How to Become a Software Engineer

Software engineers use coding skills and supplementary tools to design and build software products. These products can range from new features in an existing app to large-scale web applications to smart devices and AI assistants. Here we’ll cover everything you need to know to become a software engineer. We’ll also lay out seven concrete steps you can take in your career journey. 

We’ll go more in-depth on each of these below but, to summarize, they are:

  1. Learn to Code!
  2. Work on Practice Projects
  3. Create a Project Portfolio
  4. Practice for a Technical Interview
  5. Talk to a Software Engineer
  6. Take a Course or Bootcamp to Expand Your Skill Set
  7. Start in an Entry-Level Role

What is the Job Description for a Software Engineer?

In short, a software engineer designs and builds software. Some industry experts use this title interchangeably with “software developer” – a dichotomy that we’ll explore in depth later on.

Depending on the company you work for, your role as a software engineer may focus on building a new software product entirely from scratch or the focus may be on adding new features or making general improvements to an existing product.

In your day-to-day as a software engineer you’ll likely spend your time writing code, collaborating with team members and planning future projects. Most software engineers work on a team made up of other software engineers and/or developers. There may be a mix of senior and junior team members and collaboration is often encouraged, though different team members have ownership over specific pieces of a project.

Workflow varies from company to company, as with any job, but Agile Methodology with a Scrum framework is a popular way of organizing teamwork among software companies. Under a Scrum framework, software engineers are part of a development team that works on parts of a large project in short sprints – often about two weeks. Each team member is assigned tasks to complete during the sprint and a ‘Scrum Master’ makes sure every team member has the information and tools they need to complete their tasks. Under this framework, software engineers may be part of a team that includes roles like designers, devops engineers, and QA testers. Each member is assigned tasks that fit best with their skillset and bandwidth. You can learn more about Agile Methodology on our dedicated subject page.

Software engineers often find themselves innovating and charting unknown territory. Many new software products or product features are the first of their kind so there is no existing roadmap to follow. This means that software engineers must be comfortable researching and testing new ideas and techniques. In this sense, software engineering is both creative and mentally challenging, but software engineers can take immense satisfaction in inventing from the ground up.

Software Engineer vs Software Developer

When looking for software-related positions, you will likely find opportunities for both software engineers and software developers. Chances are, the job descriptions and qualifications for these will look pretty similar. You might be wondering – are they just the same job under a different title?

Tech industry professionals have a variety of perspectives on this. The truth is, the software industry is young and is still ‘figuring itself out’. While long-established fields like civil engineering, academia, or medicine have clear nomenclature and hierarchies, software is still in its infancy as an industry. This means that workers wear many hats and entirely new roles are emerging as their necessity becomes clear.

Consider also that so many software companies are start-ups – notorious for requiring each employee to handle a range of responsibilities. A new hire may sign on as a Software Engineer, but quickly find themselves offering QA support or even filling a manager role. As companies mature, roles often become more specified.

In practice, software engineers and software developers often perform similar work – designing and building software. In theory, software engineers fill more of a strategic role – planning out what kinds of techniques will be used and how all of the parts of a software project will fit together. This may involve a good deal of research and innovation to create solutions that aren’t ready-made. Software developers can then implement the carefully laid plans of software engineers. There may be several developers working to carry out an engineer’s plans – each focusing on a different piece of the product.

Glassdoor offers useful industry data about software developers and software engineers that mostly backs up the idea that the two roles don’t differ all that much. About 24% of software engineers go on to become software developers and, complementarily, 24% of developers go on to become software engineers. The popularity of this career transition (in both directions) is not surprising since the two roles require so many overlapping skills. However, there are a few skills that don’t overlap quite so much, which we can use to differentiate these roles. According to Glassdoor’s data, Agile Development is used more by software engineers than by developers. This makes sense if software engineers have more of a strategic and planning role, while developers focus on implementation. More important skills for software developers included frameworks and Python, implying that they might be tasked with more hands-on coding work.

