How to Become a Software Engineer

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In the world of computer science, software engineering is one of the most in-demand and lucrative fields. According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics, software engineers and others working under the umbrella of software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers will see their field grow by 25% between now and 2031, with over 411,000 positions estimated to be filled over the next decade. 

Software engineers play an integral role no matter where they’re employed by carrying out vital functions such as designing, building, maintaining, testing and evaluating computer software and systems. 

If you’re interested in the inner workings of computer software, mobile applications and operating systems, then a software engineering position may be right for you. Read on to learn more about this fast-growing field of computer science, the steps you can take to become a software engineer and what to expect for the future of software engineering.

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering involves the development of systems and software — from mobile applications and games to network management tools and operating systems — for businesses across various industries. Their work often requires software engineers to couple advanced technical skills with engineering principles to develop software solutions that meet business needs.

In general, software engineers should be knowledgeable in the following areas:

  • Algorithms
  • Programming languages
  • Data structures
  • Scalability
  • Systems engineering
  • Web development

Software engineers use programming languages such as Java and C++ to develop computer programs, mobile applications, cloud platforms and web-based applications. Although strong programming skills are required, software engineers should also be well-versed in engineering principles, as they frequently apply these concepts throughout all phases of software development.

Successful software engineers are skilled not only in computer technology and engineering, but also in project management, analytical thinking and collaborative problem solving.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

When you work as a software engineer, you can expect to wear many hats in your day-to-day life. Not only are software engineers tasked with designing, building, testing and providing maintenance for software, they are also responsible for communicating software solutions to various stakeholders, including those lacking technical expertise.

The core responsibilities of software engineers include:

  • Analyzing systems to determine where improvements are needed
  • Investigating system, network, and product errors
  • Formulating new software solutions in response to business and consumer needs
  • Explaining software solutions to non-technical personnel

Entering the software engineering field means that you will have a wide range of options when it comes to employment. A few of the top software engineering positions include:

  • Video game designer
  • Quality assurance engineer
  • Software integration engineer
  • Security engineer
  • Front-end engineer
  • Full-stack engineer
  • 3D graphics developer
  • Data engineer
  • DevOps engineer
  • Back-end engineer

Software engineers may work for companies of any size. However, those who work for larger businesses have more opportunities for specialization. Smaller companies, on the other hand, often require software engineers to carry out a wider range of tasks.

What Are the Differences Between Software Engineers, Software Developers, and Web Developers?

Though sometimes used interchangeably, there are a few key differences between software engineers, software developers and web developers.

As their name suggests, software developers primarily focus on the development of products or software. Software engineers, on the other hand, are involved in the entire process, from point of design to testing and evaluation. Web developers are responsible for building web pages and providing consistent maintenance of back end data and general usability.

Software engineers are also required to have a broader range of knowledge of software concepts and programming languages. Since they carry more responsibilities and require more skills and expertise, software engineers rank higher than software and web developers in the industry hierarchy and, as a result, tend to earn more money.

Required Experience for a Software Engineer

Your journey to becoming a software engineer will include a mix of experience and education. During the hiring process, you’ll most likely be required to demonstrate your skills and provide a record of your previous work experience.

There are many avenues prospective software engineers can take to gain experience in the field, such as through:

  • Mentorships
  • Internships
  • Coursework and academic portfolios
  • Volunteer work for small businesses or nonprofits
  • Personal projects
  • Non-technical work experience that helps build other skills needed as a software engineer

In addition to gaining experience through work and side projects, you can also expand your software engineering knowledge by volunteering to take part in remote projects such as:

Required Education for a Software Engineer

While becoming a software engineer requires you to gain technical knowledge in specific areas of study, the educational roadmap to employment is not one-size-fits-all. Rather, there are three different routes you can take to acquire the education you need to excel as a software engineer:

  • Coding bootcamp
  • Self-directed learning
  • College education

Coding Bootcamps

Coding bootcamps can provide a solid knowledge base to help you become entry-level ready relatively quickly through an accelerated curriculum. Courses can often be completed on either a part-time or full-time basis.

Bootcamps can be a more convenient option for those who lack the time or financial resources needed to undergo a four-year degree program. These programs are highly flexible, often including virtual, in-person and weekend options.

Though flexible, these bootcamps often focus on web-based coding instead of software engineering and therefore may not be the best option for landing a job in software engineering right away.

If you’re okay with starting off at a lower position and working your way up to a software engineer role, then the coding bootcamp route may work for you. If you do choose to go this route, consider selecting a bootcamp that offers courses in full-stack development.

