Software Engineering Career Track
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Career opportunities in software engineering have expanded across multiple industries, including in tech, finance, healthcare, education, and defense. Students seeking to enter these financially rewarding positions need training in computer science, engineering principles, and programming. Software engineers must acquire specialized skills in software testing techniques, software architecture design, project management, and quality assurance.
This guide provides a useful overview of software engineering careers, and describes employment and salary prospects for software engineers.
What Is Software Engineering?
Software engineering is crucial for maintaining the technological infrastructure that pervades many areas of contemporary life. Software engineering combines engineering techniques, project management, and software development to create and manage multiple areas of technology, including websites, mobile apps, and data security protocols. Software engineers typically consider the needs and requirements of both software and hardware for the projects they work on.
Software engineers focus on two main areas: systems development and applications development. Systems software engineers design and build new computer systems and networks, and improve existing systems to better meet a client or company's specific needs. Application development emphasizes the design and coding of user-focused software and applications for different platforms such as web browsers, computer operating systems, and mobile devices.
What Do Software Engineers Do?
The roles and responsibilities of software engineers depend on their level of training and their industry.
Software engineers rank among the most in-demand of all computer science professionals. These specialists use their knowledge of engineering principles and programming languages to build software, develop websites, and create, maintain, and improve computer operating systems and network systems.
The roles and responsibilities of software engineers depend on their level of training and their industry. In business, government, and educational settings, software engineers often design and implement software installations and computer security measures. Software engineers in healthcare organizations can develop and maintain patient record systems. The communications and entertainment sectors rely on these professionals to design a variety of mobile applications, social media platforms, games, and streaming technologies.
Software Engineering Career Outlook
Employment for software engineers continues to climb in response to a high global demand for software. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 22% growth in employment for software developers between 2019 and 2029, compared to 11% for all other computer occupations.
Given the industry demand for software engineers, graduates of traditional engineering degree programs and software engineering bootcamps often find employment after completing their training. However, while the employment outlook looks promising, software engineers just entering the field may still face a competitive job market. Employers often seek out applicants with experience and proficiency in programming, as well as applicants who strive to remain up to date in their knowledge of industry trends.
Software Engineering Career Paths
Graduates of software engineering bootcamps and those with college degrees can choose to pursue a variety of software engineering careers. This section describes what to expect in some of the most popular software engineering careers, the kind of training needed to enter these fields, and the expected salary level for each role.
Software developers focus on creating software programs or applications for web, mobile, or computer operating systems. They typically don't focus as much (or at all) on setting up organizational networks or computer systems as other types of software engineers do. Software developers research, design, create, and test software. They also modify software to fix bugs, improve interfaces, and streamline performance.
There is some overlap between roles such as "developer" and "engineer." Sometimes, job postings for this type of position may look for a "software engineer." Alternatively, if the role focuses specifically on coding websites, it may be advertised as a job for a "web developer." According to the BLS, software developers earned a median annual income of $107,510 in 2019.
Many employers require their software developers to hold a bachelor's degree in computer science or software engineering. However, graduates of bootcamp programs may still find employment as junior developers. In addition to skills in coding, testing, and debugging, software development professionals should possess problem-solving and analytical thinking skills, as well as the ability to work well in teams.
A data engineer collects, stores, manages, and analyzes raw data, finding trends or inconsistencies that impact organizational goals. Data engineers must possess a thorough knowledge of database design, applied mathematics, and SQL, and they often know another programming language that is good for working with data, such as Python or R. They must also develop strong communication skills in order to understand the information technology needs of their employers and report on their findings.
Because data engineering requires broad technical skills, many positions require a bachelor's degree in computer science, engineering, or mathematics. Prospective data engineers without a degree who have relevant work experience or have completed a data engineering bootcamp can still often enter this field, however. According to PayScale, data engineers earn an average annual income of $92,320.
Front-End Web Engineer
Front-end web engineers create, maintain, and improve websites, focusing on the design and functionality of everything a user interacts with on a website. They may work as part of a team within an organization, as third-party web solutions providers, or as freelancers. While salaries vary widely by location and type of employer, front-end web engineers earn an average annual income of $73,660, according to PayScale.
Along with a strong background in programming languages, front-end web engineers often possess skills related to user experience design and content management. Employers sometimes prefer to hire candidates who hold a degree, though bootcamp graduates often find success entering this field. A worker in this role may also be referred to as a "front-end developer."
Back-End Web Engineer
While the front end of a website refers to everything that can be seen and interacted with on a website, the back end consists of the technical processes and queries that happen behind the scenes to power the website. Back-end web engineers build and maintain the architecture and functions that make a website run.
Back-end engineers must possess proficiency in programming languages such as Python and/or Ruby, experience with managing databases using SQL, and knowledge about accessibility and security compliance.
Because they often do more object-oriented programming, data mining, and algorithm writing than front-end engineers, employers sometimes look for candidates with a bachelor's degree in computer science. However, those without a degree can often enter this field after completing a bootcamp, or obtaining the necessary training through work experience or other means. Back-end engineers make an average annual salary of $75,090, according to PayScale.