While the median years of experience among developers is slightly higher, the average salary for engineers is about $10,000 more. There are a couple of factors that could be behind this. Firstly, larger (and higher-paying) companies may be more inclined to use the “engineer” title, hence the appearance of a pay gap. There may also be a current trend toward using “engineer” over “developer,” meaning more entry-level employees receive the “engineer” title, while those who have been in the field a long time continue to call themselves “developers.”

Software Engineer Qualifications

While you may not need to master every single one of these, this list of hard and soft skills can give you an idea of what you need to learn in order to become a software engineer. Mastering at least a handful of these early in your career will give you a leg up in the job application process.

  • JavaScript
  • Node.js
  • Programming
  • NoSQL
  • SQL Server
  • .NET
  • HTML/CSS
  • C++
  • PHP
  • Python
  • Technical Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Agile Methodology

Software Engineer Education Requirements

Most job openings for software engineers do require a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. However, since this role is in such high demand and since the relevant technology is advancing so rapidly, many employers will accept applicants who may not have a computer science degree but who do have a solid set of development skills.

A coding bootcamp is one alternative route that can help  software-engineer-hopefuls make the transition into the industry from another field. These programs often include career services, which can help students without bachelors degrees identify employers who don’t require college education of their applicants.

 

How Long does it Take to Become a Software Engineer?

Most software engineers have at least two to four years of experience in the industry. Their first few years may have been spent in a software engineering internship or an entry-level tech job like a help desk associate or a junior developer. Adding in the time it takes to learn all of the relevant skills, either independently, in college, or in a bootcamp, it takes most people about 3 to 8 years to become a software engineer.

There’s no time like the present to get started on your software engineering journey! You can browse different bootcamps on our coding bootcamps listing page or explore new skills on our subjects page. Below, you can find a few bootcamp programs that align well with a future career in software engineering.

This year, software engineer made the list as one of our top tech jobs – you can browse the rest of 2021’s Top Tech Jobs here!

How to Become a Software Engineer

1. Learn to Code!

Any one who works on the technical side of software needs coding experience. Eventually, you’ll want to learn several different languages so that you can collaborate with a wider range of team members and have a range of options to choose from when approaching a new task. However, learning one language to start gives you a solid foundation for learning any number of others.

When choosing a first programming language, it’s best to choose one that is widely used. That way you will find a large number of coders who you can collaborate and brainstorm with. Companies also tend to hire applicants who are familiar with their preferred language(s). Python is a common language to learn for newcomers, while C++, Java, JavaScript, and PHP are also useful for aspiring software engineers.

 

2. Work on Practice Projects

The best way to prepare for a job in software engineering is to get hands-on practice! Every new software project is different and requires you to think creatively, but it is useful to have past experiences that you can pull from when solving a new problem. Even better if you can work on a group project, since this will help you master technical communication and pair programming. Collaboration is vital for professional software development teams.

Opportunities for real-life projects include:

  • Hackathons – Hackathons are in-person or virtual group events where teams of programmers race to solve a specific challenge laid out by the hackathon hosts. You can either enter with a team of friends or show up as an individual and request to join a team.
  • School or Bootcamp Projects – Most computer science classes and coding bootcamps include partner or group projects in their curriculums. You’ll also get the benefit of guidance from your instructor or T.A.
  • Online Challenges – Sites like Top Coder have endless lists of coding challenges ranked by difficulty. On Top Coder you can also search out challenges by the particular skills you want to practice.

 

3. Create a Project Portfolio

Once you’ve got a few projects under your belt, you’ll want to assemble them in one place so potential employers can look through your work. You can host your portfolio on GitHub using GitHub Pages.

 

4. Practice for a Technical Interview

While it’s great to show off your past projects that you may have poured hours of work into, employers also want to know how you work in real-time.  Most application processes include a live technical interview in which you’ll be asked to use your coding skills to solve problems – often related to the job you are applying for. These interviews can be daunting, especially because you usually won’t know the questions ahead of time. However, getting in lots of practice with relevant questions will help you prepare and should give you a boost of confidence as well. Seek out practice questions online on sites like Leet Code. If you have a mentor or friend in the coding community you can also ask them to act the part of the interviewer and pose the questions to you.