Self-Directed Learning

If you want to avoid formal education entirely, then self-directed learning could be an option. If you select this route, you’ll need to have exceptional skills in organization, self-discipline and time management.

Of the three paths you can take to become a software engineer, self-directed learning is the most cost-effective and customizable. You can also complete your coursework at your own pace and pick up the base coding skills needed for an entry-level position.

Downsides to self-directed learning as an educational route to becoming a software engineer include a lack of structure and accountability, which can lead to problems if you struggle to stay on track. This route may also end up taking longer if you are not highly motivated and organized.

College Education

Although coding bootcamps and self-directed learning are options you can consider, for the most seamless transition into a role as a software engineer, a college education may prove to be most beneficial.

Among software engineers working today, earning a college degree is the most popular educational route, with nearly 68% of developers having earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A college degree focusing on software engineering is a popular choice because it:

  • Covers computer science theory and practice, foundational to the field of software engineering
  • Provides communal learning environments
  • Offers mentorship and support opportunities from instructors
  • Helps facilitate networking opportunities

While going to college for several years may be less economical than coding bootcamps and self-directed learning, those who earn either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, typically have a quicker and easier time reaching the role — and salary — of a software engineer.

Beyond a college education, many in the field of software engineering choose to seek out graduate studies to help advance their careers. Earning a master’s degree in software engineering or a related field, such as USD’s Masters in Applied Artificial Intelligence, is one way to fast-track your career. Although an advanced degree is not required to work as a software engineer, having one could help you get promotions faster and earn a higher salary.

Which Programming Languages Do I Need to Know?

It is crucial for software engineers to have extensive knowledge of programming languages. A few of the most prominent and essential include:

  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • SQL
  • C++
  • C#
  • Python
  • Go
  • Ruby
  • PHP
  • Swift

Software Engineer Certifications

In addition to completing your education and gaining relevant work experience, another way to maximize your chance of getting hired as a software engineer is by earning certifications.

If you’re already employed in a software engineering role, certifications can help increase your odds at getting promotions and advancing your professional opportunities.

Some of the most popular software engineering certifications include:

Considerations Before Starting a Software Engineer Position

Before accepting a software engineering position, you should consider the following key factors to help determine if the role is a good fit:

  • Salary: Do you want to prioritize finding a position that offers a high salary (which may require advanced degrees, more certifications and more work)? Are you open to starting off at a lower salary and working your way up while gaining experience and connections?
  • Possibilities of remote or hybrid work: Do you prefer to work in an office, remotely or some combination of the two?
  • Level of collaboration: Do you want to work for a company that emphasizes team collaboration, or do you prefer to work alone?
  • Educational requirements/certifications: Do you need a formal education to be successful in this role? Do you need additional certifications? Does the role you’re interested in require a master’s degree?

Steps to Becoming a Software Engineer

While the exact path you follow to become a software engineer can vary, there are a few specific steps you should take to increase your odds of landing your dream job.

Step 1: Planning your career path

  • Learning more about the field and your interests within it
  • Understanding the expectations of the role
  • Researching the career path and how to navigate it

Step 2: Obtaining an education

  • Earning a college education with a focus in computer engineering
  • Completing coding bootcamps
  • Following a self-directed learning path

Step 3: Gaining experience

  • Taking part in internships, mentorships, volunteer experiences, personal projects and so on

Step 4: Getting certifications

  • Completing software engineering certifications to help you stand out from other applicants

Step 5: Building your portfolio

  • Assembling a body of work that displays your expertise and experience

Step 6: Applying for jobs

  • Mapping out career goals
  • Finding potential jobs based on those goals
  • Updating your resume and professional profiles

How Long Does It Take to Become a Software Engineer?

The length of time it takes to become a software engineer depends on the educational path you choose to take.

  • College education route: Minimum of four years for a bachelor’s degree; one to two years to complete a master’s degree (the USD Master’s Degree in Applied Artificial Intelligence – Online can be completed in 20 months)
  • Bootcamp route: Courses range from three to six months, after which you will be prepared for an entry-level position in the field.
  • Independent/self-directed route: Uncertain timeline; depends on the learner’s discipline and motivation. If working full-time in another position, it could take much longer.

