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software engineering

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is the process of developing, testing and deploying computer applications to solve real-world problems by adhering to a set of engineering principles and best practices. The field of software engineering applies a disciplined and organized approach to software development with the stated goal of improving quality, time and budget efficiency, along with the assurance of structured testing and engineer Certification.

Though the original use of the term is uncertain, the first software engineering conference was held and sponsored by NATO in 1968. The conference addressed the inconsistency and unreliability in software development as well as the need for better quality assurance (QA) and reliability. The conference gathered international experts who agreed the systematic approach of physical world engineering should be applied to software development, as it already was developed with those goals in mind.

Types of software engineering

Even though a software engineer usually manages many coding projects, software engineering entails more than just writing code for the software. In reality, software engineering encompasses every phase of the software development lifecycle (SDLC), from planning the budget to analysis, design, development, software testing, integration, quality and retirement.

Diagram of how the software development lifecycle  works.
Software engineering encompasses every phase of the software development lifecycle (SDLC).

Most software engineering tasks can be broken into the following three categories:

  • Operational software engineering. It includes all decisions and tasks pertaining to how the software will perform within a computer system. This may include anything related to the software budget, the way teams and users will interact with the software and any potential risks such as those associated with defective and outdated software.
  • Transitional software engineering. This type of software engineering entails duties related to the software's adaptability and scalability when it's moved outside of its initial setting.
  • Software engineering maintenance. It entails activities connected to enhancing and debugging current software to account for environmental changes, new technologies, bugs and risk factors that might have been disregarded during a previous development cycle. Over time, retirement takes over as maintenance of certain software is gradually reduced.

Software engineer roles and responsibilities

Software engineering is typically used for large and intricate software systems rather than single applications or programs. While a software engineer is typically responsible for the design of systems, programmers or software developers are often responsible for coding its implementation. In some cases, people may also confuse the functions of network engineering with software engineering, despite the fact that these are two completely different roles. An engineer who plans, deploys and constructs networks, for instance, is different from an engineer who creates, tests and delivers software.

The responsibilities and roles of a software engineer can vary depending on their position. Typically, the following day-to-day tasks are included in this role:

  • Design and management of software systems.
  • Testing and assessment of new software applications.
  • Code writing and evaluations.
  • Optimizing the speed and scalability of software.
  • Consultation with customers, engineers, security experts and other parties involved.
  • Introducing new features to internal customers and stakeholders.

How do you become a software engineer?

The field of software engineering is constantly evolving, making it an exciting and dynamic career path. Software engineers are in high demand and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment opportunities for software engineers will increase by 22% in the decade leading up to 2030.

To become a software engineer, one must possess the right technical skills and qualifications, which can be gained through a mix of education, work experience and technical certifications. The following are typical routes that most people take to enter the field of software engineering:

  • Preparing a career plan. The first step for an aspiring software engineer is to visualize a clear professional path. Since there are many different jobs that fall under the umbrella of code and other software engineering skills, it's essential to distinguish between software engineering and related disciplines such as web programming or computer programming at the beginning of the career planning process.
  • Entering degree programs. A bachelor's in a technical field such as software engineering, information technology, computer science or computer and information systems is often pursued by software engineers. Some people also seek a master's degree in software engineering.
  • Getting certified and self-directed learning. Previously, formal software engineering degree programs were the only way to get a foot in the door. Nowadays, one can also enter the field through self-directed certification programs, associate degree programs, apprenticeships and bootcamps.
  • Gaining skills and experience. Before making the leap into the world of software engineering, it's critical for people to gain hands-on experience and practical skills. An internship is a great way to gain exposure and is especially beneficial for students who are already pursuing a degree in software engineering. An internship also helps with building contacts and can open doors for future opportunities.
  • Building a portfolio. A portfolio is one of the most important tools that aspiring software engineers can use to demonstrate to potential employers their coding abilities, talents, understanding of software design ideas and development expertise. Therefore, a well-crafted portfolio is a fantastic tool for candidates looking to enter the field.
  • Applying for jobs. The final and most important stage after acquiring the knowledge, training and experience is applying for software engineering jobs. Having a great LinkedIn profile that highlights one's accomplishments and portfolio will pull in recruiters. Additionally, if a company has open positions, candidates can apply directly through the company's website or through job boards such as Indeed or Monster.

