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Thinking about a software engineering career? Good choice. Media headlines are full of discoveries that couldn’t have happened without this field. Software engineering professionals participate in fascinating technical projects. They oversee the development of products such as software games or utility software. They help to launch spacecraft for NASA, improve X-ray-based medical technologies, and capture the first direct image of black holes. It’s world of possibilities for the right kind of technical thinker.
What Is Software Engineering?
Software engineering is an umbrella term that describes a process which requires a wide range of engineering skills, programming languages, and other tools, practices, and real-world experience. The result is a useful software product.
When you train to become a software engineer, you develop a unique toolkit of elements that help you create and improve software & computer systems. Software engineers study and use engineering practices to design, build, remove errors from, and retire computer software that keep these systems running.
Software engineering is also concerned with each step of the software development life cycle. So expect software engineering tasks & concerns to appear when it’s time to analyze, design, develop, test, integrate, implement, maintain, and retire software.
As an umbrella term, software engineering covers many topics and functions. For example, software engineers work at many different levels of computer systems. These levels include:
- Operational Software Engineering: These tasks focus on how software interacts with other system elements, its functionality and whether it’s usable, dependable, and secure.
- Transitional Software Engineering: This level focuses on how software reacts when it changes from one environment to another. Typically, these transitions require scalability or flexibility in software development.
- Software Maintenance: Software engineering repeatedly focuses on how software functions in an existing computer system, especially when parts of it change. Existing software requires regular reviews to confirm it’s working as intended and updated to fix errors or malfunctions.
Note: At this point in the guide, you may be asking whether there’s a difference between programming and software engineering. The answer is a definitive “Yes.” Unlike computer programmers or software developers, software engineers view a computer system from a wider perspective. They first look at the whole system and then decide which types of changes or improvements are needed to achieve project goals.
Why Is Software Engineering So Important?
Every IT infrastructure that runs all but the simplest computer software needs software engineering talent to lead, monitor, and assess activities. Different industries rely on software engineering methods and professionals in different ways. Here are a few notable examples:
- Healthcare: Software engineers are collaborating with medical researchers to develop algorithms that analyze data and model the human body. Software engineers also work in hospitals, developing equipment and procedures that improve patient diagnoses, medical records, clinical decision-making, and patient monitoring.
- Automotive Manufacturing: In an auto manufacturing factory, who ensures that all programming solutions, AI-powered tools, and technologies work flawlessly? You guessed it—the local automotive software engineer. Software’s expanding role reflects a bigger trend of code becoming more important than mechanics in auto design and testing. Software engineers will be in the center of this change.
- Agriculture: Software engineers are working with farm-management software developers to help farmers plan and track crop growth and manage workflows anytime, anywhere. By accessing real-time data, farmers can make optimal use of pesticides, water, and fertilizer, make crops more productive, and reduce the environmental impact of farming.
Software Engineering: A Unique Toolkit of Skills & Practices
Each software engineer creates their own unique toolkit of technical tools, skills, and experience. Certain skills will be more valuable in the marketplace at particular times and places. For example, right now, software engineers with artificial intelligence (AI) experience are especially in demand worldwide.
Although you are free to build your own “toolkit,” here is a list of recommended tools, skills, and processes that entry-level software engineers should know.
- Java: This programming language is used to produce software on many platforms without the need for recompilation. Java code runs on nearly all operating systems and uses C and C++ syntax.
- SQL: SQL stands for “Structured Query Language.” SQL queries, modifies, updates, inserts, and deletes data.
- C++: This general-purpose, object-oriented programming language uses low- and high-level language. Because almost all computers use C++, software engineers must understand this language.
- Python: This high-level programming language contains structures, dynamic semantics, typing, and binding that connects existing components. Python syntax is relatively easy to learn as there’s no compilation stage involved.
Software Engineering Processes
Core components of the software development process include analysis, design, coding, testing, and maintenance. However, software engineers also engage in processes in the following ways:
- Project Review: Starting projects by reviewing and analyzing a system’s structural elements and its functions
- Requirements Analysis: Identifying user, client, system performance, and organizational requirements
- Code Consultation: Working with developers to create code that fulfills all requirements
- Testing Coordination: Coordinating the testing process by creating and implementing testing methods, documenting test results, and providing recommendations to testers
After the software development process is complete, software engineers maintain existing software. After code is written and tested, software engineers supervise writing updates that align code with the latest company and industry standards.
Organization and collaboration are key parts of software engineering. So it’s no surprise that project management and requirements analysis play a significant role in the job. Fortunately, there are plenty of software tools to support these tasks.
Technical (Hard) Skills
The following technical skills and knowledge form the backbone of software engineering:
- Data structures and algorithms
- Object-oriented programming systems
- Databases and database management systems
- Operating systems
- Software programming
The following skills are useful—but not essential—for entry-level software engineers to know:
- Computer networking
- System design
- Software development life cycle
Yes, software engineers often work solo. But now more than ever, software engineers must work with programmer leads, security specialists, IT team members, company stakeholders, and a host of others. Soft skills recognize the growing importance of collaboration and teamwork for successful development projects.
It’s become an IT industry standard to expect new software engineers to develop:
- A positive approach to problem solving
- Strong written and verbal communications
- Teamwork and leadership skills
- The power of observation
Common Software Engineering Tasks
We’ve described software engineering as part of a model process. But does this work in the real world? And what are the daily tasks of software engineers? In production environments, you’ll find that peers and stakeholders depend on software engineers to:
- Analyze system structure & function and use synthetic “Big Picture” thinking at the same time
- Organize human and project resources
- Coordinate the efforts of IT, security & business professionals
- Be an effective team leader who can streamline the development process and reduce project cycle times & costs
- Compare resources to current requirements and coordinate a response if IT operations fail to meet requirements
Those are a lot of expectations to juggle, but that’s part of the challenge of software engineering practice.
A Brief History of Software Engineering
The notion of software engineering as a technical practice began in 1948. But it didn’t become a peer to other types of engineering until 1963. That’s when NASA scientist Margret Hamilton decided that space program coders deserved to be recognized as engineers.
During the next 20 years, software engineering grew into a unique form of engineering. NATO Software Engineering Conferences in 1968 and 1969 publicized the latest software engineering capabilities. But software development had problems keeping pace with improved hardware.
The result was “The Software Crisis,” the public name for decades of subpar software performance. The gaffes ranged from budget overruns to exploding Ariane rockets to many dissatisfied IBM 360 mainframe customers.
During the 1970s and 1980s, software engineering introduced new computer languages & tools into the workplace. This enabled the journey to better engineering. Major technical developments included:
- Object-oriented programming
- The Ada programming language (named after Ada Lovelace, the inventor of computer programming)
- The first computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools
The 1990s saw the launch of many programming languages and the public Internet, with its new approach to development and software engineering. Software engineering made its way into undergraduate and postgraduate programs during this time as well.
In the early 2000s, the focus of software engineering shifted to methodology. Programmers responded to requirements to develop software that was more profitable, easier to write, and more responsive to customer expectations.
The 2010s was the era of Big Data, the Cloud, and anything you can think of as a service. Cloud computing led to increased demand for software as a service, providing yet another avenue for software engineering. With the onset of AI, the future is wide open.