Computer Software Engineer Career Guide

Computer Software Engineer Career Guide

Software engineers work in information technology to design and build modern software development frameworks. Software engineers can obtain college degrees to learn their trade or attend boot camps that offer crash courses. Sometimes they even teach themselves the necessary skills through online learning.

Who builds the software we use on our computers, phones, and other devices? Who ensures these programs work the way they are supposed to?

Software development has many moving parts and requires the skill and knowledge of several professionals. Project managers ensure development stays on track. Programmers write the code that makes the software function. Quality assurance experts test software for bugs.

Software engineers have a specific task: to understand the infrastructure that programmers and developers use to build the software. They are a vital part of the software development process.

So, how do you become a software engineer? In this story, we dive into the qualifications, job duties, and rewarding aspects of a career in software engineering. 

What Is a Software Engineer?

Computer software engineers develop programs and operating systems (OS) for computers and similar devices. The term “software engineer” originated in 1963, when computer scientist Margaret Hamilton first coined the term during the software development for the Apollo spacecraft.

Software engineers partner with many people to do their work, including project managers, programmers, analysts, and fellow engineers. 

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

A software engineer’s responsibilities can include:

  • Designing systems: Software engineers define outlines for applications and products.
  • Writing documentation: Because new software requires documentation to help users understand it, someone (usually engineers) must write this documentation.
  • Maintaining software functionality: Software engineers maintain existing software, including updating it to add features, fix bugs or align with standards.
  • Troubleshooting and updating systems: When problems arise, software engineers help solve these issues by troubleshooting them.
  • Complying with industry and company standards: As standards and systems change, software engineers oversee updates to ensure products align with the new ways of doing things.

The daily work of software engineering looks similar to software development, especially on paper. Many organizations do not distinguish between the two. Both jobs involve:

  • Writing code
  • Partnering with project managers and other stakeholders
  • Solving business issues with code

The critical distinction between software engineers and developers is that engineers usually approach it from a “more holistic perspective.” They may contribute more to testing, for example. Engineers often have more experience with development infrastructure — the tools and systems they use to build the software.

Types of Software Engineers

Software engineers do different things depending on their specialty or desired career path.

Front-End Engineer

Front-end engineers are software developers who build visual user interfaces (UI) that users interact with. They partner with designers to translate designs into reality using code. Front-end engineers typically test, edit and oversee the development process. They may modify existing websites and software to improve performance and add functions.

Front-end engineers should know front-end languages (such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript) and back-end programming languages (such as Java, Python and C++). A good front-end engineer also knows their way around building scalable deployment pipelines. 

Back-End Engineer

Back-end software engineers focus on building the pieces that power software, apps and websites. Consider an app that allows a user to input and edit data. The app’s front end displays the data and features editing functionality. The back end is where decisions about what a person can edit and how the app stores that data happens.

Back-end engineers need experience with specific coding languages like PHP, Java, Python or Ruby. They must also have a good grasp of databases and server-side frameworks. As more platforms move online, cloud services like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Platform are a priority, too.

Security Engineer

Security engineers work within organizations to develop secure technical systems. In addition to safeguarding organizations’ software systems from hackers and other cyber attackers, they also design systems that can withstand outages caused by natural disasters or other issues.

Security engineers wear several hats depending on the type of company they work for and the organization's needs. They may develop firewalls, systems to monitor network traffic, troubleshooting guidelines, and other tools.

Data Engineer

Data engineers design and build the systems companies use for data collection and storage. Organizations that hire data engineers do so because they need to scale their acquisition and use of information.

A data engineer typically builds algorithms to access raw data and the dashboards necessary for non-technical users to interpret it. This highly technical role requires experience and knowledge in several disciplines, including programming, math, and computer science. 

Effective data engineers also have strong communication skills to translate technical information into usable details for other organizational stakeholders.

Full-Stack Engineer

Even though the phrase “jack of all trades” describes full-stack engineers and developers, these organizational linchpins must also master skills that relate to front- and back-end software, applications or web development. They often understand and work with multiple coding languages and frameworks that make back-end development processes possible.

Many full-stack engineers have a mixture of technical, project management, and soft skills that allow them to manage tasks. 

How to Become a Software Engineer

Software engineers enjoy a challenging and lucrative career with plenty of growth opportunities, but how do they enter the field? The paths to a career in software engineering can vary based on preference. 

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree or Attend a Software Engineer Boot Camp

The traditional method of becoming a software engineer starts with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Most bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete and involve intensive study in computer science, information technology, or cybersecurity. A degree is still the most common method of becoming a software engineer.

Software engineers may also learn their skills by attending coding boot camps. Software engineering boot camps can take anywhere from 12 weeks to 12 months to complete, but the price can be significantly lower than attending a four-year university. Coding boot camps often boast high placement rates. They are also a preferred model for sourcing candidates. 

Graduating from a boot camp may be a solid option for those who do not want to invest in a full four-year degree or are looking into software engineering as a career change.

Choose a Specialty

Software engineers usually choose a specialty that focuses on a programming language or type of system.

Earn Industry Certifications

Industry certifications go a long way toward making applicants look more attractive, but they are also vital to continued skills development. Many software engineers pursue certification from groups like AWS, the Institute of Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society.

Create a Resume

With the right degree and certification in place, it is time for software engineers to write their resumes. Remember the following rules for writing resumes:

  • Focus on outcomes
  • Simple is often better
  • Tailor the resume to the job
  • Use keywords from the job description where possible
  • Remove outdated information

“Start with a master/primary/main resume. This is the living, breathing, constantly changing doc that an employer never sees. …Yes! Now stay with me - your primary resume is the data dump. Everything you've done lives here. Update it every time you deliver a feature. Every time you win an award. Every time you get a positive performance review. Keep all the good stuff you're doing on this doc.” 

Find Work Experience

One of the best ways to find work experience as a software engineer is to focus on internships either during school or shortly after graduation. This work experience allows engineers to showcase their skills and creates provable, measurable results employers want.

Continue Education

Continuing education is a pathway toward future skills development and career growth. Software development and engineering is a field marked by constant change. Staying up to date on shifts in the culture and processes of engineering shows a commitment to staying relevant and focused.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Software Engineer?

The time it takes to become a software engineer varies depending on the type of education an aspiring engineer pursues. Bachelor’s degrees usually take four years to complete, and boot camps can last as long as 12 months. 

Final Thoughts

Software engineers find themselves at a significant advantage in today’s job market. With multiple ways to pursue a career and the ability to command high salaries, becoming a software engineer looks like a highly lucrative way to make a living.

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