What Is a Software Engineer? Careers and Degrees

Explore what a software engineer is, degrees you can pursue, and how it's become one of the hottest careers in the country.
portrait of Evan Thompson
Evan Thompson
Read Full Bio


Evan Thompson is an education and careers writer with BestColleges. He was previously a journalist with bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, and Everett Herald. His beats have included education, sports, business, outdoors, and lifestyl...
Updated on May 6, 2024
Edited by
portrait of Sarah Eilefson
Sarah Eilefson
Read Full Bio

Managing Editor

Sarah earned her doctoral degree in English from Loyola University Chicago and her undergraduate degree from Colby College. She believes in the power of education to advance one's personal and professional life and has worked as an educator for more ...
Learn more about our editorial process

www.bestcolleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

Take our quiz and we'll do the homework for you! Compare your school matches and apply to your top choice today.

Every piece of software has a development life cycle. The planning phase, the analysis phase, the testing phase, and so on, until it's over.

Software engineers are there every step of the way. They combine computer science and engineering principles to analyze a problem and come up with a solution using software.

That's the short and sweet way to answer, "What is a software engineer?" Keep reading for a more detailed look into software engineering as a field of study and career.

What Is a Software Engineer?

Software engineers design, develop, test and maintain software using engineering principles and practices. Their scope includes large-scale activities, like requirements gathering, systems design, and quality assurance. Software developers then use the blueprints of the process to create specific software. Software engineers work on operating systems, video games, middleware and more.

Breaking it down further, software engineers often have five key responsibilities:

  • Software Design and Development: Software engineers are responsible for designing software systems to meet specific requirements. They collaborate, often across different teams, to determine what users need, study system details, and design software solutions. They also write code for software using programming languages, frameworks, and development tools.
  • Programming and Coding: Software engineers have programming skills and are familiar with languages such as Java, Python, C++, and JavaScript. They apply programming best practices to write clean, efficient, and maintainable code. To code, they use software tools, version control systems, and integrated development environments (IDEs).
  • Testing and Quality Assurance: Software engineers test software applications to make sure they perform as they should. They create and carry out test plans, including unit, integration, and system testing. They also find and fix software defects or bugs.
  • Maintenance and Upgrades: Software engineers are responsible for maintaining and updating software applications throughout their lifecycle. In this capacity, engineers fix problems, improve features, make applications work better, and keep up with new technology. They may also provide support and troubleshooting for software systems.
  • Software Documentation: Software engineers must document their code. They write comments, create user manuals, and generate technical documentation. This documentation helps team members understand and maintain the software. It also helps with knowledge transfer and effective use and support.

How Much Do Software Engineers Make?

Software engineering is a well-paid job in the computer and IT industry. In May 2023, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median annual wage for this industry was $104,420, which is more than double the average for all other jobs.

The pay for software engineers was $132,270, the third-highest in the industry. It's also one of the highest-paying software-related occupations you can get with a bachelor's degree. To compare, software quality assurance analysts and testers earned $99,620.

Average Annual Salary for Software Engineering Careers
Job Title Median Annual Wage (2023) Degree Required for Entry-Level Role
Software Engineer $132,270 Bachelor's
Software Quality Engineer $101,800 Bachelor's
Computer Scientist $145,080 Master's
Computer and Information Systems Manager $169,510 Bachelor's
Web Developer $92,750 Bachelor's
Source: BLS

Degrees in Software Engineering

Software engineering degrees teach important skills and provide qualifications for various jobs in the field. These degrees often include a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical application. Students learn about programming languages and how to develop software, algorithms, and data structures.

In addition to technical skills, software engineering degrees emphasize problem-solving, critical thinking, and analytical skills. Students learn how to identify and solve software design problems, optimize performance, and ensure the software is reliable and secure.

The different levels of software engineering education are:

Associate Degree in Software Engineering

A software engineering associate degree is a two-year program that helps students get entry-level jobs or continue their education.

These degrees teach the basics of software engineering, like programming, web design, and database management. Students may also complete some business and management courses, which can lead to more employment opportunities.

Bachelor's Degree in Software Engineering

Many software engineering bachelor's degrees take four years. They usually cover programming languages, software development methodologies, database management, and system analysis. Students gain real-world skills by working on projects and internships, preparing them for software development or engineering jobs.

Master's Degree in Software Engineering

A master's degree in software engineering is a specialized program that usually lasts 1-2 years. It teaches advanced concepts and techniques for designing, developing, and managing software systems. These programs help students improve technical skills and understand software engineering principles. They also prepare students for leadership roles in the industry.

Doctorate Degree in Software Engineering

A software engineering doctorate is a research-focused program that advances the field with in-depth study and original research. Students focus on specific areas like software architecture, testing, or security to contribute to software engineering. Doctoral students aim to make significant contributions to knowledge and innovation in software engineering practices.

Software Engineering Career Paths

Within software engineering, there are many career paths and areas of specialization. Many software engineering college degrees offer concentrations that tailor courses specifically to these areas. They include:

Database Management

Database management careers focus on the development and maintenance of database management systems. Students learn to design, build, and secure database systems for various users and industries.

Network Systems

This specialization focuses on the design and analysis of network systems. Students learn to set up, assess, and secure network communications in various settings.

Computer Systems Manager

In computer systems management, you learn to design and develop different computer programs. Students learn how to use and put in place various applications and technologies.


Security engineers identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities in software systems. They evaluate risks, put security measures in place, and stay up-to-date with industry standards. Security engineers safeguard software from cyber threats by using encryption, authentication, and security frameworks.

Machine Learning

Machine learning engineers develop and deploy machine learning models and algorithms. They work with data scientists to install and optimize machine learning solutions. They also use Python or R and frameworks like TensorFlow or PyTorch to create smart applications.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Frequently Asked Questions About Software Engineering

Is software engineering a good career?

Software engineering is a good career if you prefer high-paying, in-demand roles. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software engineers earned a median annual wage of $132,270 in May 2023.

The BLS predicts that software engineer jobs will increase by 25% from 2022-2032. This growth is much faster than other jobs. But, as a result of the demand, job competition may be more competitive.

Most software engineers need a bachelor's degree. But, education requirements vary. Associate degrees may provide entry into the field. Some organizations only hire professionals with a master's degree or higher.

According to BLS, the median annual wages for software engineers in the highest-paying industries include: software publishing ($143,210), manufacturing ($138,100), and finance and insurance ($132,900).

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.