career guide

How to Become a Software Engineer

Software is vital to our daily lives. For us, software is the difference between entering ones and zeros into our computers and phones and playing Minecraft, browsing Facebook, or doing important work. Software engineers play an important role in developing the software that we use everyday, along with the complex software used by businesses and data scientists. Without software engineers, everything would work less smoothly, and many of the useful services we take for granted wouldn’t exist without them.

So what are some of the upsides of a career in software engineering? Check out these statistics:

In the US, the field is projected to grow by 17% over the next 10 years, with thousands of new jobs becoming available.

Software engineers in the US earned a median salary of $108,760 in 2019.

The number of software engineers have nearly doubled since 2013.

133000
Avg. Developer Salary
19297
Open Job Listings
1500
Hiring Companies

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineers develop programs for computers using code and other tools. These professionals also apply engineering principles to program development, creating software for computers across a wide range of industries. Computers themselves are practically useless without the work of a software engineer—and while software engineers do not design computers themselves, they do create the systems that make them useful.  Software engineers design, build, maintain, update, and repair software programs. Additionally, software engineers build applications and work with networks and systems. The need for software engineers spans across virtually all modern industries. Computers are ubiquitous in the 21st century, and the need for qualified engineers to work with them often outstrips the supply of trained candidates. Software engineering is in high demand today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software engineer employment is expected to grow to an astounding 24% by 2026. This figure isn’t just above average—its far higher than the vast majority of other career paths. Salaries are also high, with many engineers making six-figure salaries depending on their location.

What do Software Engineers Do?

Software engineers are often confused for other job titles, and often their responsibilities overlap with other adjacent positions in the field of software development. Software engineers are defined by their application of engineering principles to the software world.  Software–in the end–functions like a machine with many moving parts, and that software has to run on a physical machine: the computer, which also has many moving parts. A software engineer needs to understand the interactions of all these moving parts to design an entire system that functions efficiently. 

Software Engineering Job Description

Software engineers spend a lot of time coding. Coding is the use of a specialized computer language to write instructions and direct the machine to do something. Coding is necessary for everything with computers, so many software engineers spend a great deal of time doing it.  And they don’t just build programs. Debugging, or fixing errors in a section of code, is a huge part of many software engineering jobs. Additionally, software engineers work with networks and systems.   Software engineers use their coding skills to build software programs and applications. These programs range from video games to automobile ignition control software. Due to the wide range of industries software engineers work in, people have nearly limitless differences in their day-to-day work routine. However, most software engineers work full-time in offices, though remote positions are available.  On the ground, these tech professionals have a number of responsibilities. Here are some that are common to most software engineers:

Determining whether a software idea is worthwhile with problem definition, evaluating analysis, and solution development.

Creating and showing software solutions with flowcharts, documentation, diagrams, layouts, code comments, charts, etc.

Designing system standards.

Completing systems analysis work to find and change inefficient procedures and policies.

Testing and approving of final products.

Keeping up to date on cutting edge development tools, computing equipment, and programming techniques.

It’s notable that software engineers need an extensive understanding of programming languages and their structure, however they don’t always program themselves. Software engineers sometimes have to wear more than one hat, and they will almost always need to dig into the code to solve a problem or to understand the implementation of their system. 

What Are the Required Skills for Software Engineering Careers?

A software engineer needs more than just programming knowledge to perform their jobs. They often fill more than one need, and every software engineer needs at least some basis in the following skills:

Deep language-agnostic programming knowledge

Even if you end up as a software engineer that doesn’t have to code, you will still need to understand code to its roots to understand how your system will be constructed. Just like a traditional structural engineer knows the shear strength of steel beams, a software engineer knows the typical maximum length of an array in a programming language.

Mastery of a programming language

While software engineers need basic knowledge of how all programming languages work, they should also pick a language to become proficient in. Almost every language will have an application for a software engineer, so selecting one comes down to preference and preferred field.

Software design and development

Software engineers take that programming knowledge and stack it on top of an understanding of how their systems work, and then design new systems. They need to know how to implement all of the resources at their disposal to plan out a system or application that functions as intended and functions efficiently while meeting the requirements laid out for it.

Analyzing information, software debugging, and software testing

Software engineers need to use their deep knowledge of programming and system architecture to not only build systems, but to figure out why they aren’t working or how they could work better.

Software documentation

After building and testing the system, software engineers also need to produce good documentation. This documentation will allow other team members understand the system that the engineer has designed.

Teamwork

Engineers are a part of a larger process, and they don’t function in a vacuum. They have to work with and communicate effectively with programmers, other system designers and engineers, beta users, and other company staff to provide and receive feedback on their system.