Skills and characteristics of software engineers

Software engineers design and develop software to assist with problem-solving. Therefore, it requires a certain level of technical expertise along with great communication skills. Software engineers should therefore possess both technical skills as well as soft talents.

The following is a list of various skills and characteristics that software engineers should have:

  • Knowledge of programming languages and object oriented programming such as Python, JavaScript, C or C++.
  • A great attention to detail is required for software engineers, as they must keep track of multiple complex details pertaining to their projects.
  • Core computer science knowledge of concepts including operating systems, database systems and computer networking is required.
  • Most software engineering professionals must be familiar with a variety of operating systems, including Linux, and use database management systems such as SQL.
  • Since software engineers rarely work alone, communication skills are crucial in all software engineering roles. Software engineers are responsible for effectively explaining the goals and scope of their projects to team members and stakeholders in both technical and non-technical terms.
  • Problem solving skills are the most crucial for this role as software engineers have to frequently troubleshoot coding issues and bugs.
  • Software engineers are required to continually update and maintain their skill sets to meet the shifting demands of technology.
  • They should have knowledge of database architecture and design.
  • Software engineers should be well-versed in Agile and Scrum project management.
  • Software engineers should at least know the foundation principles of cloud computing, as there's a high demand in the market for cloud developers and engineers.
  • They need knowledge of version control to help software teams manage changes to source code over time.
  • Software engineers should have expertise in debugging and testing software, as it enables them to fix errors in a software program before releasing it to the public.

Relevant certifications for software engineers

Software engineers can develop new skills and demonstrate the existing ones to potential employers, simply by obtaining certifications. Some organizations also list a set of certificates as prerequisites for consideration for software engineering positions. A candidate who has obtained a range of certifications may be able to negotiate a higher wage or be eligible for more positions due to the added value that their certification status brings to the organization.

The following are common certification options for software engineers:

  • Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP).
  • Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional (CSSLP).
  • Certified Software Engineer.
  • C Certified Professional Programmer (CLP).
  • C++ Certified Professional Programmer (CPP).
  • AWS Certified Developer.
  • Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals.
  • CIW Web Development Professional.

Salary and outlook for software engineers

A career in software engineering can be both demanding and rewarding. The work is complex at times, but it pays well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median annual salary for a software engineer was $109,020 in 2021.

The scope of software engineering has substantially increased during the last 20 years. Because of the rapid advancement of technologies like cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and cybersecurity, businesses are constantly looking for better solutions and software engineering candidates are expected to stay in high demand.

Challenges of software engineers

Every field comes with some challenges and software engineering is no exception. While some challenges in software engineering are particular to a person's aptitude and development stage, the others are faced across the board.

The following are a few common challenges of software engineering:

  • Rapidly changing technology. Due to the rapid introduction of new technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and deep learning, software engineers are always under scrutiny to differentiate themselves from the competition and create new computer software products that reflect the changing trends. In order to keep up with technology advancements, they must also continually update their skill sets.
  • Time limitations. Time constraints can be a major obstacle for software engineers. If the engineers are pressed on time, they are unable to develop a product that satisfies quality requirements.
  • Changing requirements. For software engineers, changing requirements during the development process can present unforeseen difficulties. If they're not able to adapt to shifting requirements quickly, the outcome of the project could be impacted.
  • Data privacy. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union are just a few of the many privacy laws that apply to businesses today. Regulations can occasionally restrict software engineering teams on how they use data to build products and are subject to frequent adjustment.
  • Unclear customer requirements. Customers occasionally lack clarity on their software needs. As a result, software engineers might not be aware of the extensive list of features that consumers frequently require in the program and issues can arise once the software is executed.
  • Risk of software failure. A software with bugs or issues can sometimes have serious repercussions. For instance, the cost of software failure can be enormous for safety-critical industries such as space, aviation and nuclear power plants.

Two of the most important and frequently used requirements in software engineering are functional and nonfunctional software requirements. Learn the differences between the two types and how each one contributes to meeting user expectations.

This was last updated in March 2023

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