What is software engineering?

Software engineering is the job of designing, developing, testing, and maintaining software applications and systems.

It involves applying engineering principles to the software development lifecycle and the use of various tools and techniques to create high-quality software products. This process is informed by engineering techniques, which help define, implement, assess, measure, manage, change, and improve the software over its lifetime.

Software encompasses a wide variety of applications, including operating systems, desktop programs, games, and mobile apps. Every industry uses software apps in some way—data management, customer interfacing, and operations can all be managed using software apps.

Engineering software requires not just the development of the application but also the maintenance as hardware, related software, and user needs evolve over time.

Types of software engineers

There are many different types of software engineering roles, each with its own set of responsibilities and requirements. Some of the most common types of software engineering roles include:

  • Application developer: The person in this role creates software applications and programs using tools designed for development as well as programming languages—such as JavaScript, HTML/CSS, SQL, Python, and Java.

  • Architect: The person in this role designs and develops software systems and applications at a high level. They determine project requirements and build technical standards for tools, platforms, or software coding. A development team then uses these designs and standards to develop software.

  • Project manager: The person in this role handles the process of software development from start to finish by organizing workflows, assigning tasks, and monitoring progress to meet benchmarks or deadlines.

  • System developer: The person in this role builds the operating system that underpins all backend computer functions. These systems are the foundation of not just desktop devices but also mobile devices, automobiles, IT networks—anything that relies on a computer to operate.

  • Tester: The person in this role designs tests to help ensure that software applications meet certain standards of quality and performance. They also run these tests and analyze the results to make improvements or recommendations.

Software engineering roles and responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of a software engineer can vary depending on the specific job, industry, and company. Some common day-to-day responsibilities include:

  • Designing and developing software systems and apps: Designing and developing systems and apps involves writing code and debugging errors. Software engineers also design ways to test new code—either their own or code written for other programs that might be used with their systems—to ensure quality and performance control.

  • Collaborating with other engineers and stakeholders: This type of collaboration includes working with other software engineers, project managers, and clients to ensure that software products meet their needs. Collaboration takes place throughout the project from the outset (when software requirements are defined) through completion (when the product is evaluated to make sure it meets its defined goals).

  • Maintaining software systems applications: This involves fixing bugs, updating software, and ensuring that software products continue to function properly over time. The dynamic nature of evolving technology requires software engineers to continuously check on the health of systems and apps.

Popular software engineer skills

To become a software engineer, you need to have a combination of both technical and non-technical proficiencies. Some of the most important skills for software engineers include:

  • Programming languages: Software engineers should be proficient in one or more programming languages, such as Java, Python, or C++. Programming fluency is essential for not only writing code but testing and maintaining apps over their lifetime.

  • Computer science: Through a combination of education and experience, software engineers need a strong foundation in computer science. Knowledge of operating systems, databases, and networks is essential for software engineering.

  • Project management: Agile software development frameworks—including Scrum—are frequently used by organizations. While essential for software project managers, these frameworks are also good to know for any software engineer.

  • Problem-solving: Problems can arise in any area of software engineering, including code writing, testing, and maintenance. Software engineers should be able to identify and solve complex problems related to software development.

  • Communication and collaboration: Software engineers should be able to effectively work with other engineers, project managers, clients, and non-technical stakeholders about various aspects of a project, including scope and requirements, progress, testing, and maintenance.

  • Attention to detail: Software engineers should be detail-oriented and able to identify and fix errors in code. This piece is essential at all stages of a project from initial design to testing to maintenance.

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Common software engineering tools

There are many different tools and technologies used in software engineering, including:

  • Integrated development environments: These apps provide a comprehensive environment for software development, including code editing, debugging, and testing.

  • Version control systems: These software tools help software engineers to manage changes to source code over time.

  • Quality assurance and testing frameworks: Software engineers use testing frameworks to help automate the testing of software applications and programs.

  • Project management tools: These applications help software engineers manage development projects, including scheduling, resource allocation, and task tracking.

How to become a software engineer

There's no one set of software engineer requirements—instead, there are a variety of paths you can take to become a software engineer. Some of the most popular steps you can take are:

  • Going to college: Many software engineers hold bachelor's degrees in software engineering or a related STEM field like computer science, math, or engineering.

  • Training to build new skills: Software-focused courses and bootcamps are popular ways of learning software engineering skills without going to college full-time. Many of these courses can be taken online and over time, affording students the flexibility to fit learning into their lives.

  • Hands-on experience: Software engineering requires practical experience to excel. Internships are one way of getting involved with the real day-to-day work of a software engineer. Another option is—if your current organization offers the opportunity—mentoring with in-house software engineers to lay the foundation for shifting your current career path.

  • Certifications: Building on skill training, certifications indicate a level of proficiency achieved in a particular area of software engineering. Some organizations require specific software certifications on record as part of job applications. Certifications can be specific to a programming language, an engineering process, or a platform, for example:

    • C++ Certified Professional Programmer.

    • Certified Software Development Professional.

    • Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals.

    • GitHub Advanced Security.

Career opportunities and salaries for software engineers

The salary and career opportunities for software engineers can vary depending on the specific job role, company, and location. According to Indeed.com, the December 2023 average salary for a software engineer in the United States is $118,000 per year. That figure increases with experience—an American software engineer who's worked for more than 10 years could earn on average $148,000 per year.

Popular job titles for software engineers include:

  • Application developer

  • Architect

  • Project manager

  • System developer

  • Tester

What is enterprise software engineering?

Enterprise software engineering is the process of designing, developing, testing, and maintaining software applications and systems for large organizations. This involves working with complex software systems and integrating them with other systems and applications.

Large organizations need enterprise software engineers to design, build, test, and maintain systems that handle large tasks like inventory management, enterprise resource planning, digital marketing initiatives, and customer accounts.

Enterprise application development differs in the skillset required and the scope of the work which can be larger and more complex than other software applications and systems. Engineers can enhance their skillset with a software engineering enterprise development guide to better approach enterprise projects.

The future of software engineering

The future of software engineering is likely to be shaped by emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT). These technologies are expected to revolutionize the way software is developed, tested, and maintained, and to create new opportunities for software engineers.

Many organizations are already using AI and machine learning to supplement some of the day-to-day tasks of software engineers, with the goal of freeing up their time to focus on high priority projects that require their skills and expertise.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects demand for jobs related to software engineering to increase over the next decade. In particular, demand for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers is expected to grow by up to 25% through 2032.

Frequently asked questions

What does a software engineer do?

A software engineer designs, developers, tests, and maintains software applications and systems.

Is it hard to become a software engineer?

Software engineering roles typically require a combination of education, training, and experience. A bachelor's degree in computer science is common but not required—bootcamps and certifications are popular ways of learning the skills required for software engineering.

What is the main aim of software engineering?

Software engineers help to ensure the overall quality and functionality of applications and systems—not just at deployment but through their lifetime as technologies, environments, and interoperating programs change.

Is software engineer a high-paying job?

The salary for a software engineering role depends on a variety of factors, including the job itself, the company, the location, and the experience of the applicant.

What does an enterprise software engineer do?

An enterprise software engineer focuses on designing, developing, testing, and maintaining apps and systems found uniquely among large organizations. These systems might handle complex processes like inventory management or enterprise resource planning.

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