Full-Stack Web Engineer
Full-stack web engineers work on both the front end and back end of a website or application. They oversee website development and design from start to finish, integrating technology with consumer needs.
Full-stack engineers are often the highest-paid web-focused engineers, with an average annual income of $91,360 according to PayScale. Many employers require full-stack engineers to hold a bachelor's degree and/or have industry experience working on both the front end and back end of a website. Most software engineering and web development bootcamps train students in full-stack development, and many bootcamp participants have had success finding positions after completing their training.
The popularity of mobile and tablet devices continues to drive the demand for mobile engineers. These specialized professionals make an average annual salary of $95,920, according to PayScale, ranking them among the top earning engineers. Mobile engineers build applications for Android and iOs, using specific languages and development environments that work for those operating systems.
Several routes prepare students for mobile engineering careers, including software engineering bootcamps and traditional college degree programs. Although it is possible to work in the field without a college degree, mobile engineers must acquire strong backgrounds in system design, data structuring, and programming languages.
What Kind of Skills Do Software Engineers Need?
All software engineers must possess a deep knowledge of computer science and proficiency in using technical tools and programming languages. The most successful engineers must also develop soft skills that help them work collaboratively with project team members, nonengineering colleagues, business leaders, and consumers. These soft skills include strong written and verbal communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
Understanding Data Structures and Algorithms
As the reliance on technology expands, the storage, organization, and processing of data has become a central concern. Understanding data structures and algorithms ranks among the most important skills for a software engineer. Computer science training focuses on learning data structures and algorithms to improve problem-solving and programming expertise.
Working With Databases
Working with databases has also become one of the software engineer's most critical skills. Database management systems provide platforms for organizing, updating, and controlling large databases used in many industries and organizations. Because of the growing focus on big data and data analytics, employers typically expect software engineers to have proficiency working with popular database management systems like MySQL and Oracle.
Coding creates detailed and logical instructions that tell a computer what to do. Software engineers often need to develop proficiency in multiple programming languages. The specific languages an engineer learns depends on how they plan to specialize -- in front-end development, data engineering, mobile development, or other areas.
Software Testing and Debugging
Software engineers should possess knowledge about the methods and tools available for testing and debugging their products. The process of software testing enables a software engineer to determine if a product meets expectations and operates without defects. Debugging refers to the process of detecting and eliminating existing defects in a system, piece of software, or application that cause it to crash or function improperly.
Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking
The skilled software engineer must develop solutions to real-world technical problems, using reasoning and logic to identify alternative approaches and reach appropriate conclusions. Complex problem-solving skills require critical thinking, analytical skills, and close observation.
Why Pursue a Career in Software Engineering?
Anyone thinking about a career in software engineering knows that the field requires a deep knowledge of computer science. The most successful engineers possess a combination of logic and creativity, with the ability to approach problems both rationally and innovatively. Many engineers take on project management roles, organizing tasks and achieving goals in a timely manner while also fostering productive and efficient group participation.
The most valued software engineers possess soft skills that facilitate interaction and collaboration. They need superior written and verbal communication skills, and the ability to switch from technical to nontechnical language in order to work with nonengineering team members, business executives, and consumers.
Where Can You Work as a Software Engineering Professional?
Software engineering salary and employment levels vary considerably by city and industry. California's Silicon Valley, known for its big tech companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, continues to offer many employment opportunities and high salaries. According to the BLS, the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area, which encompasses Silicon Valley, was home to almost 82,000 software developers and software quality assurance analysts in 2019. These professionals earned an average annual salary of over $145,000.
In addition to California's high number of tech jobs, Texas, New York, Washington, and Virginia also boast high employment levels. Although compensation in these states lags behind California, average salaries in these states range from approximately $108,00-$132,000 annually.
Frequently Asked Questions About Software Engineering Careers
Is software engineering a good career?
Now is an excellent time to pursue a software engineering career. These professionals can expect high salaries, low unemployment rates, and long-term career growth. Software engineers have the chance to work in multiple industries, including tech, finance, healthcare, and government.
Is there a demand for software engineers?
The demand for software engineers shows no signs of slowing down, with the BLS projecting 22% growth in employment for software developers between 2019 and 2029.
Can I be a software engineer without a degree?
Although some employers prefer to hire graduates with bachelor's or graduate degrees in computer science or related IT fields, many software engineers without a traditional college education find rewarding employment opportunities. Coding bootcamps can offer a stepping stone into the field by providing sufficient training to move into entry-level positions. According to a 2017 survey conducted by Indeed, 72% of employers think bootcamp graduates are just as job-ready as those with computer science degrees.
How much do software engineers make an hour?
Born and raised in upstate New York, Brian Nichols began his IT education through a vocational high school where he focused on computer science, IT fundamentals, and networking. Brian then went to his local community college, where he received his associate of science in computer information science. He then received his bachelor of science in applied networking and system administration from a private college. Brian now lives in Kansas City, where he works full-time as a DevOps engineer. Brian is also a part-time instructor in cybersecurity. He's passionate about cybersecurity and helping students succeed.
Brian Nichols is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.