software engineer (2024 Guide)

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

BrainStation’s Software Engineer career guide is intended to help you take the first steps toward a career in software engineering. Read on for an overview of what Software Engineers do in their day-to-day life on the job.

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A Software Engineer writes, codes, edits, tests, programs, and debugs software, applications, operating systems, games, information systems, and computer systems.

To put it differently, Software Engineers use their understanding of computer science, engineering, software development, and mathematics oversee the “guts” behind software programs, webpages, apps, games, and more.

Software Engineers collaborate closely with data professionals, web development teams, Systems Developers, and Project Managers to bring software projects to successful completion.

What Is a Software Engineer?

A Software Engineer applies engineering principles as well as extensive knowledge of programming languages, software development, and computer systems operation to develop, build and maintain systems and software.

Although it can vary based on the specifications of a job role, Software Engineers work on both applications software – user-focused programs that include computer games, database programs, and mobile apps – or computer systems software, which include operating systems, software systems, and computing utilities.

Software Engineer tends to be a more senior job within information technology, and as a result the amount of hands-on technical or development work handled by a Software Engineer will vary. In some cases, a Software Engineer might work with a client or company to understand what sort of programs might meet their needs before overseeing the actual software development process from a more high-level perspective, rather than spending their time writing code and programming personally.

Software Engineers are in increasingly high demand due to the growing popularity of mobile tech, deep-pocketed start-ups looking to outpace the competition, and the growing complexity of technology forcing most every big company to continually reassess the quality of their web products, software, and apps.

Further, the rise of big data has empowered companies to both gain a better understanding of their audiences as well as the performance of their web offerings. That has further inspired many companies to employ Software Engineers to create or revise software to capitalize on those insights found in the data.

What Do Software Engineers Do?

Software Engineers use programming languages and an understanding of development and engineering principles to design, develop, maintain, test, and evaluate computer software and computer systems software for end users.

If you’re wondering “what does a Software Engineer do in a given day,” the answer will depend on the industry and specific position. But Software Engineers usually perform any number of the following job responsibilities:

Create software

Software Engineers are responsible for making new software, products and apps from scratch. To do that, Software Engineers understand how to code with a variety of programming languages while also mastering principles relating to web development, web and user experience design, data structures, algorithms, and information analysis.

Collaborate with clients and stakeholders

Software Engineers must develop the soft skills necessary to collaborate closely with clients or company stakeholders to design and develop software that meets their goals. Software Engineers also spend significant time collaborating with experts in coding, programming, development, design, data, sales, marketing, and other areas to see projects through to completion.

Run tests

It’s the job of a Software Engineer to test, debug, and modify existing software or newly created software at all points in the life cycle of a product.

Iterate and improve software

A good Software Engineer approaches projects meticulously, researching, analyzing, testing, designing and repeating the process until creating a winning piece of software or other product.

Manage requirements and expectations

It often falls to the Software Engineer to understand and manage client needs and expectations, and a Software Engineer also needs to know how to use design documentation and flowcharts to illustrate plans to other team members.

Develop training materials

Software Engineers are often tasked with training other software development team members or to write training manuals to teach people how to use the computer systems they develop.

What Makes a Good Software Engineer?

A good Software Engineer balances both technical skills and soft skills, knowing not only how to code in all relevant programming languages like a Web Developer, but also how to meet company or client needs, lead a software development team, and consider all the other factors that go into building, delivering, and maintaining profitable software.

Here are a few characteristics of a good Software Engineer:

Full-stack engineering

Although it should be stressed that most software engineering job postings will assume that applicants have coding skills and a fluency with multiple programming languages and instead focus more on soft skills, there is still some degree of emphasis placed on technical skills.

To set yourself apart from the pack in terms of technical skills in the fiercely competitive field of software engineering, knowledge of the full stack is a must. That doesn’t mean you need to have mastered every programming language – it means you must have an end-to-end understanding of the layers of a piece of software. Successful Software Engineers would have the skills necessary to spot and correct issues in any phase of the software development process when needed.

Committed to skills training

Compared to other professions, Software Engineers display a passion for lifelong learning – which makes sense when you consider the rapid rate of change in the software development and web development fields, as well as the competitive nature of the job.

A LinkedIn study found that 48 percent of Software Engineers reported recently learning a new skill, compared to 36 percent of all professionals. Continuing education is a popular choice for software engineering professionals too. There are dozens of upskilling programs and coding bootcamps (or other types of bootcamps offering potentially relevant training in data, marketing and design) that could be helpful to a Software Engineer, while others in the industry might opt to pursue traditional computer science degree programs.

Any good Software Engineer will also make on-the-job learning a daily routine by exploring resources like StackOverflow and GitHub.

Strong soft skills

Outsiders to the world of software development would tend to overemphasize the technical nature of the job while giving insufficient consideration to all the crucial soft skills that the best Software Engineers possess.

Beginning with their collaboration with a client or company leadership, Software Engineers have to communicate at a high level, understand the needs of clients and users, lead and inspire a software development team, and collaborate effectively with a wide variety of job roles, including Web Developers, Project Managers, and senior company leadership. In fact, the Robert Half guide to the role noted that Software Engineers are increasingly spending the majority of their time in collaboration with other stakeholders.