Hard and Soft Skills Employers Are Looking For

Hard skills are the specific, objective abilities an individual can express in a quantifiable way. Some of the key hard skills employers want to see in prospective software engineers include knowledge of the following programming languages and technical concepts:

  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • SQL
  • C++
  • C#
  • Python
  • Databases (structures, architecture, and so on)
  • Operating systems
  • SaaS
  • Source code
  • UI toolkits and frameworks
  • Web services
  • Web API

Soft skills, on the other hand, are the abilities held by an individual that are difficult to measure in an objective way. The soft skills that are essential to software engineers include:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Ability to Multitask
  • Organization
  • Attention to detail
  • Problem solving
  • Analytical skills

Average Software Engineer Salaries and Job Outlook

While many professions may be on the way out as a result of automation and the technology boom of the past decade, the outlook for software engineering is bright.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field is growing at a much faster rate than the average for all other occupations, estimating that 162,900 software-related positions will be filled each year through 2031.

So what is fueling such a high demand for software engineers? As businesses grow, so does the need for software applications and operating systems. There are an increasing number of products that require software, and some industries, such as healthcare and medical insurance, have seen a recent explosion in demand for software solutions. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic helped usher in a new era of e-commerce, in which businesses are prioritizing online experiences and capabilities.

BLS provides the average salaries for positions in this field as follows:

  • Software publishers — $130,180
  • Manufacturing — $124,950
  • Management of companies and enterprises — $120,710
  • Computer systems design and related services — $103,010
  • Insurance carriers and related activities — $102,380

Wages for software engineers vary depending on factors such as company size, education level, years of experience and geographic location. BLS reports that the median annual wage for the category of software developers, quality assurance analysts and testers is just over $110,000, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $65,210 and the highest 10 percent earning more than $170,000. For software engineers specifically, Indeed estimates that the average annual salary is just about $109,117.

Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

When you work as a software engineer, you fulfill many different roles throughout the software life cycle. On a daily basis, software engineers can expect to:

  • Meet with clients or executives to initiate project development
  • Assemble charts and diagrams for visual depictions of software
  • Code and supervise a team of programmers
  • Run tests and fix issues that arise in the programs they have developed

How to Land a Software Engineering Job — And Which Companies Are Hiring

Once you’ve completed your software engineering coursework and gained some meaningful early experience in the field, you’ll be ready to apply for and land your dream role.

Get hired as a software engineer by following these steps:

  1. Complete your education and training
  2. Get experience through an internship
  3. Search for entry-level positions
  4. Build up your portfolio of professional work
  5. Update your resume
  6. Earn industry certifications
  7. Network with professionals from the software industry
  8. Look for and attend software industry job fairs
  9. Visit software companies in person
  10. Apply via online job boards or platforms like Indeed and AngelList

Practically every company that uses any type of technology will require the skills of a software engineer. Here are the top companies hiring software engineers right now:

  • VMware Incorporated
  • Amazon
  • Travelers
  • Humana
  • Capital One
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • Raytheon
  • Salesforce
  • Wells Fargo
  • Dell
  • Microsoft Corporation
  • Citizens Financial Group
  • Peraton Corporation
  • Northrop Grumman
  • L3Harris
  • Boeing
  • Facebook/Meta

The Future of Software Engineering

The software industry is ever evolving to meet the changing needs of businesses by incorporating innovative technologies. Here is just a sampling of what to expect for the future of the software industry:

  • Cloud services
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Low code development
  • Blockchain technology
  • Cybersecurity
  • AR & VR
  • Introduction of new programming languages
  • Continuous integration and continuous deployment
  • Advanced algorithms driving automation

The field of software engineering is growing rapidly and offers a range of opportunities for those entering this branch of computer science. If you’re interested in designing, developing, testing and maintaining computer programs and systems, then working as a software engineer may be the perfect fit. With impressive salaries and limitless possibilities thanks to emerging technologies, the sky’s the limit when you pursue work as a software engineer.

Software Engineering FAQs

What qualifications do you need to become a software engineer?

To work as a software engineer, you need to have in-depth knowledge of software engineering concepts, including a range of programming languages and the ability to design and develop applications and operating systems. Although a college degree is not required, you will need to demonstrate your expertise through a portfolio of work to ensure you have the skills needed to excel in the role.

How long does it take to become a software engineer?

There is no set length of time it takes to become a software engineer, as it depends on whether you choose to earn a college degree or complete self-directed coursework at your own pace.

How do you start as a software engineer?

Depending on the educational route you take, you may start your career in the software engineering field with an entry-level position and then work your way up the career ladder. Break into the industry by completing the necessary coursework, gaining meaningful experience through volunteer work, internships and personal projects. Then start applying for positions that appeal to you.

How much does a software engineer make?

The average salary for a software engineer is about $109,117 per year.

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