The ultimate guide to becoming a software engineer

Everything you need to know to become a software engineer

Man sitting in front of computer monitors with coding on them

There isn't an industry that software engineering doesn't play a significant role in. Sans software, a computer is nothing more than some wires, silicon, and plastic. Software engineering is also the reason big tech companies, like Google and Amazon, rake in billions of dollars every year. 

Somewhere, an engineer is developing software that will, at some point, be a big part of your life, whether it's a new operating system or the latest role-playing game. Software engineers are constantly changing the world we live in, and they will only get more important as we continue putting more focus on tech. 

With their importance perpetually growing, why not consider a role as a software engineer? Below, we'll cover what a software engineer does, how to become one, and how to excel in the role. 

What does a software engineer do?

Software engineers work with various platforms, ranging from mobile devices to desktop computers, to develop software applications to meet business and organizational needs. 

Software systems include business applications, networking systems, operating systems, and mobile and web applications. 

Software engineers apply scientific knowledge and engineering principles to build a new system or solve practical problems within an existing system. They are primarily responsible for managing the development task but will also dive into the development process, as needed.

Software engineer vs. software developer

Because a software engineer may also be involved in development, the engineering and development roles tend to get blended together. This is an unfortunate disservice to both positions. 

The key difference is the engineer focuses on the project as a whole, while a software developer uses their creativity, practices and patterns to create the engineer’s vision. Most software engineers have no issues with rolling up their sleeves and getting deep into code, though. 

How do you become a software engineer

Software engineering is an ever-changing profession that’s always adapting to new technologies. 

Given its shifting nature, you have multiple entry points to get your feet wet. 

Education

Getting a formal education is the primary step toward becoming a software engineer. 

To pursue entry-level positions, prospective students can choose from an array of traditional and nontraditional programs, including getting a degree or attending a coding boot camp.

Associate’s degree

Though some employers prefer hiring candidates with a four-year degree, an associate’s degree will help you land an entry-level job. 

You can choose from an array of majors, including software systems engineering or software engineering. The curriculum focuses on the core principles of programming languages, software engineering and modern approaches to software development. 

Classes you’ll take may include database management systems, web application development, operating systems and network administration.

Cost can be a big driver when considering your career path, and an associate’s degree is one of the more economical options. On average, annual in-state tuition at a public two-year college is $3,570. 

That tuition, of course, doesn’t consider room, board, books, transportation and other necessities, which bring the average yearly cost to $17,580.  

Pros:

  • Can land an entry-level job
  • Relatively low cost
  • Quicker and more flexible than earning a bachelor’s degree

Cons:

  • Some employers prefer a bachelor’s degree
  • Room, board and books can add up
  • Not as quick as most coding boot camps

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science or a related field swings the door into software engineering wide open and sets you up for great career advancement. 

The curriculum in a bachelor’s program is broader and provides a foundation in mathematics and computer science. Four types of classes are included under most software engineering bachelors’ degree programs: object-oriented software development, computer security, project management and user interface. 

You’ll also take courses that’ll set you up nicely to handle other aspects of the job and corporate world not centered on coding or engineering, including a foreign language, economics, and others.

A bachelor’s degree carries a lot of value, but it also comes at a cost. 

If you plan to attend an in-state public university, expect to pay an average of $9,970 per year. If you have your heart set on an out-of-state university, that average shoots up to $25,620. To attend a private four-year college, it’s ever pricier at $34,740 per year. 

You can also tack on another $15,000, or so, for books, room and board, supplies and other school-related costs. 

Pros:

  • Graduates are more prepared for the corporate world
  • Bachelor’s degree holds more value in the screening process

Cons:

  • The four-year degree comes with a huge price tag
  • Four years of school can seem like forever

Graduate degree

Though a bachelor’s degree will help you land a decent job and may even propel you into management, a graduate degree can accelerate your upward path. 

Software engineering is more than just programming. It also calls for interdisciplinary skills like cost analysis, critical thinking and project management, which you can pick up from a master’s program in information science, computer science or software engineering.

Students who opt for graduate degree programs in software engineering can choose from mathematical modeling, software design, software testing and software system architecture. 

The cost of a master’s degree varies with the school you attend, the length of the program and whether you’re a full- or part-time student. 

