What Is a Software Engineer?


Updated October 30, 2023

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Software engineers create operating systems, applications, and programs. Explore this career, including education requirements, key skills, and salary potential.

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Software engineers design and develop computer programs and applications. Strong demand for skilled software engineers means that professionals can pursue many employment options in various industries.

Find out more about software engineering, including information on typical skills, career paths, and similar specializations. We also cover employment, salary data, and professional organizations.

History of Software Engineers

In 1963, Margaret Hamilton, coined the term software engineering while working on developing the software for the Apollo spacecraft. At this time, software development faced a crisis in trying to keep up with the progress in hardware development. This period led to the rise of software engineering by introducing new programs and languages.

In 1968 and 1969, the NATO Software Engineering Conference took place, giving the software engineering industry a much-needed boost. By the 1980s, software engineering secured its place alongside the computer science and traditional engineering professions.

What Is a Software Engineer?

Software engineers create web applications, mobile apps, robots, operating systems, and network systems. They develop software solutions that meet their companies' needs and expectations. Note that the terms "software engineer" and "software developer" are used interchangeably in the industry, but these positions' responsibilities vary slightly.

Software engineers design software solutions, while software developers build those solutions to make them ready for consumers. Depending on the type of company they work for, software engineers will create original code for software and applications. They also build reusable code for future use.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Computer software engineers develop programs and operating systems for computers. They work with system programmers, analysts, and other engineers to design systems, project capabilities, and determine performance interfaces.

Computer software engineers also analyze user needs, provide consultation services to discuss design elements, and coordinate software installation. Designing software systems requires engineers to consider mathematical models and scientific analysis to project outcomes.

The demand for skilled computer software engineers continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that software developer, analyst, and tester jobs will increase by 25% between 2021 and 2031, five times faster than the national average.

Computer software engineers can find employment in almost any industry since most companies use software. In fact, the BLS projects over 682,000 new computer and information technology jobs. As companies have more complex software needs, they need software engineers to create new programming applications and tools.

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Main Duties of Software Engineers

  • System Design: System design involves defining the outline for web applications and products efficiently and clearly. These designs provide information and data in the coding framework for the software developer to make the product.
  • Establish New Documentation: All new technology requires documentation for people to understand its functionality. This might look like creating or updating products and supporting documentation. The software engineer writes this supporting documentation.
  • Maintain Software Functionality: Software engineers maintain existing software and create new software. This includes making updates to align with the latest industry and company standards, troubleshooting problems, and brainstorming future improvements. Maintenance is equally as important as writing new code.
  • Troubleshoot and Upgrade Existing Systems: Along with maintaining existing systems, software engineers also troubleshoot problems when they arise. Both internal company systems and clients may need help solving problems. Software engineers also make updates as needed to ensure existing systems remain usable.
  • Comply with Company and Industry Standards: Technology is a rapidly changing field. Products and systems must keep up with these changes. Software engineers usually oversee these updates. They must match industry trends and ensure their systems align with industry standards.

Nonstandard Duties for Software Engineers

  • Work with Clients: Many software engineers do not work directly with clients. However, working at a small company or startup can change this dynamic. If a software developer leads a project, they might regularly consult with the client to ensure the final product meets their expectations.
  • Manage Internal Teams and Projects: Software engineers might manage internal teams and projects depending on the company and their roles. Experienced software engineers in a senior-level role at the company typically oversee teams.
  • Interview and Hire for New Positions: If a new hire is being interviewed for their team, software engineers might speak with the job candidate to ensure a good fit. The final selection to fill roles usually falls on upper management. Still, a software engineer’s feedback is taken into consideration.
  • Collaborate with Front-end Developers: Software engineers do not usually handle front-end development, but they might partner with front-end developers on some projects. In some cases, the front-end developer needs feedback from the software engineer to ensure they create a great product.
  • Build Software with Code: A software engineer writes the code and creates the framework then a software developer executes the build. However, depending on the company and job description, software engineers might create new software with the developer.

Key Soft Skills for Software Engineers

  • Communication: Software engineers must be adept in communication, problem-solving, and teamwork. They may report progress to a supervisor, explain a product to a client, or coordinate with team members to work on the same product.
  • Multitasking: Software development can require engineers to split attention across different modules of the same project, or switch easily between projects when working on a deadline or meeting team needs.
  • Organization: To handle multiple projects through their various stages and keep track of details, software engineers must demonstrate a certain level of organization. Busy supervisors oversee entire teams and must access information efficiently at a client's request.
  • Attention to Detail: Concentration plays a critical role for software engineers. They must troubleshoot coding issues and bugs as they arise, and keep track of various complex details surrounding multiple ongoing projects.

