How to Become a Software Developer: Step-By-Step Guide

Software developers are in high demand. Learn how to become a software developer and see what they make on average.

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by Nalea Ko

Updated November 4, 2022

Edited by Cameren Boatner
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How to Become a Software Developer: Step-By-Step Guide
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Christopher Pratt, a Microsoft product manager, started developing software in high school — and getting paid for it. He said that as long as you have the passion necessary to learn the skills, you can become a software developer.

But getting a job as a software developer takes a bit more than learning the basics. Read on to learn more about how to become a software developer.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Software Developer Do?

Software developers create software systems and applications on the front end with user experience (UX) design teams. They may also design and test back-end software. Full-stack developers work on the client side and the server side.

Software developers write, test, and debug code. They also create diagrams that tell computer programmers how to write code. Creating software requires understanding user and business needs. These professionals also need to monitor software products and test for bugs.

What Are Key Software Developer Skills?

  • Proficiency in Python, Java, or C++
  • Ability to design data pipelines
  • Ability to work with cloud native applications
  • Understanding of data structures and algorithms
  • Ability to update front-end and back-end software systems and applications
  • Ability to run tests to keep software operational
  • Familiarity with Git to track changes in coding
  • Experience in API development
  • Ability to improve the functionality of current software systems
  • Experience in performing data analysis
  • Ability to debug and test systems and applications
  • Ability to collaborate on design and code reviews

Software Developer vs. Software Engineer

Many people confuse software developers and software engineers — and for a good reason. The careers have similar job functions. However, while software developers write, debug, and monitor computer systems and applications, software engineers need more expansive engineering know-how. They take responsibility for the entire software process.

Software engineers have an engineering foundation, which lets them build systems, while software developers are programmers. Software developers oversee software creation from its initiation to its launch.

How to Become a Software Developer

Tech has long been a sector for both self-taught programmers and college-trained developers who hold undergrad degrees and even graduate degrees. No one pathway guarantees a software development job. That said, the steps listed below can get you started as a software developer.

Step 1: Try Your Hand at Programming

If you want to become a software developer, start by learning object-oriented programming to see how much computer science appeals to you.

Software developers have a programming background. Programming languages such as Java and Python help software programmers do their jobs. Aspiring software developers should have experience in SQL queries and coding in C# as well. They may also need to learn developer tools, such as Visual Studio and Git.

Step 2: Choose a Software Developer Education

The educational route you take to become a software developer depends on your career goals and your timeline. Software developers can complete a coding bootcamp within months or earn a four-year bachelor's degree in computer science.

The best path for you depends on your chosen career and the company's requirements for that position. Job-seekers can check career listings to see what educational level new hires need.

Pratt said that while you don't need a formal education to find work as a software developer, companies hiring for these roles often look for a bachelor's degree.

Step 3: Get Hands-On Experience in Software Development

Regardless of the education pathway you take, you need a portfolio to showcase your skills. You can build a portfolio or website and include capstone projects or projects completed in internships. Your portfolio projects should be creative and built using the programming languages and libraries your resume lists.

Pratt recommends putting together your portfolio on GitHub, so you can share it in your resume.

Step 4: Build Your Software Developer Resume

Up-and-coming software developers build their resumes by gaining education through coding bootcamps or college. Internships also help inexperienced software developers build work experience, including nontechnical skills.

Additionally, software engineers can stand out in the job market by certifying their skills. For example, they can get certified as Amazon Web Services certified solutions architects. They can also become certified information systems security professionals.

Step 5: Apply for Software Developer Jobs

The final step to becoming a software developer is to find a job. Consider the area of software development you'd like to work in and apply there. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 32% of all 1.4 million software developers who worked in 2021 held jobs in computer systems design. The remainder worked in finance and insurance, software publishing, manufacturing, and the management of companies.

You can seek positions by sending cold emails, responding to a career posting, or getting a referral from a trusted mentor at college, work, or coding bootcamp.

An Expert's Advice on Becoming a Software Developer

Pratt has a few notes you should keep in mind while pursuing a career in software development:

You're Learning a New Language — Be Patient

"The number one thing to understand is it'll take time," Pratt said. "It's called a programming language for a reason — you're learning a new language…it's completely foreign at first, and there's a steep learning curve, so just be patient."

Pratt said it takes most folks at least a year of hard work to get to a level where they can contribute significantly.

Undergraduate Degrees Won't Teach You Everything

Pratt noted that a lot of undergraduate coursework doesn't teach you the skills you need to get a job, and you might need to learn them on your own. Pratt recommends looking for coding clubs on campus or an online course.

You Can Get Experience Without Formal Education

Pratt started writing code for small startups in high school, which padded his resume early on.

"If you're vying for the big tech roles, a degree program is probably your best bet…but at smaller startups, all they care about is that you know how to code," Pratt said.

He noted that the pay isn't great, but the real value of the job is experience.

What's the Average Software Developer's Salary?

The BLS reports that software developers made a median annual wage of $120,730 in May 2021. By taking on more responsibilities at work and earning higher degrees, software developers can boost their pay potential.

Not every state compensates software developers the same. According to the BLS, California pays software developers the most, with an annual mean wage of $146,770 in 2021. Other top-paying states include Washington, Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island. Software engineers in those high-paying states make between $128,790-$145,150 on average per year.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Software Developer

What qualifications do you need to be a software developer?

Becoming a software developer rides mostly on your skill with programming languages and your experience building projects. However, the qualifications you need depend on the job you're applying for.

Some software developers graduated from a bootcamp, while others have master's degrees.

How many years does it take to become a software developer?

Software developers usually need 1-3 years of experience and some form of education, whether that be from a bootcamp or a degree program.

But you can start learning how to become a software developer today. You can watch YouTube videos to learn how to start developing apps and software. That can help you build experience to boost your resume.

Is it hard to become a software developer?

Right now, it's easier than ever to start learning software development. With free tools available to anyone, you can start getting the experience you need today.

Actually getting a software developer job is another story. You'll need a good portfolio and well-rounded resume that shows your technical skills and your soft skills, like working on a team and communicating complex ideas to coworkers.

What are the steps to becoming a software developer?

First, start by learning programming languages and building apps and other projects. Then, you should choose which educational route to take — a bootcamp, degree program, or another pathway. After that, gain some professional experience, such as through an internship.

Once you gain the right skills and knowledge, you can start applying for software developer jobs. Earning some certifications might boost your resume and set you apart from other applicants.

With Contributions From:

Portrait of Christopher Pratt

Christopher Pratt

Christopher Pratt is a product manager at Microsoft. He graduated in 2020 from Penn State University with a bachelor's degree in computer science and as a Millennium Scholar. At Penn State, he served as director of DevPSU, a program that gives real-world software development experience to computer science students. He also was a member of the Penn State Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

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.

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