How to Become a Software Engineer

Become a software engineer with only a bachelor's degree. Learn to code and master popular programming languages to launch your career in this fast-paced field.
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  • Software engineers enjoy high salaries and growth potential in IT fields.
  • Professionals can qualify for most software engineering jobs with only a bachelor's degree.
  • Schools commonly offer affordable, accelerated online degrees in computer science.
  • Software engineering is an ideal career for talented programmers with a creative streak.

Software engineers conceptualize and create computer applications with a team of developers and quality assurance analysts. Like many computer and IT jobs, most software engineers require a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. Coding experience is essential for successful software engineers.

Jobs in software engineering attract tech enthusiasts with their finger on the pulse of what's next. Software engineers earned an average base salary of $89,000 a year in July 2022, according to Payscale. Other professionals like software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers earned more than $110,000 in May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The organization projects 22% job growth from 2020-2030 for these professionals.

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Ready to Start Your Journey?

Read on to learn how to become a software engineer.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Software engineers play a critical role in the computer and information technology industry, guiding all aspects of developing new applications. Software engineers can channel their passion for programming and innovation into an exciting and lucrative career.

These professionals typically hold a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field. Software engineers maintain a broad perspective of the design and development process. They may eventually focus their management skills and experience toward an MBA to qualify for more advanced positions such as computer systems manager or IT project manager.

Software Engineer Responsibilities

  • Software engineers oversee the "big picture" of software development, planning the long- and short-term rollout of each phase of the process and its logistics.
  • Software engineers guide a team of software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers in their collective duties to produce new software and applications.
  • They possess advanced coding skills and work closely with developers to plot out the details of the programming needed to complete a project.

Software Engineering Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Software Engineer?

Becoming a software engineer requires a bachelor's degree and coding experience. Students may choose to enhance their education and experience with professional certification. Others may look to switch careers from another field to software engineering or pursue a higher degree toward career advancement. Explore the steps necessary to become a software engineer below.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science

Most aspiring software engineers major in computer science during college. Some schools offer more targeted computer engineering degrees, ideal for covering both hardware and software systems. Though less popular, majors in electrical engineering and business (with a computer-science-related concentration) also exist.

A bachelor's in software engineering commonly includes coursework in software development, systems programming, and operating systems, culminating in a capstone project. The program can also help students develop soft skills, including communication, teamwork, and problem-solving. Some bachelor's degree programs include internship opportunities. Students may complete a bachelor's degree in fewer than four years through an accelerated online program.

Step 2: Get an Entry-Level Software Engineer Job

Graduates of bachelor's programs in software engineering can qualify for entry-level software engineering and computer programming jobs. Sometimes, employers will hire bachelor's program graduates as interns or trainees for computer engineering or software development jobs.

Students should seek entry-level positions with room to grow in the tech sector. Graduates may explore options like a bridge program or mentorship to enhance their employment potential. Junior software engineers need 1-3 years of experience before advancing. According to Payscale, software engineers with less than one year of experience earned an average salary of $78,000 as of July 2022.

Step 3: Earn Your Master's of Computer Science

While a master's in computer science is not necessary to become a software engineer, an advanced degree can qualify professionals for higher positions. Students can often earn an affordable master's degree in fewer than two years online. Students can also choose to earn a graduate certificate designed for upskilling in a specialization.

Professionals may earn a master's degree to become lead or senior software engineers. A master's in computer engineering or MBA in IT management can qualify students for tech-oriented or executive roles. According to Payscale, senior software engineers, which require a master's degree, earn an average salary of $110,000 as of July 2022.

Step 4: Get a Job as a Software Engineer

Software engineers with a bachelor's degree and several years of entry-level work experience can qualify for mid-level software engineering positions. Professionals may choose to focus their skills in a specialization. Common subspecialties of software engineering include:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer-Human Interface
  • Game Design
  • Networks
  • Data Science

Job-seekers should consider factors, including an employer's long-term viability in the tech industry, growth opportunities in their specialization, and company culture. Payscale reports the highest income for this occupation at global tech companies like Google, where software engineers earned an annual salary of $124,000 as of July 2022.

Step 5: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

Since a bachelor's or master's degree will suffice for nearly all levels of IT jobs, earning a doctorate is not necessary. Schools offer doctoral degrees in computer science, best-suited to aspiring college professors looking to teach this subject, or scholars pursuing academic research in this field.

Many employers request that software engineers occasionally complete some form of continuing education, which includes upskilling through a training course, contributing to open source software or self-study.

A Real Software Engineer's Advice

Dagna Bieda, a software engineer turned career coach, helps other engineers achieve their goals and reach their full potential. She said there are things you should know about software engineering before pursuing the career.

