Software engineer vs. software developer – is there really a significant difference between the two job roles? While the two roles share similarities and the job titles are used interchangeably at times, in theory there are several key differences to be aware of.
Learning what a software engineer and software developer does individually is an important step in differentiating the two job roles, although the career path is relatively the same for each.
What is a software developer? Simply speaking, a software developer is anyone who develops software. Sometimes referred to as a front-end developer, a software developer is an IT pro that shares similarities with a software engineer, or a back-end developer. Full-stack developers or engineers possess robust knowledge of both front-end and back-end development.
Software developers create computer software or computer systems, and tend to zoom in on a single aspect of an application or computer system.
IT pros usually need about two years of experience, plus a bachelor’s degree in software development, to start out as a software developer. Some employers may accept a degree in computer science or a related field if an otherwise qualified candidate doesn’t have a degree in software development.
The Daily Tasks of a Software Developer
A software developer’s role and responsibilities can vary slightly, depending on who they work for. But in general, they include:
- Integrating third-party programs with software components
- Designing flowcharts and algorithms with other IT pros
- Authenticating and deploying systems and programs
- Debugging, upgrading and troubleshooting pre-existing software
- Considering and implementing end-users’ feedback
- Developing apps using software tools
Many software developers are also tasked with collaborating effectively with others on projects. Freelance software developers have the added responsibility of managing their time and running their own business as an independent contractor.
What Skills Do Software Developers Need?
To do their job, software developers need solid technical skills, including some of the top IT skills in demand. Software developers should master skills related to programming languages, testing and writing code and front-end and back-end languages. They must also have knowledge of:
- Trends in computing
- Coding languages
- Developer tools
- Web development
- Software testing
- Computer programming
- Cloud computing
- Software design
- Source control
Software developers should have the ability to work with a variety of methodologies, such as Agile. They must be skilled coders and benefit from participating in coding bootcamps.
In addition to their technical skills, software developers should also possess professional skills, like critical thinking and analytical skills.
What Is a Software Engineer?
A software engineer is an information technology professional who specializes in planning, designing, developing and building a complete computer system. They understand the software development life cycle, just like a software developer does.
When developing computer software and software products, software engineers look at the big picture, not singular aspects of software. This means that while they are no more important than software developers, they work on a larger scale. In other words, a software engineer is an advanced software developer who applies best practices, methodologies and theoretical knowledge to the process of meeting user requirements.
IT pros usually need about two years of experience, plus a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in the discipline. A degree in computer science or a related field could also suffice, depending on what individual job descriptions call for.
In reality, the terms tend to be used interchangeably and somewhat arbitrarily, such that both tend to mean anyone who develops software.
What Does a Software Engineer Do? Their Role and Responsibilities
Just as the job title implies, the primary responsibility of a software engineer is to create software or computer systems. Other roles and responsibilities of a software engineer include:
- Maintaining software systems
- Optimizing software
- Managing team members
- Testing and evaluating new software programs
- Writing and testing code
- Ensuring stakeholders, clients and customers are aware of new software features
Collaborating with software developers, computer programmers and other IT pros is another essential responsibility of software engineers.
Top Skills Required to Be a Software Engineer
To fulfill their job duties, software engineers must possess a specific skill set. The technical skills these IT pros need are related to the knowledge or proficiency in:
- Engineering principles
- Software development and computer operating systems
- Data structures
- Application of engineering principles to software construction
- Implementation cybersecurity measures, such as debugging software and systems
- Creation of scalable domain-specific pipelines
- Software development tool creation
- Project management
- Object-oriented design
Software engineers must also be proficient in professional skills like leadership, communication and problem-solving skills.
Software Engineer vs. Software Developer: How Do They Differ?
Software engineers and software developers have a lot in common as they both create software and computer systems, support the software development process and are lucrative IT roles. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for software developers, quality assurance analysts and testers in 2021 was $120,730. These job titles are inclusive of “software engineer.” But the two roles are also different. Here’s how:
Software Engineers and Software Developers Maintain a Different Focus
The main difference between a software engineer and a software developer has to do with their focus. Yes, they both build software, but they focus on different things as they work.
“Software engineering refers to the larger scale design, development and testing of an entire system and software, whereas software development has more of a specific focus on a particular system or software,” said Arun Godwin Patel, director of Halo Technology Lab, in an article by Forage.
This may seem like a small difference, but it is what makes each role unique. It can also be a determining factor in which career path an IT professional ultimately chooses.
Software Engineers and Software Developers Have Different Managerial Duties
This is not always the case, but software engineers can have a managerial side to their job. They are often responsible for managing other IT professionals. This explains why they are less likely than software developers to freelance: They are needed in-house to oversee others.
Software developers typically have more variety and flexibility in their job role, sometimes working remotely. While some software developers are also managers, they usually have less managerial duties than software engineers.
IT professionals who strongly dislike managing team members but want to create software should consider a software developer career path before seriously considering becoming a software engineer.
Software Engineer vs. Software Developer: Both Write Software
While the exact role of the software engineer and the software developer differ slightly, at the end of the day, both roles are responsible for writing software. In a real-world, professional environment, both terms are used to describe the same role. Of course, roles vary based on the size and type of organization.
For example, a larger company may employ both software developers and software engineers with very distinct duties, whereas a smaller company may employ just one person to tasked with those responsibilities. While there is a difference between the two roles, in practice, the lines are blurred and there may not be much of a difference.
Which Career Path Should You Choose?
Software engineer vs. software developer – which career path should you choose? The good news is that the career path doesn’t differ for either role. That said, the role you land will depend on your strengths, skills, education, certifications and career goals.
To gain clarity about which job role would be better for you, it’s important to ask yourself if you’re a big-picture person or a details person. Those who prefer to look at the big picture could thrive in an engineering role. IT pros who prefer to have a more specific, targeted focus would do better in a developer role.
Most employers are impressed with software professionals who have relevant information technology certifications. Certifications like CompTIA IT Fundamentals (ITF+) ensure software professionals have thorough knowledge of IT in general. This gives them a competitive edge with employers and recruiters.
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