Key Hard Skills for Software Engineers

  • Data Structures: Programmers and software engineers use data structures and algorithms to build computer programs. Engineers' skills in data structures and algorithms help them create efficient and well-optimized code.
  • Software Testing: Software engineers test new programs and applications to evaluate and verify features and functionality. This improves performances and fixes defects. They must also know the software development lifecycle to plan, test, and deploy systems.
  • Programming Languages: Software engineers write code for computer programs and applications. Some popular languages include Python, C++, and Java.
  • Core Computer Science Knowledge: Software engineers need a strong understanding of computer science concepts like databases, operating systems, and computer networking. Professionals use database management systems like SQL and must know various operating systems, including Linux.

A few of the most popular programming languages software engineers need to know include:

  • Java: This programming language produces software on multiple platforms without the need for recompilation. The code runs on nearly all operating systems including Mac OS or Windows. Java uses syntax from C and C++ programming. Browser-operated programs facilitate GUI and object interaction from users.
  • JavaScript: This scripting programming language allows users to perform complex tasks. Most web pages are written in Javascript. This language allows users to update content, animate images, operate multimedia, and store variables. JavaScript represents one of the web's three major technologies.
  • SQL: Also known as Structured Query Language, SQL queries, updates, modifies, deletes, and inserts data. To achieve this, SQL uses a set number of commands. This computer language is standard for data manipulation and relational database management. Professionals use SQL to manage structured data where relationships between variables and entities exist.
  • C++: Regarded as an object-oriented, general purpose programming language, C++ uses both low and high-level language. Since virtually all computers contain C++, software engineers must understand this language. C++ encompasses most C programs without switching the source code line. C++ primarily manipulates text, numbers, and other computer-capable tasks.
  • C#: Initially developed for Microsoft, this highly expressive program language is simpler than other languages, yet it includes components of C++ and Java. Generic types and methods provide additional safety and increased performance. C# also allows professionals to define iteration behavior while supporting encapsulation, polymorphism, and inheritance.
  • Python: This high-level programming language contains dynamic semantics, structures, typing, and binding that connect existing components; however, the Python syntax is easy to learn with no compilation stage involved, reducing program maintenance and enhancing productivity. Python also supports module and package use, which allows engineers to use the language for varying projects.

A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

Software engineers' daily responsibilities can vary depending on their position. They may work with clients or executives to develop projects and design programs to meet those expectations. They also assemble charts and diagrams, write code, and supervise a team of programmers. Software engineers also run tests and fix issues that may occur with the programs.

Software Engineer Career and Salary Outlook

Salaries for software engineers can vary based on the industry, location, and the employee's years of experience. Payscale reports an average salary of $89,160 for software engineers as of September 2022. With experience, software engineer salaries can grow rapidly, with the average rising to $94,000 for those with 5-9 years of experience.

While the BLS does not distinguish between software engineers and developers, reports for these occupations highlight particularly lucrative industries and states in the field. Software developers earn a median annual wage of $109,020.

California ranks highest in the nation for software developer salaries, with an annual average salary of $146,770. Washington is next on the list, with an average salary of $145,150. Maryland ranks third, followed closely by New York and Rhode Island.


Annual Median Salary

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Become a Software Engineer

Software engineers need at least a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, information technology, or a related field. For more senior roles or management positions, employers may require significant experience in the role or a master’s degree. Those looking into research and teaching roles could benefit from a doctorate in software engineering or computer science.

Individuals can gain software engineering skills by completing degree programs, industry certifications, or bootcamps. Software engineering bootcamps can provide intense, project-based training for entry-level positions. Employers also often seek at least two years of work experience in a computing role.

Get an in-depth look into the career path of a software engineer. Learn more about the daily routine and tasks of a software engineer. Explore top degree programs and salary information for software engineers. Discover the different software engineering bootcamps for intense, project-based training.

Similar Specializations and Career Paths

Those with a degree and experience in software engineering can explore different computing career options. Although the exact opportunities will depend on their specific education, industry, and geographic location, software engineers can pursue high-paying jobs and career advancement.

