understand the kind of problems they may face. Having empathy is about putting yourself in other people's shoes and being able to see other people's perspectives. This helps you become a more effective problem-solver and developer.
Hopefully, you found this article helpful and have a better understanding of what software engineering entails.
In this article, we went over the tasks and responsibilities of software engineers and some of the reasons why this career might be a good fit for you. You also saw some of the skills you will need to develop to become a software engineer.
Thank you for reading!