According to Peterson’s, the average annual tuition at a public grad school will run $30,000, while a private school will cost $40,000. If you enter a two-year master’s program, you’re looking at $60,000-$80,000 on top of the bachelor’s degree cost. 

If you’re debating spending an extra $60,000-$80,000 to get your master’s degree, you may be concerned about the return on investment. 

Yes, you’ll lose two years’ of earnings by entering a master’s program, but the U.S. Census Bureau reports someone with a master’s degree earns, on average, $40,000 more annually over their lifetime than someone with a bachelor’s degree.    

Pros:

  • It sets you apart from candidates who only hold their bachelor’s
  • Those with a master’s degree often find better pay
  • Some programs are 100% online

Cons:

  • Huge costs
  • Income potential isn’t guaranteed

Coding boot camp ( 8-12 weeks)

An alternative education path to become a software engineer is a coding boot camp. 

A coding boot camp’s time frame can vary greatly. A quick camp lasts 8-12 weeks, but an intensive camp where you learn multiple stacks can last up to five years.  

Coding boot camps offer students hands-on experience and put them in an immersive learning environment. After graduation, students can pursue entry-level careers as software engineers or developers.

Because of the broad range of time and depth of learning various coding boot camps offer, there’s an equally broad range of pricing. On average, a coding boot camp runs $13,584, but they can range from free to $21,000, according to Course Report

Like colleges, most boot camps accept cash as payment, which you can use a loan for. However, boot camps have a unique wrinkle in that some offer income-sharing agreements (IGA). An IGA allows you to attend the camp for little to no upfront out-of-pocket costs, but you enter an agreement to share a portion of your salary with the boot camp after graduation for several years after graduating and landing a job.  

Pros:

  • Cheaper and quicker than college
  • Immediately applicable skills
  • Hands-on experience

Cons:

  • Not as marketable to large companies
  • Narrow focus
  • Flexible IGA payment option

Do an internship

IT internships are great for gaining real-world experience as a recent or soon-to-be graduate. Many tech companies offer paid internships for graduates or those who are about to graduate and want to expand their skills in specific areas like XML, Java or SQL. 

Keep in mind that most companies prefer interns with at least a bachelor’s degree, but this doesn’t outright disqualify you if you have an associate’s degree. You may, however, have fewer opportunities and a lower wage. 

Typically, internships last 3-6 months, and salaries are generally relatively low — $19.17 per hour, according to Indeed. The payoff is you work on specific products or projects related to the skills you want to pick up. 

Get certified

Software engineering demands precise technical skills, and a certificate will verify your knowledge and abilities in a specific area. It shows you've practiced in the area you want to work and gained the experience needed to demonstrate a high level of competence. 

Alongside the experience you gain, an IT certification also enhances your marketability in the increasingly competitive marketplace. If a hiring manager is looking at two evenly matched software engineers, but you have the certification they’re looking for, you may have the upper hand. 

Technology vendors who offer certifications include Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco. Professional organizations like IEEE also offer certification tailored to specific areas of practice.

You can get a certification at any time during your career, whether you just completed a coding boot camp, learned to code on your own, just got your master’s degree or are a grizzled veteran looking to brush up on new skills. 

Careers in software engineering

The demand for software engineers is driven by the need for technological solutions. 

For instance, health care organizations are seeking new software solutions to enhance patient care will need a software engineer. As will a financial service organization that need to provide efficient technology-driven services to customers. 

When trends like mobile computing, big data and security are coupled with traditional industries, it creates new opportunities for software engineers. This means there’s room for software engineers in almost every business sector. 

Here is a list of related career opportunities that are predicted to experience significant employment growth between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

  • Software developer (job growth: 21%)
  • Computer systems analysts (job growth: 9%)
  • Information security analyst (job growth: 32%)
  • Database administrator (job growth: 9%)

Software engineering salaries

The demand for highly talented software engineers has companies battling for the top talent, and salary data reveals these companies are willing to pay a premium to acquire top talent.

According to Indeed, the average base salary for software engineers is $104,907 per year with a cash bonus of $4,000 per year. That, of course, includes all levels of software engineers — not those just entering the field. 

The average annual salary for an entry-level software engineer sits at $78,621 per year.

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