How Much Do Software Engineers Make?

Software engineers enjoy relatively high salaries in some areas, and exceptionally high salaries in others. These engineers often bring in more than $100,000 per year, especially if they work in a high-tech sector or in a major metropolitan area. In the United States, software engineers make an average annual salary of $107,287. However, factors such as location and experience play a very large part in determining salary. In the chart below, we’ll show the average low, average, and high software engineering salaries in 15 major metropolitan areas using data from Glassdoor.

CityAverage Salary
San Francisco, CA$134,025
Los Angeles, CA$106,616
Portland, OR$100,416
New York, NY$113,245
Philadelphia, PA$93,483
Seattle, WA$123,452
Minneapolis, MN$90,511
Atlanta, GA$91,737
Phoenix, AZ$93,360
Boston, MA$104,414
Miami, FL$91,300
Chicago, IL$95,524
Milwaukee, WI$82,537
Cleveland, OH$78,420
Dallas, TX$93,020

But your salary as a software engineer will also depend greatly on the particular field you’re working in, as well as your experience level.

  • Mean Annual Salary: $105,590
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 24%
  • Number of People Employed: 1,256,200

Software developers develop the computer programs that allow people to use computers and other devices as effective tools. They also develop the underlying systems that control networks.

  • Mean Annual Salary: $89,430
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 15%
  • Number of People Employed: 162,900

Web developers design and create websites, work with the site’s look and its technical aspects, and are responsible for web analytics.

  • Mean Annual Salary: $88,280
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): -7%
  • Number of People Employed: 273,600

Programmers write and test code to ensure that computer applications and software programs function as they should. They work with plans formulated by software developers and engineers and turn them into instructions for computers.

  • Mean Annual Salary: $98,350
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 28%
  • Number of People Employed: 100,000

Information security analysts create plans to protect an organization’s computer networks and systems. They are the first line of defense against cyberattacks.

  • Mean Annual Salary: $90,070
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 11%
  • Number of People Employed: 119,500

DBAs work with special software to store and organize a company’s important data. They ensure the data is organized, accessible by authorized individuals, and safe from unauthorized access.

PositionSalary
Entry-Level (0-5 Years)$75,000
Mid-Career (5-10 Years)$125,000
Experienced (10-20 Years)$150,000
Late-Career (20+ Years)$200,000

The Types of Software Engineers

There are a broad range of applications in use today, from backend to front end, from youtube to NASA. The same way, there are a broad range of software engineers that can specialize in their field of software development. Usually, this broad range can be boiled down to two categories, application development and systems development.

Application development

The type of products developed in application development are client focused, they are user end products that people like you and I might interact with. These could be for any platform, from desktop computers to smartphones to ATM machines. The engineers in this group have to factor in the human element to their designs. They often have to work with beta testing with real people, and need good communication skills to improve their application based on the user’s experience.

Systems development

System engineers work on the hidden backend systems that make front end applications possible. All of the networking, database functions, and other internal functions are taken care of by this software. When a user uses an ATM the information they input has to be sent to the bank involved and function with the banks database to say, actually add or remove money from the user’s account, then communicate back to the ATM to interact with the user again. Systems engineers rarely have to interact with users, but their software has to function with the front end developer’s applications. They also usually have to wear more hats than the application development side, sometimes even acting as a hardware engineer and putting together physical computer systems as well.

How Can You Become a Software Engineer?

If you think that the exciting career above is for you, designing systems from an engineers perspective, then the first step to becoming a software engineer is learning. Understanding the structure of the programs, systems, and languages you will use is essential, as well as learning how to apply those concepts in the real world. There are two main ways to start learning and get into this career path:

Education Pathways for Software Engineers

Software engineers come from many educational backgrounds. Many engineers begin with a degree in computer science and learn coding elsewhere after graduation. Other engineers are self-taught and learned coding with books and the internet. Coding bootcamp is another popular education option for software engineers.