  • Full-Stack Developer: A full-stack developer works on both front-end and back-end programming. These professionals are well-versed in multiple programming languages. They design and build complete applications and websites, including infrastructure and aesthetics.
  • Information Security Analyst: Information security analysts monitor their company's computer networks to prevent, diagnose, and investigate security breaches. Their typical tasks include updating and maintaining software programs, detecting vulnerabilities in firewalls and data encryption, and taking the right measures to protect sensitive information.
  • Computer Programmer: Computer programmers are coding professionals tasked with writing, modifying, and testing scripts that power software programs and applications. Programmers work closely with software developers to turn designs into code that a computer needs to function. This role requires proficiency in several programming languages.
  • Data Scientist: The job of a data scientist involves collecting and analyzing structured and unstructured data to identify business needs and market trends and patterns. A data scientist often has a degree in computer engineering or data science, or a background in math, statistics, or economics.
  • Systems Analyst: A systems analyst is a computer professional responsible for maintaining and monitoring a company's IT systems. They resolve technical issues and collaborate with different departments to ensure business requirements fit with the company's technologies.
Career Required Education Required Experience Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2021-2031)

Full-Stack Developer

Bachelor's Degree




Information Security Analyst

Bachelor's Degree

3 years



Computer Programmer

Bachelor's Degree

3 years



Data Scientist

Bachelor's Degree

5 years



Systems Analyst

Bachelor's Degree




Source: BLS

Professional Organizations for Software Engineers

In an industry that changes quickly, software engineers can benefit from participating in professional organizations. Most organizations offer many ways for members to stay up to date on current trends and changes in the field through newsletters, publications, and events.

Professional organizations may also provide career advancement assistance, including job boards and mentorship programs. One of the best ways to network with colleagues in the field, professional organizations may also offer a host of helpful online forums, local meetings, and annual conferences.

  • The Institution of Engineering and Technology: Dedicated to uniting engineers across disciplines, the IET provides members with career assistance through mentorship and job management tools, professional development courses, and connection to local community networks.
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: With a mission centered around the benefits technology can provide to society, the IEEE provides a membership database searchable by career level. Benefits include chapter membership by career level, continuing education opportunities, online and in-person networking, discounts, and opportunities for humanitarian work.
  • Computing Research Association: Connecting computer research organizations such as university departments and professional organizations, CRA provides public education on the industry, works with lawmakers, and offers events and publications for members.
  • Association for Computing Machinery: Dedicated to promoting communication among computer science educators, researchers, and professionals, ACM offers membership benefits, including a job center; networking opportunities; annual conferences; a digital library; and a learning center featuring books, webinars, and videos.
  • Association for Women in Computing: With a mission centered around the advancement of women in the field, AWC offers networking, mentorship opportunities, continuing education, and events such as monthly local chapter meetings.

Questions About Computer Software Engineers

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is a branch of computer science that uses engineering principles to develop computer programs and operating systems.

Can anyone have a career as a software engineer?

Software engineers typically hold a bachelor's degree or higher in computer engineering, software engineering, or computer science. Some employers require work experience in the field.

What's the difference between a software engineer and software developer?

Software engineers analyze and design software systems, while developers lead and create the software. But, engineers often participate in software development.

What do entry-level software engineers do?

Entry-level software engineers may take on a variety of roles. While working with a team, they may focus on the back end of software development and build the code structure, or on the front end to ensure that the user interface stays consistent. They may also focus on quality assurance testing.

Do software engineers need math?

Yes, software engineering uses different forms of advanced mathematics, such as calculus, discrete mathematics, linear algebra, and differential equations.

Reviewed by: Monali Mirel Chuatico

In 2019, Monali Mirel Chuatico graduated with her bachelor's in computer science, which gave her the foundation that she needed to excel in roles such as a data engineer, front-end developer, UX designer, and computer science instructor.

Monali is currently a data engineer at Mission Lane. As a data analytics captain at a nonprofit called COOP Careers, Monali helps new grads and young professionals overcome underemployment by teaching them data analytics tools and mentoring them on their professional development journey.

Monali is passionate about implementing creative solutions, building community, advocating for mental health, empowering women, and educating youth. Monali's goal is to gain more experience in her field, expand her skill set, and do meaningful work that will positively impact the world.

Monali Mirel Chuatico is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Page last reviewed Sep 14, 2022

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