How to Become a Software Engineer
The practice of software engineering blends engineering, computing, project management, and software development.
Software engineering is a field that is vitally important to computer technology as a whole. Without the software to run the computer hardware, that hardware is simply a clump of plastic, silicon and metal – perhaps useful as an overpriced paperweight.
In the strictest sense, software engineering is the application of engineering principles to the design, development and implementation of software. Because software engineering is such as a unique, scientific and technically-driven field, special training and formal degrees are required. By getting a degree in software engineering, graduates can work in any number of fields creating video games, developing internet applications, running computer networks or implementing computer security measures for an organization. Find out more about software engineering degrees and careers, and learn about salaries and employment projections for this specialized field.
What Does a Software Engineer do?
Software Engineering Basics
Combining business sense with programming know-how, software engineers devise software application solutions for business problems. Software engineers work with different platforms, such as the Internet, mobile devices, and desktop computers.
Software Engineering In-Depth
The practice of software engineering blends engineering, computing, project management, and software development. Software engineers manage a comprehensive list of critical functions across broad knowledge areas, such as Web and mobile applications, embedded systems, networking, data, security and systems administration. These critical functions span the entire development process, which often includes business needs and use analysis, design and development, implementation, quality assurance testing, and product release.
As a profession, software engineering has two central specializations: software/systems development and applications development. Applications developers review the needs of a user to design and code computer applications for different platforms, such as Web, social media, and mobile. Software/systems engineers, on the other hand, use programming languages and frameworks to design and create systems that keep technology functioning correctly.
Software Engineer Salaries
The market demand for qualified software engineers has created an arms race for the top talent. Salary research from ComputerWorld, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Robert Half International all reveal the same thing: Companies are willing to pay a premium to acquire top talent, with some annual salaries pushing northward of six figures. ComputerWorld’s 2015 IT salary survey reported average salaries of nearly $109,000 for software engineers, while Robert Half reported earnings that range from $96,000 to $147,000. The financial climate is good for individuals considering a career in the field — Robert Half projects salaries will climb by 6.6 percent in 2016.
Steps to Becoming a Software Engineer
Software engineering is an ever-changing profession, one that adapts as new technologies are developed. Because of its shifting nature, there are multiple entry points into the profession. Although no single path to becoming a software engineer exists, the steps below outline the general path to employment.
Get an Education
Completing a formal education is the first step toward becoming a software engineer. Prospective students can select from both traditional and nontraditional training programs to gain the education necessary to pursue entry-level positions. Some options include:
Associate Degree (Two Years).
Although employers typically prefer candidates with a four-year degree, an associate degree can open the door to entry-level jobs in the field. Students may choose to pursue majors in several related areas, such as software engineering technology or software systems engineering. Curriculum focuses on the core principles of software engineering, programming languages, and modern approaches to software development.
Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years).
A bachelor’s degree in computer science, or a related field, is the traditional minimum degree preferred by employers. Bachelor’s degree programs expose students to a broader curriculum, one that provides a foundation in mathematics and computer science. Students develop a comprehensive understanding of programming, software architecture, and software testing. They may also take specialized courses in application areas, such as networking or embedded systems.
Coding Bootcamp (8 To 12 Weeks).
Coding bootcamps are a relatively new educational path for aspiring software engineers or developers. These programs typically last between eight and 12 weeks and place students into a hands-on, immersive learning environment. Upon graduation, students should be ready for entry-level careers as software engineers or developers.
Do an Internship
Completing an internship provides students with real world experience. Technology companies may offer internships for students with a bachelor’s or master’s degree who are seeking to expand their skills in specific areas, such as Java, XML or SQL. Internships typically last between three and six months and allow students to work on specific projects or products related to their skills.
Pursue a Specialization
Generally speaking, there are two specializations within software engineering: applications and software/systems development. However, distinct areas of practice exist within each of these areas. Software engineers may choose to become experts in a single programming language or type of development. Below is a list of example specialty areas to consider:
Technical stack (e.g., Python, Ruby)
Pursue Entry-Level Career Opportunities
After earning a computer science or related degree or completing a bootcamp program, the next step is to seek out entry-level employment. Because of the demand, software engineering has been rated one of the best entry-level careers available, according to Forbes. Although the dream job may be at Google, prospective software engineers can start with a small, local job hunt because, in the profession, experience is a critical commodity for career advancement.
Although some certifications have lost their luster, they remain an integral part of the tech industry. Software engineering is precise and technical, and gaining certification verifies an applicant’s knowledge and abilities. Along with experience, certification can improve a person’s marketability in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Certifications are available from technology vendors (e.g., Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle) as well as professional organizations (e.g., IEEE) and are tailored to specific areas of practice.
Innovation drives change. That means software engineers need to stay abreast of the latest developments in both the general profession and their specialty. Attending conferences is a great way to network with other engineers and learn about new products, business practices, and technologies. Popular conferences for software engineers include the International Conference on Software Engineering and the International Conference on Automated Software Engineering.
Earn a Graduate Degree
A graduate degree offers the opportunity to qualify for management and leadership positions in the industry. In addition, there is more to engineering than just programming. Software engineering calls upon interdisciplinary skills such as critical thinking, cost analysis and project management — skills that can be enhanced in a master’s program in computer science, computer engineering, information science or software engineering.
Software Engineer Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook
Today, software accounts for 19 percent of the IT market in the United States, according to research from CompTIA. A convergence of several factors are contributing to the age of the software engineer: the shift to cloud-based infrastructure, the rise of mobile devices and computing, the explosion of big data analytics, the yet-to-be-tapped potential of social media, and the need for companies to provide managed services.
What do Related Occupations Make?
Whether in online technology services, data storage, network management or security, technological innovation is driven by a central need: more effective and powerful computing solutions. Because programming languages and frameworks (e.g., HTML, SQL, Java, C++) cut across industry channels, individuals with both education and experience can stand out in today’s crowded and competitive IT marketplace. In turn, other tech roles are growing alongside software engineering, with salaries that can exceed $100,000 for experienced professionals.