With the ever-increasing reliance on technology, there are many employment opportunities in the tech field. If you have a knack for working with computers, enjoy solving complex problems and have a strong attention to detail, you might consider pursuing a career as a software engineer. This detailed career guide addresses some of the most common questions people have, such as “What is a software engineer?” and “What is the process for becoming a software engineer?”.
What Is a Software Engineer?
A software engineer is an expert in the design, development and testing of software applications and programs. A software engineer combines an engineering and computer science mindset, along with strong business acumen to create solutions to technical problems. If you’ve ever used a GPS application on your phone, browsed through a menu of TV shows from a streaming service on your smart TV or used a fitness tracker to count how many calories you’ve burned, then you’ve benefited from the hard work of software engineers.
The work of software engineers is evident everywhere. In fact, the average employee who works from home uses about four or five software programs each day.1 And that’s just for professional purposes; it’s not counting applications used for personal purposes.
Software engineers can work for a variety of companies. Many of them work for software publishers while others work for manufacturing companies, such as companies that produce software-dependent electronic devices and equipment.
You will also find software engineers working in the healthcare field. For instance, some software engineers work for medical insurance carriers, where they create new software applications that lend greater efficiency and capabilities to the management of healthcare policies. Although it’s less common, some software engineers are self-employed individuals who contract their services out to a variety of clients.
What Does a Software Engineer Do?
A day in the life of a software engineer can look a little different for each professional, depending on their employer and the specific project they are currently working on. In general, software engineer may do any of the following tasks:
- Assess the needs of the customer or end user, considering factors such as functionality, features, data security and speed
- Design software programs and applications that meet the needs and expectations of the customer
- Develop a range of models that demonstrate the software code required for any given software application to programmers
- Test, maintain and identify possible improvements for existing software applications and recommend software updates as needed
- Optimize existing software for scalability
- Document various aspects of software applications and systems to create a reference that facilitates ongoing maintenance and future improvements
Compared to computer programmers, software engineers adopt a high-level approach to projects. Although they can and sometimes do write code, this is a job that is usually relegated to computer programmers. Instead, software engineers are responsible for planning the overall scope of the project and often seeing a project through to the end of its life cycle, but this depends on the company.
Steps for Becoming a Software Engineer
There is no single pathway toward becoming a software engineer. In fact, there are multiple ways in which you could work toward this career. If you are still in high school, the pathway could begin with a visit to the school guidance counselor, who may help you adjust your schedule to reflect your career aspirations, such as by adding courses in computer science and coding. Business competencies, such as communication skills, are also important.
After high school, you should pursue a bachelor’s degree as this is the minimum qualification necessary to land a job in the field. A bachelor’s degree in software engineering is ideal, although some students may instead earn a degree in software development or general computer science.
Earn a Relevant STEM Undergraduate Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of becoming a software engineer is to earn a bachelor’s degree. There is some flexibility with regard to the type of degree you can earn, but many students choose to earn a relevant STEM degree as an undergraduate student. For instance, some students might want to earn a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, while others opt for a degree in Software Development or Software Engineering.
Of course, a software engineering degree is the most relevant choice for this particular career path. Although the curriculum will vary between schools, software engineering students can generally expect to study the following topics:
- Fundamental concepts, syntax and applications of programming languages, such as Java, with a focus on object-oriented techniques
- The design, implementation and application of classical algorithms and data structures as well as the evaluation of algorithm efficiency
- Concepts, tools and frameworks for open-source software development
- Foundational competencies in software engineering, ranging from project planning and tracing to quality assurance and documentation
- The software development life cycle, including traditional, agile and lean delivery methodologies
Typically, a software engineering program blends classroom instruction with laboratory sessions that offer hands-on learning experiences. You may be expected to complete one or more capstone projects in your junior or senior years. Capstone courses offer you the opportunity to create a fine-tuned software engineering project that you can include in your professional portfolio.
When you have the opportunity to take elective courses or if you wish to choose a minor, you might consider opting for business and management classes, which would help support your career goals. Some examples of classes that may prove useful for future software engineers include organizational behavior and management, business communications, project management and business execution.
Consider Completing a Bridge Program
Not every software engineer comes to the field via the traditional route. Many working professionals earn a bachelor’s degree and gain some working experience in a completely unrelated field but may later decide that they want to transition to the tech field and become a software engineer.