 

5. Talk to a Software Engineer

While there are useful steps you can take to make yourself highly employable as a software engineer, everyone follows a slightly different path. Some software engineers majored in computer science, while others didn’t learn to code until they were middle aged. Some love teamwork, while others like the feeling of being a lone wolf. It’s helpful to talk to people in the industry to hear about their challenges and experiences at work

If you don’t personally know someone in the industry you might try finding a connection on LinkedIn. You can introduce yourself in a message and ask if they would be open to answering a few questions.

If that doesn’t work out, you can always check out “day-in-the-life” videos like this one on YouTube for an inside perspective.

 

6. Take a Course or Bootcamp to Expand Your Skill Set

While coding is a core skill for software engineers, they also leverage a vast range of other technologies to make their work efficient and to come up with advanced solutions. Coding bootcamps cover most of the skills you’ll need in a period of about 8 to 36 weeks. Many also offer opportunities for career mentorship, technical interview practice, and group projects.

If you’re already well-versed in a range of development skills, but want to continue to expand your knowledge into newly released tools or alternative programming languages. You could take a more targeted class in a specific skill. If you already work in the tech industry, your employer may even be able to subsidize your tuition for such a class.

 

7. Start in an Entry-Level Role

It’s tough to jump straight into the tech industry as a software engineer. Most job openings ask applicants to have three to five years of experience in related work. However, software engineering internships, IT support desk roles, or other junior-level roles are a great place to start! Furthermore, starting in one of these roles may give you a path to climb the ranks at a single company. If you interview for a software engineer as an internal applicant you may be subject to a less grueling skills assessment process since your employers will be familiar with your work and strengths.

 

Explore schools offering Software Engineer Bootcamps.

Job Outlook for a Software Engineer

The job outlook for software engineers in the United States is exceptional. This career field (which includes software developers and testers too) is expected to grow by 22% by 2030. This means an expected 409,500 new jobs! As more and more industries make software an integral part of their operations and software products become more and more advanced, the need for highly skilled software engineers increases. With the right skillset and a thorough job search, you should have no trouble securing a position in software engineering!

 

Best Jobs for Software Engineers

As a software engineer you have a few different options in the kind of role you want to pursue. You may work at a software company, or you may work on the software team for a company in another industry. For example, many banks, institutions, hospitals, and transit networks have their own consumer-use software products.

Software engineering jobs are available at both large and small companies and can often work either remotely or in-person.

For advanced software engineers, there is the option of becoming a freelancer, meaning that you aren’t employed by a single company but rather, work on your own schedule on projects for a number of individual clients.

The best path for you depends on your own preferences about work environment, types of projects, and location. The great thing about being a software engineer is that all of these options are available to you!

Software Engineer Salary

The average salary for software engineers in the U.S. is $108,264. This is well above the average salary for the country as a whole, which was $56,310 as of 2020, and even higher than the average salary across software and tech jobs – $96,770 as of 2020.

It’s important to note that the salary you can expect to earn as a software engineer does depend on a number of factors such as your geographical location, your specific responsibilities, and your experience level. For example, a software engineer in New York City with 12 years of experience who manages a team of eight Junior Developers, likely has a higher salary than an entry-level software engineer working in Minneapolis. You can browse more location specifics from our Cities page! In the chart below we’ll break down the countrywide average salary you can expect to earn at different levels of the software engineer career path.

 
Career LevelAverage Yearly Salary (U.S., 2021)
Jr. Software Engineer / Software Engineer I$99,575
Software Engineer II$108,264
Sr. Software Engineer / Software Engineer III$131,203
Lead Software Engineer / Software Engineer IIII$156,465
Director of Software Engineering$180,717

Browse bootcamps for Software Engineer.

Explore some of the top schools offering Software Engineer bootcamps and find the right fit for your needs and schedule.