Traditional Colleges and Universities

Many software engineering careers start at the doorstep of a university or college. A degree in computer science is often considered a requirement for software engineers, however traditional education isn’t always the best route. Degrees take a lot of time and money. It’s a minimum investment of two to four years, at close to $10,000 per year. While these courses will give you a comprehensive understanding of engineering, coding, and systems, they won’t give you practical experience.  A practical understanding of how to implement the concepts in software development and engineering is half of the job, and almost as many jobs that require a degree also require experience. Getting a degree doesn’t promise you a position at a company either. Not everyone is able to spend that long, or give that much money just to start a career with no promise of an actual job at the other end. College used to be the default way to enter the industry. Typically, engineers would obtain a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a similar field, then proceed to an internship or a full-time position at a tech company. Today, coding bootcamp is gaining traction as a new and proven way to land a tech job, without the time and expense associated with college degrees. 

most common

Coding Bootcamps

Bootcamps strike a balance. While they will not provide the same comprehensive education that a four year degree will, they will provide you with on the ground, practical training to get you into software engineering as quickly as possible.  Coding bootcamps cost an average of $13,600 for a full-time education. These programs run between 3 months and 1 year, but schedules vary widely. Full-time programs are available, as are part-time and online programs in all shapes and sizes. Additionally, students can attend bootcamps for other tech careers including web development, data science, cybersecurity, and more. Software engineering is an amazing career. Getting to design entire complex systems that function in unison with other systems like cogs in a giant machine is deeply appealing to many. If it’s appealing to you then don’t wait. Start learning now, and enter a field where cutting edge is the norm.  

  • Duration: 1 to 5 years
  • Cost: $0 (or minimal)
  • Average Base Salary: Unknown
  • Duration: 3 to 12 months
  • Cost: Avg. $13,600
  • Average Base Salary: $70,700
  • Duration: 4 to 6 years
  • Cost: Avg. $34,740 (4 years)
  • Average Base Salary: $65,900
  • Duration: 1.5 to 2 years (in addition to Bachelor’s Degree)
  • Cost: Avg. $30,000 to $100,000 (in addition to Bachelor’s Degree)
  • Average Base Salary: $114,000
  • Duration: 4 to 8 years (in addition to Bachelor’s Degree)
  • Cost: Avg. $50,000+ (in addition to Bachelor’s Degree)
  • Average Base Salary: $124,000

Coding Bootcamp

Coding bootcamp is a new arrival to the world of higher education. These career training programs are designed to cover the curriculum students need for a software engineering career, without the additional classes or added expense levied by university. Bootcamps are a proven way into tech, with some programs reporting job placement rates in excess of 90%. Bootcamps generally run between three months and a year, and are available full-time, part-time, and online.

College/University

College is the traditional route into a software engineering career. Students often receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science or software engineering (where available). These students sometimes go onto graduate school and attain higher degrees, though it’s not necessary to enter the industry. College, while once the primary route into a software engineering career, isn’t the only way to get in. These days, other programs such as coding bootcamps now offer a fairly direct path into the same jobs once held exclusively by college graduates.

Self-Study

Some software engineers are self-taught, learning how to code online and from books. For some people, this method works—but often requires a hefty portfolio to prove that the candidate can do what they claim to. Thankfully, freelance positions and personal projects are a good way to demonstrate abilities.

What Companies Are Hiring Software Engineers?

Software engineering is a popular career choice for people who want to work in the tech industry. Major tech companies employ thousands of engineers for a variety of projects. In this table, you can see the ubiquity of engineering careers in four of the industry’s top companies. Also, the table displays the average salaries for software engineers at each company in 2020, according to Glassdoor.

Facebook

Software Engineering Positions: 4,500 Average Salary: $136,000

Apple

Software Engineering Positions: 12,000 Average Salary: $131,000

Amazon

Software Engineering Positions: 17,000 Average Salary: $125,000

Google

Software Engineering Positions: 18,000 Average Salary: $134,000

2020 Best Software Engineering Bootcamps

FAQ

Will coding bootcamp help me get a job?

Absolutely! Coding bootcamp is a proven way to train for a job in tech. Many coding bootcamps offer job guarantees, and some refund tuition if graduates can’t find a job in the field they trained for. In fact, coding bootcamp teaches skills that many college computer science graduates lack.

How much do coding bootcamps cost?

Coding bootcamp tuition varies. Coding bootcamps in New York City cost around $10,000 to $20,000. However, many scholarships and tuition deferment programs are available, so what you see doesn’t have to be what you pay.

What are income share agreements?

Income share agreements, or ISAs, are a new way to pay for education. These programs defer tuition until after students graduate and find a job in the industry. Once students are employed and making above a certain income threshold (usually $40-60,000 per year) they begin paying a fixed percent of their income, often for around 2 years. If students can’t find a job, many bootcamps waive the cost of tuition.

Do I have to learn coding to work in the tech industry?

You don’t have to learn coding to work in the tech industry. In fact, there are several non-coding bootcamps in New York City. These programs train you for a position in tech sales, marketing, or product management–all of which are well-paid positions with plenty of advancement opportunity.

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