It’s not always necessary to earn a second bachelor’s degree in order to execute a career transition as, instead of spending four years in another baccalaureate program, you could instead choose to complete a bridge program.
A bridge program prepares individuals who earned a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field to enter a different field entirely. By teaching foundational concepts and instilling crucial competencies, a bridge program paves the way for additional studies in the form of a full master’s program. Compared to a master’s degree, which typically takes about two years to complete, a bridge program may be completed in roughly one year, depending on the school and the learner’s chosen schedule.
Bridge programs in software engineering usually cover the following topics:
- Calculus and analytic geometry, with a review of applications in the software engineering field
- Concepts and applications of programming languages with an emphasis on object-oriented programming techniques and basic algorithms
- Coding in computer programming languages, such as Java
- Developing and implementing algorithms that are geared toward solving real-world challenges
After completing a bridge program in software engineering, you can move on to a full master’s degree program.
Earn a Master’s of Science in Software Engineering
If you earned a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, a bridge program provides a pathway toward earning a Master of Science in Software Engineering. However, pursuing a master’s degree is also a smart choice if your undergraduate degree is in software engineering, master’s degree offers a deep dive into the following key topics:
- Advanced techniques in formal algorithm analysis, polynomial-time reduction and classical and modern algorithms
- Planning, development, testing, implementation and maintenance of the software development life cycle, with a review of software requirements elicitation and architecture synthesis
- Concepts and principles in software system architecture, such as architectural styles and languages
- Theories and methodologies of management with respect to software projects, including leadership styles, schedule estimation and resource planning
- The development of embedded systems and connected devices
Many master’s programs require learners to complete a thesis. However, for a software engineering master’s degree, you will more likely be required to complete a capstone course. This involves the conceptualization, design and presentation of a major software engineering project.
Obtain Professional Certifications
After earning a master’s degree in software engineering, you will be ready to pursue your first job in the field. Even after securing employment, however, it would be wise to pursue one or more professional certifications. Earning advanced certifications will allow you to fine-tune your skills and position yourself in a way that ensures career advancement.
There are many professional certification options available in the tech field. Some of the most relevant ones for software engineers include the following:
- Associate Software Development Certification — Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society
- Professional Software Development Certification — IEEE Computer Society
- Professional Software Engineering Master Certification — IEEE Computer Society
- Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional — International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC)²
- Certified Software Engineer — Institute of Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP)
- Oracle Certified Professional MySQL — Oracle
- Azure Fundamentals Certification — Microsoft
Some employers may be willing to fund the certification tests for their employees, and employees may even be able to prepare for certification tests on company time. This is because employers of software engineers often recognize that having highly credentialed professionals on their team is advantageous to the entire company.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Software Engineers
Successful software engineers rely on a number of skills and characteristics as they go about their daily routines. These essential skills and traits include the following:
- Analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills
- Communication and interpersonal skills
- Creativity and innovative thinking
- Problem-solving skills
- Attention to detail
- Coding competencies
- Database architecture
- Object-oriented programming
Are Software Engineers in High Demand?
Software engineers are in high demand and are expected to remain so for the foreseeable future. The United States (U.S.) Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have information on software engineers, but it does have information on software development, quality assurance and testers, which are occupations that are similar to software engineering. As of September 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates that job growth for software developers, quality assurance analysts and testers will increase by about 22% from 2020 to 2030, which is higher than average and implies an estimated increase of 409,500 jobs in the field.2
In particular, a high demand for software engineers who specialize in software applications for smartphones and other mobile devices is expected. Software engineers are also in demand in the healthcare and medical insurance industries. In addition, they are needed for the development of the many consumer electronic goods that, when connected to the Internet, are collectively known as the Internet of Things (IoT).
Even if you earned a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, you have the potential to transfer into the tech field if you opt to go back to school. Grand Canyon University is pleased to offer the Master of Science in Software Engineering bridge program, which instills foundational computer science competencies in learners and prepares them for earning a Master of Science in Software Engineering. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about preparing for your career transition with GCU.
1 PC Magazine, The Average Worker Uses 4 to 5 Programs a Day Working From Home in June 2022.
2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Software Developers, Quality Analysts, and Testers.
Approved by Faculty, Program Chair & Program Lead of Software Engineering Programs for CSET on 8/22.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.