How To Become a Software Engineer [2022 Career Guide]
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There’s never been a better time to become a software engineer. The profession gives analytical thinkers the opportunity to build products and services that shape the world, solve problems that affect millions of people, and be at the forefront of technological innovation.
The profession is consistently ranked among the top in the world for its number of job openings, future job prospects, and work-life balance. Software engineers enjoy competitive salaries—an entry-level software engineer in the United States has an average salary exceeding $100,000, according to Indeed. Demand for their skill sets is growing—the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that software engineering jobs will grow 22% by 2030, which translates to 409,500 new jobs. And there’s no shortage of career development opportunities—today’s software engineers can move between many areas of specialization and choose from any number of industries. This all amounts to an exciting, rewarding, and lucrative career choice for anyone who wants to work in tech.
What Is a Software Engineer?
A software engineer uses their knowledge of systems architecture, programming languages, and user requirements to build software programs and applications. They are usually the “big picture” thinkers on a development team and are responsible for overseeing the creation of an entire piece of software.
The most popular types of software engineers are:
Front-end engineers. This type of software engineer develops the user interface (UI) of websites and applications, and ensures cross-browser and cross-device compatibility. They also test and troubleshoot issues related to accessibility and usability.
Back-end engineers. Focusing on the core logic of a piece of software, website, or app, back-end engineers work on the behind-the-scenes data systems, APIs, server scripts, and caches that enable a piece of software to function.
Full-stack engineers. As the name suggests, full-stack software engineers are capable of both front-end and back-end engineering.
QA engineers. Also known as test engineers, QA engineers write software that validates the quality of products and services.
DevOps engineers. Possessing skills that span both development and operations, DevOps engineers manage application infrastructure and support other software engineers as they build and deploy software.
Security engineers. Security engineers build systems and create methods to test the security of a piece of software. They also incorporate security controls, plan network upgrades and respond to security incidents.
What Does a Software Engineer Do?
The terms “software engineer” and “software developer” are often used interchangeably. At some companies, the two job titles perform the same function. However, there are key differences between them. Software developers typically have a narrow focus and work on specific problems—they map out the specifications of software applications and break problems down into smaller pieces. Meanwhile, software engineers have an aerial view of the software development process—they review the work of developers and come up with solutions that affect the entire project.
“I tend to think of an engineer as doing a lot of the architecture side of things and not just coding,” said software engineer Cassidy Williams. “Coding is a big part of each role. The real differentiation…is that the software engineers actually plot out the requirements and architecture of a system, like how pages and data are organized overall. The engineer does a lot of the architecting and theoretical work before actually writing any code.”
Lindsey Redd, a software engineer who has worked at Slack, Lyft, and Stripe agreed that coding is a big part of the job, but emphasized that there’s more to being a software engineer than ones and zeroes. “You code. You test. You deploy your code. You monitor your code and make sure things are working properly. But then there can also be a lot of meetings around product development or new features that need to be built,” Redd said. “I think people have this vision of software engineers that we’re in a dark room coding by ourselves all the time, which is the vibe sometimes…but a lot of the job is very collaborative…a lot of planning, being a team player, communicating what you’re doing and asking questions you might have so that people can help you.”
9 Steps To Become a Software Engineer in 2022
There is no set path to becoming a software engineer, but there are steps you can take to improve your chances of landing your dream job. Below are some of the ways people have successfully approached a career in software engineering.
Plan a Career Path
Planning your career trajectory will prepare you for what’s to come and help you make informed career decisions. For example, is your end goal to work at an established technology company or a nimble startup? Do you want to be in the nonprofit sector or at a consumer technology company? Are you interested in managing people or do you see yourself as an independent contributor? You don’t need to know all the answers to these questions, but thinking about them before you start your software engineering journey will give you more clarity about the path you should take.
Meet the Educational Requirements
Many hiring managers look for candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, information technology, or a relevant field. However, a growing contingent of software engineers is making inroads without meeting formal education requirements. In fact, many software engineers have built successful careers without a college degree. Course Report found that online courses and coding bootcamps “require less time, less money and offer nearly equal earnings when compared to a [computer science] degree.”
“With the democratization of skill training, it’s increasingly less about where you went to school and more about whether or not you can do the job well,” according to the co-founder and chief executive of HackerRank, Vivek Ravisankar. “Today, there are better ways to evaluate actual skills than what’s on a resume. It’s about skills first above all.”
Software Engineering Skills
Technical skills—such as fluency in programming languages, knowledge of software development frameworks, and the ability to solve coding and architectural problems—are mandatory requirements for software engineers. Here are some of the specific skills every aspiring software engineer should develop to prepare themselves for a career in software engineering.
There’s no getting around it—being a software engineer requires fluent coding skills and the ability to learn new programming languages. Common languages that every software engineer should know include:
- Software development
Although software development and software engineering are different roles, engineers benefit from having software development skills because it helps them identify and understand specific problems within a piece of software and develop targeted solutions.
In addition to designing and developing systems and applications, software engineers are responsible for testing technology to ensure it meets an organization’s and users’ needs. Software testing involves determining ideal systems operations, creating and documenting test plans, creating risk mitigation plans and composing defect reports.
Object-oriented design is a programming model that organizes software around data, or objects, instead of functions and logic. Its use is widespread because of benefits such as encapsulation, which makes application data safer; inheritance, which offers memory efficiency; and polymorphism, which allows one object or method to serve as a template.
Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking
Software engineering is a rapidly evolving field, and engineers are constantly facing new challenges on both technical and organizational fronts. Successful software engineers rise to the challenge with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Gain Practical Experience With the Help of Real-Time Projects
Real-time computing, also known as reactive computing, refers to software that responds within a given timeframe. Some examples of real-time projects include stock trading applications, multiplayer video games, telecommunications services, aircraft navigation systems and data analytics programs. The growing popularity of real-time projects means software engineers should have both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience with real-time computing.
