What is a Software Engineer?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 4 December 2022

Published 26 June 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Software engineers work in nearly every industry, using computers and programs to offer software solutions. They can build and enhance their technical skills through formal education, earning professional certifications and engaging in independent study. If you're interested in becoming a software engineer, researching the curriculum and various career options can help you choose which career path to take. In this article, we outline what a software engineer is and what they do, the skills they have and the education needed to become a software engineer.

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What is a software engineer?

A software engineer is a computer science professional who uses code to develop computer systems and applications software. Computer systems and software are often programs like operating systems and computer utilities. Or, application software typically includes web browsers, database programs and other user-focused tools. Software engineers are responsible for the full life cycle of software development, from conception to testing and implementation. Besides designing software features, software engineers create specifications for system operations, develop testing plans and help clients integrate finished software tools into existing systems.

Some of the primary duties of software engineers are:

  • Performing needs assessments for clients

  • Creating software validation methods

  • Documenting and coordinating software updates

  • Improving system quality by identifying and eliminating bugs from code

  • Supervising system activity and assessing performance levels

  • Determining operational feasibility of software solutions

  • Implementing cybersecurity measures

  • Enhancing applications by identifying room for improvement

How much experience you have as an engineer determines your level of seniority. Entry-level software engineers help with basic feature development, whereas senior software engineers manage large-scale projects. Other professional titles for software engineers include:

  • Software developer

  • System engineer

  • Software QA engineer

  • Computer programmer

  • Software design engineer

  • Software architect

Related: Computer Programming vs. Computer Science (With Job Titles)

What are the benefits of being a software engineer?

You can build a successful career as a software engineer through a keen interest in science, maths, logic and problem-solving. Software engineering is an intriguing career option with several benefits, including these significant advantages:

  • High-income potential: On average, software engineers can earn as much as $73,086 per year, making it a lucrative industry with plenty of opportunities for financial success.

  • Interesting projects: Software engineers assist operations in diverse industries, resulting in unique and creative career opportunities. Software developers can concentrate on their job to create software for specific themes that they are passionate about.

  • Work security: Software engineering is a booming sector with a consistent supply of job possibilities, considering how software is essential to how society runs. You can expect an increasing demand for your abilities as a software engineer to facilitate emerging societal needs.

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What types of software engineer roles and education are there to pursue?

A college degree is highly beneficial for your career as a software engineer. While not all software engineers have a formal education, many businesses expect candidates to have one to be considered for a software engineering position. Some people start their careers by getting an associate degree and gaining work experience in information technology, while others pursue a bachelor's or even a master's degree. Regardless of the level of education you pursue, the following degree paths are excellent choices if you want to become a software engineer:

Software engineering

Many colleges offer a specific major in software engineering. A software engineering degree teaches students how to create computers and online programs from the beginning. These programs concentrate on software development, testing and installation. Whether you're seeking a bachelor's or master's degree, you can major in software engineering. Also, a degree in software engineering can help you land roles in information technology, quality analysis, data analysis and technology consulting.

Related: 8 Key Software Engineer Skills That Can Help You Succeed

Game development

If you're interested in working as a software developer in the entertainment industry, consider studying mobile app development or video game design. The software development industry strives to design products that are both useful and enjoyable for users on web browsers and cell phones. You can leverage your passion for software development to create visual graphics, create user interfaces and manage projects.

Related: Game Developer Skills: Definition and Examples

Information technology

Information technology majors learn how to design online applications, manage databases and construct computer systems and networks. The degree would allow you to learn about the physical gear needed to run computer programs and the digital processes that build software functionalities. A background in information technology can assist you in developing the ability to become a successful software engineer.

Related: What Does an Information Technologist Do? Role and Skills

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is a growing sector that allows software developers to send and retain customer data securely. Cybersecurity professionals work for software development companies to provide security measures that prevent viruses and data breaches. Getting a degree in information security can qualify you for software engineering positions that work with sensitive data and ensure the stability of the system.

Computer science

A general computer science degree can teach you the fundamentals of computing, maths, engineering and programming. It's an extremely versatile degree in information technology and software industries, making it a strong option for students who want to work in a variety of information technology roles. A computer science degree also teaches you how to apply computing concepts to scientific and business applications.

Applied computing

Getting an applied computer degree would enable you to master practical skills concerning technical computer tenets. You can study applied computing to discover the appropriate software development methodologies to produce industry-specific software. Getting an applied computing degree entails developing effective software applications that address real-world issues for corporations and scientific organisations.

Do you need a master's degree to become a software engineer?

Even though many software engineers have a master's degree, it's not mandatory to gain employment in the field. It's common for some software engineers to learn complex coding through self-taught measures or online courses. As an alternative to earning a master's degree, you can also prove your software engineering qualifications by taking certification exams or working on independent projects to broaden your software portfolio.

That said, an advanced degree often helps you become a more competitive candidate, giving you a wider range of employment opportunities. A master's degree is also ideal for those who want to specialise in software development or aspire to apply for leadership positions.

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What software engineering classes are there to expect in your degree plan?

As a student pursuing a degree in software engineering or a closely related field, you can take several specialised and advanced courses to understand the best practices of highly technical tasks. A majority of software engineering degrees include courses that describe basic computer science and different ways to apply it to real-life situations.

You can expect to take the following types of courses and topics while completing your degree in software engineering:

  • Theoretical foundations of computer science

  • Discrete mathematics for computing

  • Software governance rules

  • Agile development

  • Database design

  • Computer hardware

  • Linux, Unix, Python and JavaScript programming

  • UX engineering

  • Web security protocols

  • Risk management

  • Computer architecture

  • Software requirements, modelling, testing and validation

  • Data communications and analysis

  • Web server frameworks

  • Networking

  • Cloud computing

  • Systems and computer programming

  • Software design

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What does it take to be a software engineer?

Aside from a degree in software engineering, top software engineering positions require a variety of other qualifications. You can enhance your qualifications while pursuing a degree or focus on gaining sufficient experience to qualify for a position without a degree. Here are some of the most prevalent software engineer qualities you can include in your job applications:

Technical skills

Because software engineering is such a complex field, businesses seek people who have a high level of proficiency in all aspects of computing. A critical part of becoming a software engineer is being knowledgeable about specific programming languages, software interfaces and application development processes. Soft skills are also of great essence as they enable you to solve problems and communicate with others. The following are some of the important skills to include on your resume:

  • Object-oriented design

  • Testing and debugging

  • SQL

  • Process analysis

  • HTML

  • Java

  • Python

  • C and C++

  • Ruby and Ruby on Rails

  • Back-end development

  • Front-end development

  • Full-stack development

  • Attention to detail

  • Logical thinking

  • Multitasking

  • Troubleshooting

  • Communication

Related: 10 Best Skills To Include on a Resume

Experience

You can gather experience through entry-level computer science positions, like internships, freelancing and open-source initiatives. If you have less formal education, employers sometimes expect more experience. If you have a large portfolio of independent or freelance projects, you might use your proven skills and experience to find work without having a previous formal job. It's possible to start as a junior software developer and become a software engineer after gaining enough experience.

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Certifications

Many software engineers seek professional certification to show their abilities to prospective employers. Multiple speciality certificates demonstrate you meet or surpass industry standards, which can increase an employer's confidence in your talents. Certifications are available in areas like software security, life cycle development, networking and coding. There are vendor-specific certifications created by companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Amazon Web Services to show mastery of their software products, too.

Related: 6 Types of Java Certification (Plus Tips to Achieve Them)

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article is affiliated with Indeed. Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate’s experience, academic background and location.

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