Soft Skills are as Important as Technical Skills

Bieda said her clients sometimes feel they aren't being recognized for their work, and it's often because they rely too heavily on their technical expertise and don't spend enough time developing their soft skills.

College graduates tend to overvalue technical skill sets, Bieda said. Technical skill sets are very important for you to be able to execute and do the job, but in order to be seen on the job for the value you bring, you need to market yourself. You need to communicate effectively and be able to collaborate.

Imposter Syndrome Can Hold You Back

Bieda said software engineers often feel like they aren't enough or don't know enough to be successful in the field, but she said that mental block will stop you from advancing.

You need to cultivate believing in your ability to figure things out, Bieda said. A lot of the time, engineering is solving problems. It's not always about knowing everything — it's about believing that whatever problem you're trying to solve with technology, you'll be able to figure it out.

What to Know Before Becoming a Software Engineer

Accreditation

Any software engineering degree under consideration must come from an accredited school. Only schools accredited through the U.S. Department of Education (ED) award legitimate degree credentials. In addition to institutional accreditation, ABET accredits many bachelor's programs in software engineering.

Licensing and Certification

Software engineers do not require licensure, but they may choose from various professional certifications to enhance job prospects and earning potential. Most certifications require students to join the professional organization that offers the certification and pass a credentialing exam in a set of core skills. Common credentials include certified software engineer, CIW web development professional, and C programming language certified associate.

Cost

Earning a bachelor's in a major like computer science or software engineering at a four-year institution costs between $8,500 and $38,000 in 2020-2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The true cost varies according to added fees and factors such as whether the program is offered on campus or online, and state residency. The cost of a master's degree averaged nearly $20,000 in 2019-20, also according to NCES.

Salary

Software engineers, most of whom hold a bachelor's degree, earned an average annual salary of $89,000 as of July 2022, according to Payscale. Senior software engineer positions, for which a master's is required, can command a salary of roughly $110,000. The BLS ranks California, Washington, and Maryland among the highest-paying states for software developers, including software engineers.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Software Engineer

What qualifications do you need to become a software engineer?

Software engineers typically need a bachelor's degree and coding experience for entry-level jobs. Most software engineers major in computer science, information technology, or a related field. Some professionals pursue a certificate program or bootcamp instead of a formal degree.

Although coding is not a software engineer's primary responsibility, they must demonstrate mastery over several popular coding languages. Software engineers also need excellent project management, problem-solving, and detail-orientation skills.

What is the fastest way to become a software engineer?

Software engineers may choose one of several accelerated paths toward a career. Options include an online bachelor's degree, which may offer perks like set tuition rates and accelerated completion times of less than four years. Students can transfer credits for previous education and experience toward a shorter degree plan.

Other paths for students looking to launch their careers as fast as possible include attending a software engineering bootcamp. Such programs take less time than a traditional or online degree, especially for students who choose a full-time schedule.

How do I become a software engineer without a degree?

Aspiring software engineers who seek an alternative path to job readiness may seek out a bootcamp training program. Bootcamps are increasingly prevalent not only in software engineering but in specialties like game design, quality assurance, or client relationship management.

Software engineering bootcamps focus on well-rounded coding skills for various professional applications. Popular programming languages include Java, C/C++, JavaScript, and Python. Bootcamps emphasize job skills, including collaboration, communication, and practical experience.

Can I become a software engineer with an online degree?

Yes, computer and information technology degree programs are naturally suited to an online learning environment. Many schools now offer a variety of graduate, undergraduate, and certificate programs in software engineering and its subspecialties.

Online degree programs can train students to practice using technology for routine coursework while also imparting hands-on technical skills. Online programs typically include the same project-based curriculum and optional internships as a traditional degree program. Employers do not differentiate between candidates educated in person or online.

How much money can I make as a software engineer?

According to the BLS, software developers, which includes software engineers, and software quality assurance analysts and testers, reported a median annual wage of roughly $110,140 in May 2021. More specifically, software engineers earned an average base salary of $89,000 as of July 2022, according to Payscale.

Software engineers enjoy high salaries as critical workers in the computer and information technology industry. The BLS reported software developers and engineers working in the software manufacturing industry earned the highest salary in May 2021, followed by manufacturing.


With Advice From:

Portrait of Dagna Bieda

Dagna Bieda

Dagna Bieda is a Software Engineer turned Career Coach for Engineers. Coding for 10+ years, and coaching for the past 3.5+ years, she's the tough love, been in your shoes kind of coach. Her clients have various backgrounds — from working at small companies to FAANG+ companies. And their experience ranges from 2-20+ years of experience and education ranging from self-taught, through career-changing bootcamp grads, to college grads, some with a military background. As a coach, she helps them reach their potential and reach for exciting career opportunities.

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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