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One of the most confusing distinctions in the world of software professions is that between software developers and software engineers. What are the key differences & similarities? Which career path is right for you? While the lines between software engineers and developers have blurred over recent years, there are still some general distinctions in primary duties and educational requirements. In this guide, we’ll explore what you need to know about software engineers and developers.
Software Developer vs. Software Engineer: The Short Version
Simply put, software development exists within the larger field of software engineering. Software developers design & program software, while software engineers tackle larger considerations—how to integrate the software with existing systems, test it, and maintain it moving forward. Specific responsibilities will differ between organizations. In many cases, responsibilities between software developers and engineers will overlap.
Because software developers are responsible for certain aspects of computer programming, they must be skilled in some of the more popular programming languages (e.g. C/C++, Python, and Java). Their design responsibilities include drawing flow charts, block diagrams, and state diagrams to plan what actually needs to be programmed for the software to succeed. While some software developers manage teams, many prefer to work individually on programming tasks that make software and applications run.
Software engineers have responsibilities that go beyond design and programming. They often manage software developers, overseeing a skilled team tackling design and code specifications. Software engineers require interpersonal leadership & project management skills, as well as technical abilities to test software, integrate it with an existing infrastructure, and communicate with organizational leaders.
What are the Differences Between Software Developers and Software Engineers?
Typical Software Developer Tasks
For example, at the start of a project, a software developer might design the flowchart above. They would then:
- Collaborate with several programmers, dividing up the tasks and managing how the pieces come together. Specifically, this could mean determining which variables should be passed between nodes on this flowchart, what state the program will be in after each decision, and so on.
- When each of the programmers has finished their smaller pieces, such as subroutines, classes, and other programming structures, it is the job of the software developer to fit the pieces together and troubleshoot errors. Their programming skills come in handy as they document both the code and procedures.
Typical Software Engineer Tasks
The role of the software engineer is often much more project-specific, and they will need to quickly adjust to the specific knowledge requirements of that job. For instance:
- One project may require a software engineer to perform the software developer task of integrating two sections of C++ code, or it may involve translating legacy FORTRAN code into C++ to improve the integration between codes.
- On the next project, they may have to work with electrical engineers to program a microcontroller, or design a data acquisition system that collects data for machine maintenance and operations.
They’re not just designing software; they’re figuring out how it will function in the real world.
Software engineers sometimes draw block diagrams and flow diagrams, but they usually deal with fewer low-level programming tasks. Instead, they spend more of their time designing how software will interface with hardware, such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), microcontrollers, proprietary hardware, robotics, and other such machines. They must also be able to develop systems for wired and wireless communication protocols, be familiar with network security, server, and database protocols, as well as other data collection, storage, transmission, and access methods.
What are the Similarities Between Software Developers and Software Engineers?
While our discussion above focuses on the differences between software engineers and developers, it also demonstrates how similar they are. Software developers and software engineers need to:
- Know several programming languages or be able to learn them quickly
- Understand the vision for the software application, participate in the design process, and contribute to the code that makes it operate
- Function in managerial positions that oversee teams, divide large projects into manageable chunks, and be responsible for the final product
Career Paths: Which Role Is Right for You?
The reality is that no article can tell you which career path—software engineering or software development—is right for you. In fact, there are dozens of related careers that might be a better fit depending on your skills and interests (e.g. web developer, computer engineer, etc.). But, if you’re leaning on these two titles, then you’ll want to consider job outlooks, salary projections, and what it takes to enter the field.
How to Become a Software Developer
Although some software developers are self-taught, the majority are sourced from university graduates. A bachelor’s degree in a relevant field—software development, computer science, or related—is usually the entry-level qualification for software developer positions. Your undergraduate degree program will typically be broad enough to cover many relevant topics within computer science and software development.
- Aspiring software developers will often take several direct programming courses (e.g. C/C++), as well as a course or two in trending languages.
- While these provide some of the required background, BS students will also take at least one course in design and structure, such as object-oriented programming (OOP).
- They may also have to take a course in compilers, networks, artificial intelligence, microcontrollers, or other more specific classes.
If you’re interested in pursuing more advanced developer roles, consider earning a master’s degree in software development or computer science. Not only will you develop more advanced technical skills, but you’ll also complete courses on project management that will be useful in a managerial position.
How to Become a Software Engineer
Anyone interested in becoming a software engineer is better off starting their educational career by completing a bachelor’s in software engineering. These undergraduate programs tend to have more engineering coursework than computer science and software development programs, making them a great first step for entrance into the industry.
If you’re looking to expand your opportunities and skill sets, then a master’s (or even a doctorate) in software engineering is a great option. You will complete coursework related to hardware interfacing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, network security, and other in-demand subfields. And the program’s project management coursework will be very helpful as you begin your career and tackle collaborative tasks, such as large system integrations.