Stronghold of Software Engineering Tools
In addition to coding skills, software engineers should have a strong command of engineering tools that help them write, document, test, and collaborate with others on their projects. Common software engineering tools include:
- Command-line interface
- Stack overflow
Find a Mentor
Seeking mentorship from industry experts is one of the best things that software engineers can do for their careers. Mentors offer learning and career guidance, give feedback on projects, hold their mentees accountable, and help them prepare for job interviews by providing insight into the recruitment process and going over practice interview questions. Mentors have also been proven to assist software engineers in their professional growth by expanding their networks and passing along word-of-mouth opportunities. But it’s not the end of the world if you can’t find a formal mentorship arrangement.
“There’s no need for formalities for a less experienced person to learn from a more experienced one,” said software engineer Gergely Oroszy. “And for the most part, there are no formalities. At teams and companies where code reviews are everyday practice, this learning happens with every review… code reviews and the discussions during and after helped me significantly level up as a developer. I had many mentors, learning a little from each of them.”
Opt for a Course or Get Certified
While some recruiters prefer to hire candidates who hold computer science degrees, many will take on software engineers who have graduated from online bootcamps or obtained short course certifications because, in addition to learning all the necessary skills to do the work of a software engineer, graduating from an online course tells recruiters that a candidate is committed to ongoing education.
“The only thing consistent in all of life, but especially in the technology industry, is change,” according to Stack Overflow chief technology officer, Teresa Dietrich. “So while it is important to know the specific technologies the job requires, it’s probably more important that you know how to adapt and learn new ones. Everything we are working on today in my teams can be taught to someone with adjacent technical knowledge and a thirst to learn.”
Many jobs are shared via word of mouth, which is why having a vast network is useful during a job search. Many software engineers have networked through the schools they’ve attended, via the mentors who have helped them, at industry conferences, and through online groups and communities.
“Regardless of the path you’re on, the connections you build over time will pay off, often in unexpected ways,” said Dietrich, who noted that 70-80% of people will find their next job through their network. “A simple introduction, versus another name in a pile of resumes, can make all the difference. Set a goal for yourself of adding a new connection every week or more.”
Create a Portfolio and Apply for Jobs
A CV tells hiring managers where you’ve worked; a portfolio shows hiring managers what you can do. Tailor your portfolio to the role you want. Include a variety of projects to showcase your set of skills, include clear project descriptions, and explain any problem-solving methodologies used in your projects. If you haven’t formally worked as a software engineer, consider documenting a personal project to show that you have both the technical skills and soft skills to complete a project from start to finish.
Get To Know Other Software Engineering Students
How Much Can You Make as a Software Engineer?
Software engineering salaries vary, depending on the candidate’s level of education, years of experience, company size and location. One’s salary also depends on the area of specialization. For example, software engineers who focus on front end engineering make $110,000 a year on average, while big data engineers tend to make around $160,000 a year. The average salary for a software engineer in the United States is around $109,000, according to Glassdoor.
Entry-Level Software Engineer
Entry-level software engineers have an average base salary of around $108,000 a year, according to Glassdoor.
In more competitive markets such as San Francisco and New York City, the base salary for entry-level software engineers is upwards of $135,000.
Mid-Level Software Engineer
Mid-level software engineers have an average base salary of around $114,000 a year, according to Glassdoor.
In more competitive markets such as San Francisco and New York City, the base salary for mid-level software engineers is upwards of $141,000.
Senior-Level Software Engineer
Experienced software engineers have an average base salary of around $122,000 a year, according to Glassdoor.
In more competitive markets such as San Francisco and New York City, the base salary for senior-level software engineers is upwards of $155,000.
FAQs About Software Engineering
Still have questions about becoming a software engineer? We have some answers to frequently asked questions.
Why Should You Opt for a Software Engineering Career?
A career in software engineering offers job stability, competitive salaries, variety, and ample opportunities for career growth. More importantly, it’s an exciting, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding role, in which analytical thinkers and problem solvers work on technology that affects large swaths of the population. Software engineers are needed in virtually every industry, which means regardless of your area of interest, there are opportunities to make an impact in your chosen field.
Has the Software Engineering Industry Changed Post-Pandemic?
There are two notable changes to the software engineering industry post-pandemic.
Many companies now allow their software engineers and developers to work remotely. Companies such as Twitter and Shopify, for example, announced during the pandemic that employees can permanently work from home. Companies that haven’t adopted such policies are now more flexible than they were pre-pandemic about where their employees live and work.
The other notable change is the increase in demand for software engineering talent. The pandemic fueled a digitization process across the country. More companies moved their businesses online, more organizations increased their cloud workloads, and many brick-and-mortar restaurants and retailers realized they needed a web presence. This has created more opportunities for software engineers.
Is Software Engineering All About Coding?
Coding plays a big role in software engineering, but it is only one of many core skills software engineers possess.
“Honestly, communication is what it all boils down to,” said software engineer Cassidy Williams. “That’s so key for being successful in the industry. You need to be able to write good documentation. You need to be able to voice your opinions in meetings. You need to be able to communicate [with] the team.”
Fellow engineer Samara Trilling also stressed the importance of communication skills both as a tool for learning and as a tool for helping others within an organization. “Soft skills are engineering skills,” Trilling said. “I don’t know any engineer who’s successful without being a good communicator. And I don’t know an engineer who wouldn’t be a better engineer if they weren’t a better communicator.”
Since you’re here…
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