You may have heard that software engineering is often cited as one of the most in-demand jobs of the 21st century. Over the past two decades, as the emergence of high-speed internet, powerful mobile devices, and sophisticated operating systems and coding languages have emerged at record pace, the need for skilled and experienced software engineers has only continued to rise.
But software engineering is a broad term, encompassing hundreds of different specialties, unique skill sets, and economic sectors. Software engineers are responsible for building your favorite social media app, the platform for you to submit your taxes online, the program that helps run your city’s transportation system, and even tools and widgets for getting accurate weather readings from remote sites in a particular area.
While software engineering is an exciting and rewarding career, it certainly isn’t easy. From learning to understand and use the various programming languages available, to finding the right development niche for your interests and skill set, software engineering involves more than simply taking a coding class.
So what is it like to be a software engineer? What kinds of things do you need to know, learn, or begin to practice to pursue this career for yourself? That’s where this guide comes in. Let’s walk through the basics of the job, what a typical software engineer does when working on a project, and some next steps for you to take if you want to become a software engineer yourself.
What does a software engineer do?
A software engineer incorporates mathematical analysis and the principles of computer science to help design, develop, and build software that powers everything you use technology and the Internet to accomplish. While this definition works as an umbrella definition of the job of a software engineer, there are actually many different unique specialties of software engineering, depending on what types of software and applications they build.
So what are the types of software that a software engineer can develop? The most common jobs include:
- Operating systems like Windows, macOS, or Linux
- Computer games, whether simple browser-based games or complex “traditional” games like Civilization VI or Modern Warfare
- Business applications and analytics platforms
- Applications for data science and cloud services
- Artificial intelligence platforms and support software for the Internet of Things (IoT)
To be clear, software engineers do not usually work in all of these areas - in most cases, they usually only concentrate in one or two. This is because software engineering relies on knowing a variety of programming languages that have been specifically designed and tailored to producing dynamic and responsive applications for each of these use cases.
What does a software engineer’s job usually involve?
When working with a client, a software engineer typically begins by learning the client’s needs and analyzing issues and potential software solutions for the particular use case or market vertical. Then, a software engineer will be responsible for designing, testing, and actually building the appropriate computer software to meet those needs.
Software engineers are experts in computing systems, the structure of software itself, and recognizing and adapting to the limitations of existing hardware. Since this process is complicated and intensive (especially for more complex or robust applications), software engineers often rely on the use of diagrams, flowcharts, and the creation of algorithms to tell the computer what to do. Translating these instructions into a computer language (what you may know of as coding/programming) is usually the responsibility of a computer programmer.
In terms of “a day in the life of a software developer”, here are some specific things you can expect to do as part of your daily work routine:
- Planning meetings with clients around software needs, problems requiring digital solutions, and scheduling different development pushes for the development team
- Coding sessions, where you work on a milestone or specific module of the project in order to meet deadlines for pushing certain elements of the software live
- Debugging or revision sessions, where members of the development team review each other’s code to point out issues or potential problems that need to be fixed
- Beta testing or quality assurance sessions (also known as QA), where you may try to “break” the software to see if it actually handles the traffic and user experience needs as planned
What are some specific developer roles? Let’s look at a few popular software development positions and what you could expect to do if you ended up working in this market vertical:
Backend Web Developer working for a small business or startup
- Collaborate with the front-end developers or project manager/senior developer to resolve API issues.
- Develop and maintain secure web services.
- Build reusable code and libraries for future use or updates
- Analyze and debug issues that are essential to preserving the app user interface and address user concerns and complaints
Software Engineer at a financial technology company
- Design, create, test and maintain logic and components
- Create methods for automated instrumentation and monitoring
- Improve the structure and stability of the codebase as new needs and issues arise
- Collaborate with the business side of the company to develop new tools and operations for improving user experience
- Assist in building robust data pipelines
- Identifying, predicting, and helping to alleviate data bottlenecks to improve speed and analysis performance
- Retrieve and aggregate data from multiple sources into a clear and readable format for further analysis or management/operational planning
- Automate manual processes, find methods for improving data delivery, and redesign the infrastructure if scaling is needed
These are just examples of the career paths available to software engineers. Other popular and in-demand jobs for software developers and engineers include:
- Web developer
- Mobile developer
- Quality Assurance (QA) engineer
- Systems engineer
- Machine learning engineer
- Database administrator
What skills or mental abilities does a good software engineer have?
Like any career, being a successful software engineer is more than learning the tricks of the trade and finding efficient solutions to coding problems. Because most software developers work as part of a team, and in some cases part of a massive team of developers with specific specialties, there are some essential professional skills you need to succeed and truly enjoy your work in this field:
- Software engineers must possess interpersonal skills, and be able to effectively communicate with users in order to train, test, and debug software all the way to the end product. Errors are a natural part of coding, so being able to work them out respectfully and with an open mind is essential to team efficiency
- While coding is often romanticized as something done in the opposite of a traditional business setting, the reality is much less exciting. Since many of your clients will be corporations or brick-and-mortar businesses, professionalism is key to prove to your client that you respect their business and are worth their time and money
- Being able to honestly and productively reflect on your own work is also essential. Every developer has their own preferred workflow, coding language, and process for pushing code. However, learning alternative methods and tricks from others you work with and changing your own process is essential for improving and constantly adding to your knowledge base. In other words, be open-minded!
- Flexibility is another essential skill for developers. Things will go wrong, clients will change their minds, and team members may join or leave throughout building a single application. Being able to roll with the changes is essential for software developers not only for performing your job well, but also for preserving your sanity!
What do I need to learn to be a software engineer?
The first step is to begin your programming career by taking some online coding classes or enrolling in a data science program at your local college or university. These courses usually cover a broad array of languages, before offering the opportunity for you to focus on a specific language to become truly experienced and effective with it.
Some of the things you can expect from coding classes or data science programs include:
- Tutorials on foundations, structures, and key principles of the language you study
- “Challenges” or “problems” that give you the chance to experiment with actual code and gain experience designing, developing, and fixing bugs and errors as you go
- Quizzes that help you apply your coursework to practical and real-world coding problems
- Support communities, in the form of both your professors/tutorials and your fellow learners, to collaborate with and get questions answered. Finding reliable support communities is an essential part of life as a software developer - even as you move on to more complex projects and later in your career
After completing your coding classes or receiving your degree, the next step is to gain hands-on experience. This is key, not only for continuing to build your coding knowledge and favorite tech stack, but also the interpersonal skills needed to work on a variety of development teams and for clients with unique needs and software requirements.