Job Demand & Salaries for Software Roles
The good news is that both positions are in high demand. As computers continue to shrink in size and infiltrate more areas of human life, there is more demand than ever for people who are willing to develop & manage software. Software design is no longer about coding in a specific language, but instead involves managing large blocks of code, finding efficient ways to handle big data, and creating integrations between legacy software and new technology, among other skills.
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs in software development (including software engineering) to grow much faster than other positions—nearly 25% over the next decade.
Software Developer Jobs & Salaries
Software developers can find employment in virtually any field, provided that the company builds or maintains their own software. You can obviously find rewarding positions with tech companies, but you’ll also have opportunities with banks, airlines, medical facilities, and any organizations that rely on specialized or proprietary software to conduct business (hint: there are a lot).
According to Glassdoor, a software developer’s salary is somewhere between $77,000 and $120,000. As you might expect, the range varies by title and your prior professional experience. Entry-level developers might command as much as $95,000, whereas senior software developers can command salaries that are north of $150,000.
Software Engineer Jobs & Salaries
It’s a similar story for software engineers, who will find employment in virtually any field. With that being said, tech companies, major manufacturing companies, and large financial institutions are the most promising options for software engineering job candidates. This is due to the amount of systems integration and cybersecurity risks and requirements within these fields. Also, some of these larger outfits must maintain software operation during upgrades and patches, and therefore need software engineers to take on the responsibility.
Despite the overlap in responsibilities, software engineering salaries tend to be higher than those of software developers. According to Glassdoor, entry-level software engineers can expect $95,000+ per year depending on title, company, and region. Senior software engineers have salaries north of $130,000; however, even higher salaries are definitely possible. For example, Google and Meta software engineers earn over $200,000 per year.
Both positions are in-demand and well-compensated. As a result, you should consider which career path will make you happiest. While your choice may not have a massive impact on your salary, it can have a huge impact on your career satisfaction.
Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve only touched the surface of the differences and similarities between software engineering and software development. You may be left with a few burning questions, so we’ve added an FAQ to tackle our readers’ queries. Have an additional question you’d like for us to answer within the guide? Let us know.
Which is Better—Software Development or Software Engineering?
“Better” is a relative term. Better for salary potential? Job satisfaction? Flexibility on remote working? Ultimately, neither software development nor software engineering is better than the other. They are both incredibly important disciplines and rewarding careers. You will need to consider the factors we’ve outlined above in order to decide which is better for you.
In terms of stress level, salary, job satisfaction, upward mobility, and opportunities, we think software development and software engineering are on equal footing. Specific jobs and employers will run the gamut of these factors, and with plenty of opportunities out there, laterally moving between companies is relatively easy to do. So choose the path that meets your definition of “best”!
Can Software Developers Become Software Engineers (and Vice Versa)?
The short answer is “Yes.” Because of the overlap in responsibilities, as well as the fact that some companies use the titles interchangeably, you’re likely to find openings for both roles that you’ll be qualified to pursue.
To give you a little more context, courses between these two professions often overlap, and it is not difficult for a student who is studying software engineering to become a software developer, or vice versa. Scan software forums online and you’ll find plenty of examples of people switching from one to the other.
However, the software engineering title does imply more emphasis on engineering classes from an ABET-accredited university. This can make it a little more difficult for a student who is majoring in software development or computer science to transfer into software engineering. So talk to your mentors & work peers about your goals.
Where Do Software Developers & Engineers Work?
Software developers and software engineers can find work in any organization that designs, creates, or maintains software. This isn’t just tech companies! You’ll find open positions everywhere from financial companies (e.g. PayPal) to healthcare groups and major airlines. This contributes to the demand for and high earnings of software professionals.
- Remember that the line between software developer and software engineer is a little blurry, particularly for those working at smaller companies or start-ups. In these cases, software development and software engineering roles may be combined into one.
- At larger companies, roles may be much more defined, with less overlap. Furthermore, companies that must interface hardware will likely have more software engineering roles than companies that only deal with software interfaces.
Which Schools Offer Software Development and Software Engineering Degree Programs?
Most regionally accredited universities with any technical background will offer degree programs in one or both of these fields. Software development careers are possible with a degree in computer science as well. Computer science and software development majors may be in the School of Arts & Sciences or part of the School of Engineering.
Software engineering departments are almost always based in the School of Engineering:
- Software engineering curricula must meet Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) criteria and be evaluated every six years. As such, schools will mimic a traditional engineering curriculum, such as an introduction to engineering class, electrical theory or circuit analysis, and multiple engineering design courses.
- During senior year, many software engineering programs will require a capstone course that uses concepts from most undergraduate classes and is evaluated by the entire faculty as well as outside partners like advisory boards or industrial partners.
Ready to make your choice? Use our directory of on-campus programs and online programs to browse all software engineering and software development degrees by state, degree level, and academic specialty.