From mobile banking apps and online booking systems to telehealth appointments and telecommuting platforms, the tools of today’s technology-driven world would not be possible without the work of software engineers. So what does a software engineer do?
Software engineers combine engineering principles with computer programming and coding languages to design, build, maintain, and repair software solutions for businesses, government agencies, and consumers. Software engineers can work on everything from computer games and cloud-based applications to business software or data analysis tools for larger companies.
“A software engineer designs and implements software on different platforms in different (coding) languages,” said Olga Mølle, a software engineer and adjunct faculty at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “Sometimes we debug existing software or write new software.”
As technology becomes more ingrained in everyday life, the work of software engineers continues to grow and evolve. If you’re interested in a fast-paced tech career, it’s important to understand what a software engineer does and explore career opportunities in the field.
What is Software Engineering?
Software engineering is a broad field that plays a role in virtually every industry today, from healthcare and financial services to manufacturing, education and government. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software engineering is a form of software development.
Do software engineers only code?
While software engineering is often compared to computer science and programming, it’s actually a much broader career path, Mill said. Software engineers and programmers both play a role in the development of software, but their scope of work is very different.
While programmers may be responsible for writing specific code or creating a certain functionality in a piece of software, software engineers look at the big picture, Mill said. Software engineers help ensure that a piece of software not only works, but that it works in a way that aligns with industry needs, compliance standards, and end-user needs.
“You really have to know your industry and know the latest software development practices,” Mill said.
What does a software engineer do day to day?
A software engineer’s day-to-day responsibilities will vary depending on the industry you work in and your specific role.
Mill said the role of a software engineer is constantly changing, thanks to regulatory and technology shifts across many industries, as well as the introduction of new software development tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud-based systems.
If you’re interested in becoming a software engineer, Mill said, be ready for a career-long learning experience.
“Don’t be afraid to learn new things,” Mill said. “Adopting new technologies and being open-minded is a requirement.”
Despite these many shifts, there are some common tasks that many software engineers are responsible for on a regular basis. According to Mill, these include:
- Designing new software and updating existing software using a variety of coding languages
- Documentation of design and functionality of existing software for future reference
- Investigation, identification and resolution of software problems
- Ensuring the security of software programs and development environments
- Write reports to communicate software updates, requirements or performance with all stakeholders
Where can software engineers work?
Because almost every industry and business today relies on software for some aspect of their daily work, the opportunities for software engineers are virtually limitless.
Mill said software engineers can find work in fields including:
- Aviation, aviation and manufacturing
- Banking and financial institutions
- Cyber security, data analysis and software development
- Health and insurance
- Hospitality and marketing
According to the BLS, 1.6 million software developers, including software engineers, were employed in 2022. The industries employing the most software development workers were:
- Computer system design and related services (33%)
- Software publishers (11%)
- Finance and insurance (10%)
- Manufacturing (8%)
- Management of companies and enterprises (5%)
Do software engineers work from home?
Many software engineers across many industries work from home. While not a guarantee if you’re looking for remote work, software development is ripe with opportunity.* According to a 2022 study from Stack Overflow, about 43% of software developers worked in fully remote positions that year. Another 42% worked in partially remote jobs.
How to become a software engineer
The journey to becoming a software engineer typically starts with education. While some engineers who have worked in the field for a long time may be self-taught or have only a software development certificate, Mill said most companies today are looking for workers with a four-year degree or higher.
How long does it take to become a software engineer?
According to the BLS, most software developers need a bachelor’s degree to get a job. So you could get started in the field in a few years.
Earning a software engineering bachelor’s degree can give you the knowledge and hands-on learning experience you need to succeed in the field. In a course you will learn the principles of designing software on time, on budget and within certain specifications, exploring a number of key topics including:
- Approaches to reverse engineering code
- New trends in system architecture
- Secure coding techniques
- User interface/user experience (UI/UX) design and development techniques
Many software engineering degrees will also include opportunities to solve real-world problems through hands-on software design and development and internships, so you can build a portfolio of your experience that can help you land a job.
Does software engineering require mathematics?
A software engineering bachelor’s degree will definitely include math courses as part of the requirements.
Mathematics courses may include applied linear algebra, discrete mathematics, and mathematics for computers.
But Mill said that while math is part of the preparation for software development, most jobs don’t require advanced math work.
In fact, Mill said that equating the field with mathematics is one of the most common misconceptions about software engineering. Instead, she said, the logical thinking and problem-solving strategies gained in an undergraduate degree are often even more important than math skills.
Do you need a master’s degree to be a software engineer?
If you want to advance your career, take on leadership or teaching roles, or focus on a specific area of software technology, earning a master’s degree in software development can give you a leg up.
A master’s degree will not only delve deeper into software design and development techniques; it can also help you build important soft skills that Mill said are necessary for a successful software engineering career, such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
Is Software Engineering a Good Career?
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, challenging career with plenty of opportunities to learn new things, software engineering may be right for you. It is also a growing industry with great earning potential and strong career opportunities.*
Do software engineers get paid a lot?
It depends on how you define a lot. Workers in the software engineering field have great earning potential. Software developers earned a median annual salary of $127,260 in 2022, according to BLS data.*
Depending on where you work, your earning potential could be even higher. According to the BLS, software developers who work in software publishing and production earned $134,430 and $132,130 respectively in 2022.* The highest paid 10% of software developers earned more than $198,100 in the same year.*
Are software engineers in demand?
Like the earning potential of software engineers, the number of job opportunities in the field can vary depending on the industry you work in. But across many industries, software engineers are in high demand.
According to BLS data, employment of software developers and similar workers is expected to grow by 25% between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the national average.* While some of this growth is due to the need to replace retiring workers or workers moving to other occupations much of the increase in demand stems from the growth of new technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics and other automation technologies, according to the BLS.
Mill said that while the software industry can be a competitive field, with many applicants going after each job, there are plenty of ways to advance your career after landing your first job.
“In the software industry, it’s common to move very quickly,” said Mill.* “It’s very common to take an entry-level position and move up from there. Just find something you’re interested in, you’re passionate about, and go for it.”
Advance a software engineering career
While specific job titles can vary between companies, Mill said the hierarchy of software engineering positions is fairly standard across the industry.
Entry-level positions are typically classified as Software Engineer I. As you gain more experience, take on larger projects, and expand your education, it is possible to advance to positions including (in order):
- Software Engineer II
- Software Engineer III
- Staff Software Engineer
- Senior software engineer
- Principal Software Engineer
The more advanced software engineering positions typically require more strategic thinking and collaboration with other departments and may include mentoring newer employees, Mill said.
“As you move up, you can have more responsibility,” she said. “It can also mean that you work on more complicated and larger projects.”
Eventually, Mill said, you can also take on leadership roles and lead a team of other engineers.
Is it hard to be a software engineer?
Mill said that no matter what level your software engineering career is at, it can be a challenging field.
Because being a good software engineer requires a strong knowledge of coding languages and a solid understanding of the industry you work in, it can take a long time to feel comfortable in a new job, Mill said. And with rapid changes coming to the tech world all the time, there’s always something new to learn or software to update.
“People don’t realize how fast this field is,” Mill said. “Every time we get a job, we have to learn a lot.”
Still, Mill said that while all these changes can make a career in software engineering stressful, it also makes it very rewarding. Surveys among software engineers support this.
According to a 2022 survey of software engineers by Stack Overflow, nearly 70% of workers in the United States are happy in their jobs. Survey respondents reported that pay, work-life balance, flexibility and opportunities for growth were some of the top reasons for their overall satisfaction.
*Job growth projections quoted may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location and employee skills.
Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer with a focus on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.