Two occupations that are often confused in the tech industry are computer science and software engineering. But, while they may be similar in nature and fundamentals, they shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

For one, software engineers are professionals who specialize in writing code for computers and digital devices. On the other hand, computer scientists study the fundamentals of design, usage, and programming of computers. Yet, there’s more to both titles than that. They differ in some aspects but share a lot of skills and qualities.

What Is Computer Science?

Computer science is the study of how computers work as a whole—both hardware and software—and how they connect with one another through physical or wireless networks. It’s a complex discipline that includes the study of everything from algorithms and computation to the theory of computers and applications.

Computer science is now closer to being an umbrella term than ever before. A computer scientist should be knowledgeable in a variety of related fields such as data structures and database administration, networks, cybersecurity, and software development and engineering. 

While lacking in hyper-specific specialization, computer scientists can easily and confidently fill up roles in a variety of industries. Additionally, as new digital techs such as IoT and gadgets become more embedded into company culture, computer scientists are also becoming more valuable.

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering is the result of the combined knowledge between engineering and software development. To start, software engineers need to be affluent in the fundamentals of software architecture and development. They need to have a deep understanding of the various stages software goes through from early planning to testing and launching. Additionally, they need to know their way around the digital design so they can create a pleasant UX design.

The engineering part comes with how they build the software. Instead of starting from scratch with little to no planning, software engineers apply mathematical analysis and principles of computer science throughout their design and development. While their work is limited to creating software and applications, software engineers are highly sought after due to their unique set of skills. These talents perfectly combine the software development process, engineering, and knowledge of computer science. 

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: 6 Key Differences

While software engineering and computer science aren’t as different as night and day, they do have key differences that direct the two into separate career paths.

1. Interactions with Software and Hardware

Computer science sits at the intersection between hardware and software. They’re responsible for creating the connection and compatibility between the two elements with knowledge spanning both. For instance, computer scientists can help identify whether a piece of software is compatible with the hardware it’s running on. On the other hand, software engineers only work in the realm of software with little to no interaction with hardware.

2. Knowledge in Design

Both computer scientists and software engineers study design, but for completely different reasons. Software engineers mainly study product and UI design principles to help them create appealing and easy-to-use software. 

As for computer scientists, their knowledge in design is often limited to the physical design of hardware components. They’re often highly knowledgeable in how circuits, microprocessors, and the computer’s main processor works. Then, they find the best way to organize the small parts within a computer to make them take as little room as possible, all while providing easy access for maintenance and performance. 

3. Knowledge in Coding Languages

Both computer scientists and software engineers need to have substantial knowledge of various coding languages. However, it’s how they use them that differs. Fundamental languages include SQL, Python, Java, and Javascript. Software engineers use programming languages to create software solutions from scratch. Computer scientists, alternatively, focus more on ensuring solid communication between the bare metal and hardware parts of a computer and the software that runs on it. 

4. Mathematical and Engineering Concepts

Both software engineers and computer scientists extensively study mathematical concepts and engineering principles. The depths and applications are, once again, different. 

Computer scientists study math, calculus, and engineering principles to aid them in building entirely new physical frameworks and computer systems. Alternatively, software engineers use their real-world engineering knowledge to build efficient and compatible software.

5. Job tasks

Despite their similarities, software engineers and computer scientists rarely work side by side in the workplace. Computer scientists would be responsible for monitoring and analyzing their company’s security networks and data systems. They could even assist in building frameworks for a niche use case. Software engineers would mainly work with each, as well as the company’s marketing and product management teams to develop and design new software programs either for their organizations or for customers. 

6. Career Paths

Generally speaking, computer scientists have a much wider range of potential careers than software engineers. They can work in anything in tech ranging from an IT manager and programmer to web developer and web designer as well as an information security administrator. Meanwhile, software engineers are limited to developing applications and software systems for corporations of varying sizes and industries.

Which Is Better: Computer Science or Software Engineering?

Which Is Better

There isn’t a clear-cut answer to which discipline is better. It’s more or less subjective and depends on a variety of personal, economic, and regional factors. As long as you live in an urban area—or are willing to relocate for a job in tech—then both fields have a decent job outlook. 

Before committing, look further into the nature of both fields and see which one you prefer more. Do you like creating digital solutions for individuals and corporations in the form of expertly designed software? Or do you prefer a hands-on experience with the hardware of a computer and to come up with more concrete solutions?

If research still doesn’t give you a clear-cut answer and you’re afraid of pursuing the wrong field for you, go for computer science. It’s much easier to switch lanes to software engineering as a computer scientist as you’d already have the basic knowledge of software and coding languages.

Ready to switch careers to software engineering?

Springboard offers a comprehensive software engineering bootcamp. You’ll work with a one-on-one mentor to learn key aspects of front-end web development, back-end web development, databases, and data structures and algorithms. Modules include learning resources, practice exercises, projects, and career-related coursework. 

Check out Springboard’s Software Engineering Career Track to see if you qualify.

Not quite ready to dive into a software engineering bootcamp?Springboard also offers a Software Engineering Prep Course, where you can learn the foundational web development skills (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) needed to pass the technical skills survey for the Software Engineering Career Track.