Sees the big picture

A good Software Engineer understands that even if a software product functions flawlessly, looks great and passes the quality assurance process with flying colors, it’s still bad software if it doesn’t meet the needs of the people using it or paying for it.

Good Software Engineers must think beyond the code to understand how their decisions will affect the team, the company, and everyone else connected in any way to the development process. It’s useful then for anyone who is looking to become a Software Engineer to build their business acumen and learn how to use usage analytics and other data to make better decisions.

Job Outlook for Software Engineers

The job outlook for Software Engineers is very positive and it’s expected to stay that way. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment for Software Developers – a group that includes Software Engineers – will grow by 22 percent, much faster than the average four percent for all job titles.

There are a number of reasons that the Software Engineer role will continue to be hotly sought-after in years to come. For pretty much every company, the apps, websites, and other software products used by clients are crucial to overall business, and for the foreseeable future those companies will be in a cycle of building, refining, updating, and rebuilding those software offerings.

Further, the increasing complexity of technology means that a big company with many large projects might need many Software Engineers, sometimes working in collaboration to manage increasingly ambitious projects.

Types of Software Engineers

The job responsibilities for different types of software engineers can vary wildly. On a large software development team, you might find all of the following types of Software Engineers:

Front-End Engineer

A Front-End Software Engineer specializes in the development of the user interface and is responsible for things like cross-browser compatibility, fixing presentational bugs, and coding responsive apps.

Back-End Engineer

A Back-End Software Engineer focuses on the underlying performance and core logic of software, using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to integrate with data systems, caches, and email systems.

Full-Stack Engineer

With a background on both the front-end and back-end, a Full-Stack Software Engineer possesses all the skills necessary to create fully functional software.

QA Engineer

QA Engineers develop software solutions to validate the quality of software, creating tools, tests, and methods that guarantee software runs as it should.

Security Engineer

Security Engineers work as a “white-hat” ethical hacker to attempt to unearth vulnerabilities in computer systems and network control systems, ultimately testing software security with the goal of finding and fixing flaws.

DevOps Engineer

DevOps Engineers specialize in creating and developing computer systems to build, integrate, and administer back-end software.

Software Developer vs Software Engineer

The difference between Software Engineers and Software Developers is that while both positions require that you learn how to code and have other developer skills, Software Engineers are expected to guide and navigate the entire software development life cycle, working first to understand the client’s needs and then to oversee the development process to ensure those needs are met.

Software Engineers combine engineering and computer science principles to create software and guide the software development process. They usually oversee a team or work within a team, but Software Engineers rarely work independently and usually work with a diverse cross-section of stakeholders.

They must manage resources, understand data, coordinate development tasks and supervise entire projects.

By contrast, Software Developers are the driving force behind actually ensuring that software concepts are carried out as envisioned. They also need to thoroughly understand a client’s needs to ensure their code aligns with a design idea, but they might not have as much or any direct contact with clients. Software Developers will also work in tandem with Web Developers and Computer Programmers to test and solve technical problems along the development process.

Software Developers can work as part of a team or alone, but it’s more rare that they would lead a team.

Difference Between Software Developer and Software Engineer

Software Engineers typically:

  • Apply computer science and engineering principles to create software solutions
  • Lead a software development team
  • Work with other components of the hardware system
  • Need to think big-picture at all points in the software development cycle
  • Create their own tools

Software Developers typically:

  • Use programming and coding to bring software solutions to life
  • Could work alone or in a non-leadership role within a software development team
  • Focus more narrowly on programming, coding and creating software
  • Earn lower average salaries than Software Engineers
  • Use readymade tools

Software Engineer vs Web Developer

Although there’s significant overlap between these roles and specific job responsibilities can vary greatly, Web Developers generally build apps and websites while Software Engineers are responsible for overseeing the creation of more complex applications and programs for computers, mobile devices, and other electronic hardware.

While Software Engineers often lead a team to conceptualize, create, code, test, and upgrade software and systems, Web Developers typically using computer code to create user-facing applications, websites and other web products.

Web Developers, like Software Developers, can work as part of a team or alone, and are far more likely to work in a freelance capacity than a Software Engineer.

What Is a Principal Software Engineer?

A Principal Software Engineer oversees the technical aspects of development projects, offering technical guidance to development teams and diagnosing and resolving systems issues.

Principal or Lead Software Engineer job responsibilities might include finding ways to improve existing software, reviewing the design and maintenance of software so that it meets the quality assurance standards of a company, and recommending changes to resolve software or systems problems.

According to PayScale, the average Principal Software Engineer salary is roughly $140,000.

What Is a Senior Software Engineer?

A Senior Software Engineer is a software engineering professional with at least a few years of experience who will usually be tasked with leading a software development team and working at a high level to deliver successful software products.

Senior Software Engineers are responsible for determining and meeting the needs of a company or client, troubleshooting issues that arise during the development process, and collaborating and strategizing with any other team from fields like sales, design, and web development to ensure smooth delivery of software. They also tend to take greater responsibility for the success or failure of the web products they create and might oversee a team of intermediate or entry-level Software Engineers.

The average Senior Software Engineer salary in the United States is $130,000 plus bonuses according to Indeed, although anyone working in major markets or for top companies can expect a considerably higher salary.

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