So you've decided to pursue a career as a software engineer. Good for you: Software engineering is one of the highest-paying roles you can land in the technology industry without advanced education or many years of experience.
Now, the question is: How do you become a software engineer? Which skills do you need to work in software engineering? What's the best approach to learning to become a software engineer? How may different career paths and strategies affect your salary?
- What Does a Software Engineer Do?
- What Is the Salary of a Software Engineer?
- Skills Needed to Become a Software Engineer
- Strategies for Becoming a Software Engineer
- FAQs About Software Engineers
What Does a Software Engineer Do?
Let's start with the basics: an overview of what software engineers do.
Software engineers are responsible for designing, implementing, and testing software applications. They are also expected to help deploy and monitor applications at some organizations, although the latter tasks are more typically handled by IT operations teams.
The day-to-day work of a software engineer can vary widely depending on factors like the type of application you're developing and the programming languages you're using. If you're tasked with building a brand-new application from scratch, for instance, you'll probably spend much of your time writing code. In contrast, software engineers who are responsible for helping to maintain and update applications that have already been developed are likely to spend more of their time looking for ways to optimize the application or add some new features, rather than churning out core application code.
But no matter which type of software engineering job you land, expect it to center around application development — and keep in mind that software engineers do more than just code. As mentioned above, application design and testing are equally important parts of the job.
What Is the Salary of a Software Engineer?
Software engineer salaries vary widely between different countries, as well as different technology niches. In general, however, salaries start in the low-$100,000s for software engineers based in the United States.
Western European software engineers earn similar salaries. Salaries in other countries tend to be lower; for example, Indian software engineers earn about one-third of what their American counterparts earn, on average.
Experienced software engineers who possess expertise in technologies that large companies seek can earn much more than the figures mentioned above. Some software engineers at Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example, earn $1 million a year or more, according to Levels.fyi, which tracks salaries in the tech industry based on verified documents submitted by engineers.
Skills Needed to Become a Software Engineer
Some of the skills you'll need to hone if you want to become a software engineer, like the ability to work with computers, are obvious. Others are less so. Let's look at key software engineer skills one-by-one.
Software engineers should understand the fundamentals of how a computer works and how to administer it. System administration is not typically their main job, but a knowledge of operating system design, file systems, user accounts and access controls, and so on is critical if you want to design applications that work well on whichever system hosts them.
You don't necessarily need to be a math whiz to program, but mathematical concepts are an important part of software engineering. In many cases, implementing application functionality essentially boils down to writing a math equation — in the form of an algorithm — that processes data in the way you want.
Familiarity with programming languages
You should know at least one, and ideally several, programming languages to work as a software engineer. Even if the languages you master early on don't end up being the ones you use at work, most mainstream programming languages function in the same basic way.
You'll need an understanding of key programming language concepts — like the difference between source code and machine code, what a compiler is, how to make code readable, and so on — to succeed as a software engineer.
Few software engineers work alone. At organizations of any size, you can expect to work alongside other software engineers and/or to collaborate with other stakeholders — like IT engineers and business executives — to help plan and implement applications that meet the business's needs.
The ability to work well with others — and to work efficiently using project management tools, like Jira and Asana — is key to becoming a successful software engineer.
Writing skills are important in software engineering jobs — and we're not talking here about code writing skills. We mean the ability to write clean and clear text, which most software engineers have to develop to document their software. Strong writing skills are also important for efficient collaboration with others.
Familiarity with software testing and QA
The extent to which software engineers have to manage the quality of their software they write varies. Some businesses have dedicated teams of quality assurance (QA) engineers to vet applications, while others expect their developers to do it.
Either way, at least a basic familiarity with software testing concepts and tools — like the ability to write and run unit tests — is important to work as an effective software engineer.
Knowledge of application security
Along similar lines, an understanding of software security concepts is important for most software engineers, even if they don't specialize in security. You should be familiar with common types of application security breaches, such as code injection attacks and buffer overflows, and know how to write code that is not vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.
Strategies for Becoming a Software Engineer
Unlike some jobs — such as becoming a lawyer, which requires you to go to law school and pass a bar exam in most states — there's no specific path you have to follow to become a software engineer. There are multiple viable routes.
Go to college for software engineering
Probably the most common — but also the most expensive and time-consuming — way to become a software engineer is to earn a university degree in programming. If you enroll in a Computer Science (CS) program at a college or university, you'll go through a course sequence that covers all the key skills that software engineers require.
You'll also earn a degree that attests to your ability to work in software engineering, which can make it easier to land a job.
Enroll in a bootcamp
Software engineering bootcamps are accelerated programs designed to teach people to code quickly. They typically don't cover nearly as wide a range of software engineering skills as college CS programs do, and not all employers take bootcamp credentials as seriously as college credentials.
But bootcamps are much shorter than attending college for CS. Some bootcamps last just a few months. They can also be cheaper, especially if you find a bootcamp that requires no tuition and instead takes a cut of your earnings after you land a job.
Earn a certification
If you already have some industry experience or relevant coursework in areas related to software engineering (like IT), you can pursue a career as a software engineer by earning certifications that attest to your development skills. You can find a variety of both free and paid software engineering certification programs online.
Land a job in a related field
Occasionally, software engineers land their roles by applying for jobs in related fields, like IT, then assuming additional responsibilities that turn them into software engineers. Once they've done that, they can credibly assert that they have worked as software engineers and can apply to other positions.
This approach works best at startups, which often have relatively loosely defined roles and welcome — or even encourage — engineers to step "out of their lanes" by assuming tasks (like software engineering) that aren't part of their job descriptions. This is a more challenging strategy to pull off at large companies with rigidly structured roles.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What qualifications do I need to become a software engineer?
Some employers will expect you to have a formal degree or certifications to work as a software engineer, while others don't care as much about formal qualifications (although they'll typically make you perform tests to show that you actually understand software engineering).
If you lack formal qualifications, look for employers that practice "degree-blind" hiring, which means they don't consider formal educational background when evaluating job applicants.
Which skills are required to become a software engineer?
The key skills required to work in software engineering include programming skills, a knowledge of computer systems and administration, collaboration and communication skills, the ability to write effectively, and a knowledge of mathematics.
What kind of salary can I expect as a software engineer?
Software engineers in the U.S. typically earn at least $100,000 per year. Some make many times that figure. In many other countries, salaries for software engineers tend to be lower, although software engineers are still usually among the best-paid workers in those regions.
What are the job outlooks for software engineers?
The job outlook for software engineers remains strong. The U.S. federal government predicts that job openings for software engineering and related fields will grow steadily for the rest of this decade.
Some software engineering internships are advertised on job boards, but the best way to find them is usually to research the internship offerings of a company you might want to work for. Additionally, if you're enrolled in a college or university, it may have an internship or career office that will help connect you to relevant software engineering internships.
Which types of companies hire software engineers?
Any business that needs to build and maintain software hires software engineers. Such businesses include not just software companies, whose main product is software, but also organizations that create their own software tools to help manage business operations, even if they don't sell the software as a product.
What types of internships are available for software engineers?
Large companies offer internship programs for software engineers. Typically, they require interns to have some experience in the field, but you don't need to have completed a full CS program to get a software engineering internship.
What are the differences between front-end and back-end software engineering?
Front-end software engineers work on an application's interface — the part that users interact with. Back-end engineers deal with databases and other components that run in the application "under the hood."
Both types of software engineers are in demand. And if you're struggling to decide which type of software engineer to become, you can work as a full-stack engineer, who does both front-end and back-end development.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.