Everything you need to know about becoming a software engineer

A software engineer is an expert in computer code, computational infrastructure, and using those two things to create the programs, systems and websites we all use every day. They may work for companies, be independent contractors, or work in research-based roles developing new code and teaching up-and-coming software engineers.

What does a software engineer do?

A software engineer can have a large number of roles, due to the ever-increasing number of places that computer programs are used. They may have any of the following jobs:

  • Website design
  • E-commerce system development
  • Cloud computing infrastructure optimization
  • Gaming developer
  • Computer graphics development
  • Computer code maintenance and improvement
  • Designing enterprise applications
  • Cybersecurity defenses
  • iOS/Android app development

The options are really endless when looking at jobs that software engineers have. They can work on highly technical teams devoted to very specific code and programming, or they can work on multi-disciplinary teams, using their prowess in software to help solve problems and develop new products.

While most engineers will have a rudimentary working knowledge of code, software engineers are fluent in at least one programming language. They have the same problem-solving and technical skills as other engineers, but they use computer code as their primary tool.

Some software engineers work for large e-commerce brands, designing their online storefronts, and working to deliver process and speed improvements for customers. They may program emerging technologies, like chatbots, to help with customer experience. Or, they may specialize in debugging, maintenance and resolving technical issues on the backend of a website.

Some software engineers specialize in video game development, while others are responsible for the design and upkeep of specialized software. For example, software engineers design:

  • Simulation software for other types of engineers, like mechanical engineers
  • Project planning and collaboration software to enable remote work
  • Email programs, networks and systems to power our communication
  • Accounting software and online banking
  • Artificial intelligence that powers autonomous vehicles

How do you become a software engineer?

There are many paths to working in software engineering. The first, and most traditional, is to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree in computer or software engineering. By attending a college engineering program that is ABET-accredited, students can then apply to get their Professional Engineer designation after they graduate and have completed the compulsory years of experience in the field.

Software engineering, however, is a very fast-moving, flexible, and creative profession. Many professionals find their way into software engineering through coding boot camps, two-year certificate programs, on-the-job training, or even by studying other types of engineering and deciding later to specialize in software. Those who studied computer science in college often make the transition to software development or engineering work as well.

Of course, to be a licensed Professional Engineer, formal training is a requirement. But to work with software engineers, and to problem solve, code, and design software, many companies are open to different professional backgrounds. The best way to work in software engineering at a chosen organization is to verify their standards for hiring and to seek out the training required.

What skills do you need to become a software engineer?

A software engineer must be proficient in at least one computer programming language, such as Python, C++, Ruby or JavaScript. They must also have experience coding, debugging and maintaining code repositories, which requires an engineer to be quite meticulous. Software engineers are experts in using computer code to solve problems, which also means they understand how computer hardware works and how best to run programs on that hardware.

In addition to having coding and computer engineering skills, a software engineer needs to be an excellent communicator, both in their code and when working with other people who are less proficient at programming. Inside their code files, software engineers need to carefully leave comments to explain to others how the program works, making it easier to add to or correct at a later date. In addition, software engineers are highly technical people, and learning how to explain what they do to their teammates who are less familiar with programming is a huge asset.

What is the average salary for a software engineer?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 software developers (which includes software engineers) made a median salary of $110,104. In 2019, there were nearly 1.5 million people employed in software development and engineering. That number is set to increase dramatically over the next decade.

What is the typical career path for a software engineer?

Because software engineering is a rapidly growing and changing profession, the typical career path can be many things. But if an engineer wants to pursue licensure and their Professional Engineer certification, then there are a few things they will need to acquire:

  • ABET-accredited engineering degree
  • Four years of experience working for a Professional Engineer
  • Passing the Engineering Fundamentals Exam
  • Passing the Professional Engineer Exam