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Software engineers can work in virtually any industry and—simultaneously—be involved in a number of different projects. From customer interfaces & mobile applications to video game design & cybersecurity, software engineers have an important role to play. To help you identify your career goals, we’ve broken down the role of a software engineer into several classification schemes. Explore job opportunities by stack location, function, or niche area of interest. Keep in mind that these titles are quite fluid. You may find yourself performing one or more of these roles at the same time, or performing different roles as you take on new projects.
Classifying Software Engineers by Stack Location
Sometimes, software is defined by its stack location, meaning the part of the entire software system where a piece of code resides. In general, the two main classifications are “front end,” which means customer-facing code, and “backend,” which is the logical, underlying structure and other such internal code. Sometimes, a software engineer might be responsible for the “full stack,” meaning code that runs throughout the front and backends of a software system.
Front-end engineers are responsible for all the customer-interfacing components of a program or an app. This includes the Graphical User Interface (GUI), graphics, navigation, and controls that are required to make the program useful. These engineers must get into the mind of the end user and determine layouts and navigation that make the most sense, ensuring a pleasant end-user experience. Web developers are one example of front-end engineers.
The backend engineer is responsible for handling all the logic, database calls, calculations, and other such tasks that are invisible to the end user. They control all the “behind the scenes” commands that process input from the user and provide output to the user. They write the code that links raw data to the user.
A backend engineer should be comfortable programming in several popular languages such as C/C++/C#, Java, Python, Ruby, and others. They should be well-organized, as the backend of the program is often a trouble spot for memory leaks, security risks, and general program slowdowns.
The full-stack engineer is capable of making a functional program, web-based application, or mobile application, taking into consideration all aspects of its development. This is not to say that they must do everything and work alone. Instead, full-stack engineers can fill in anywhere that is needed. They are often involved in integration projects, as they know both the front end and backend of the software.
Classifying Software Engineers by Function
Another way to think of software engineers is to classify them based on the function of the software they produce. Most of these categories will fit in any of the stack location classifications, but there is overlap between them. For example, every stack location needs security and a security specialist software engineer will need to be consulted to find risk areas, regardless of whether the risk is at the front or backend.
Graphical Software Engineer
A graphical software engineer may design some of the graphics or they may be in charge of designing the layouts for GUIs. A graphical software engineer will need to produce intuitive controls that cater to a wide variety of audiences, including those without technical backgrounds or those with limited vision.
Graphical software engineers should be familiar with various graphic design packages, such as Gimp, CorelDraw, the Adobe suite of products, Harvard Graphics, and others. They must also be creative yet user-friendly with their layouts.
As the fields of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to grow, data analysis is burgeoning as well. A software engineer who is tasked with data analysis is responsible for processing data from various test routines to ensure software is ready to roll out to the end user.
With the rise in cyberattacks, cybersecurity specialists are becoming a necessary member of the software engineering team. Cybersecurity specialists use their programming knowledge to find where hackers can access sensitive data, infiltrate systems, and wreak havoc on the end user of a software package. They sometimes perform “white hat” hacking, where they try to break into systems to learn where a software package might have security weaknesses.
Integration engineers “put it all together.” They may serve as a full-stack engineer for part of the project, or they may just help smooth out transitions between the front and backends. Integration engineers may have to write the code to interface hardware, such as Automated Teller Machine (ATM) controls, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), or other Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs).
Test and quality assurance (QA) engineers verify the functionality of software. They do their best to break it by typing in invalid inputs, unplugging devices, overloading memory, and launching other attacks to find any weak point in the code. Their goal is to make programs and apps as “bulletproof” as possible, so they cannot be easily crashed.
Niche Software Engineers
Another way to classify software engineering roles is by markets. Software engineers in these specific industries may perform all the roles listed so far. Some of these markets are small, and the companies that operate in this space may require their engineers to wear multiple hats.
Video Game Designer
While virtually every child grows up wanting to design video games, there is a lot to this niche market that requires software engineering skills. To see if a video game is challenging, but not impossible, a software engineer might write a test algorithm that runs multiple inputs to the game, testing it a thousand times in a few seconds, then analyzing the data.
A video game designer must have more than a love of video games. They must be skilled in programming and troubleshooting, as well as be able to analyze data. They may also need to tap into some creativity, as many games have complex story lines and detailed characters.
Mobile Applications Designer
While many software applications are geared toward computers and laptops, a mobile applications designer specializes in recreating this experience for mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. They may have to create simpler GUIs, yet ensure that security is much stronger, as mobile devices are under a constant threat during travel.
A mobile applications designer will need to have good programming skills across multiple platforms (e.g. Google, Android, Windows, Apple, etc.), along with a keen eye toward portability and scalability. Smaller screens on these devices require compact GUIs and simpler controls and commands.
Industrial Systems Software Engineer
The field of industrial systems includes everything from PLCs to robotics to industrial safety systems. Industrial systems are often operated by people not experienced in software, and must be easy to use. Furthermore, a gritty manufacturing environment can lead to hardware issues that this type of engineer may have to solve.
Examples of Software Engineers & Their Responsibilities
Video Game Software Engineer
Suppose Steve is hired as a software engineer at a video game company that produces first-person shooter (FPS) games:
- Starting on a project as a backend engineer, he writes code to calculate whether a player scored a “hit” on another player, and if so, how much damage was done. To do this, he may need to pull data from multiple arrays, such as one storing player positions and another for weapon capabilities.
- As Steve’s skills advance, he may be called on to test certain aspects of the game at it nears completion, such as performing test engineer roles.
- Furthermore, rather than playing the game thousands of times, he may develop software to automatically test certain features, then analyze that data.
Front-End Software Engineer
Let’s say Olivia is a front-end engineer for a company producing banking software:
- She has plenty of experience designing customer-facing products, including the GUI for a particular software package.
- In one of the latest updates, early testing reveals a small security risk that could compromise customer data. It has not been released to the public yet, so Olivia works with a security specialist and backend engineer to patch the security risk.
- With this experience in mind, she begins to learn cybersecurity and performs these roles on the next project.
Types of Software Engineers in the Real World
Our classifications and role descriptions are designed to act as guidelines. The reality is that a software engineer must be well-versed in all aspects of the field and be flexible enough to perform the tasks that are required to bring the software system to market. For example, in their early career, a software engineer may find themselves in a front-end software role, helping to develop the graphics. But they later switch to a backend database management role.
In general, software engineers of all types will benefit through continued education. Most of these positions require at least an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, but the key is continual learning. Last year’s best practices in cybersecurity are not enough for today’s threats. The best software engineers are constantly willing to learn, read about new technologies and methods, and take classes to sharpen their skills, regardless of which degree(s) they already hold.