The world today runs on computers, and by extension, on software. Every piece of software, like the computer programs and mobile device apps we use on a daily basis, must be created by applying technical knowledge to the writing of code using computer programming languages. If you’re interested in developing software programs for a living, you may want to become a software engineer. A college degree is generally required when you want to become a software engineer.
What Is Software Engineering?
The software engineering career fits into the field of software development. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) characterizes software engineers as one specific type of software development professional. Software engineering focuses primarily on planning and designing the scope of a software development project and its system requirements.
What Makes Software Engineers Different From Other Types of Software Developers?
Software engineers typically serve in more of a design and directing function compared to other software application development professionals. Software engineering professionals typically take on the project management duties of conceptualizing and creating software. Other types of software development professionals take the lead on producing the software product itself, either by writing the code that makes software programs run or by instructing programmers to do so.
How Do Software Engineers Fit Into the Field of Engineering?
The field of software engineering combines the practice-oriented focus on engineering design with the more theoretical discipline of computer science. Engineering is all about designing solutions derived from scientific and mathematical principles and practices, so a software engineer must be skilled in applying science and math knowledge to the design the computer software used to run computer systems.
Software engineering applies the engineering design process to the development of computer software. As a branch of engineering, software engineering is a subfield of computer engineering – which is, itself, a subfield of electrical engineering.
Where Do Software Engineers Work?
Software engineers and other types of software developers – including testers and quality assurance analysts – accounted for approximately 1.8 million American workers as of 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. Professionals in software engineering and development roles often work on teams to accomplish their software creation projects efficiently.
The computer system design industry is the largest employment industry for software developers of all kinds, making up 26 of the workforce. Software engineers and other types of software developers commonly work in industries like manufacturing, software publishing, management of companies and enterprises and insurance carriers.
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The Job Outlook for Software Development Careers
Most software developers can look forward to high demand for their skills in the job market. The field of software development is growing at a rapid rate.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS, projects that career opportunities for all kinds of software developers will increase by a much faster than average rate – 22 percent – between 2020 and 2030. All told, this faster than average growth rate would translate to 409,500 new jobs across the nation.
What Skills Should Software Engineers Have?
Naturally, software engineers should have strong computer skills. They need to know a lot about different areas of computer and information technology to be able to develop all types of software programs, from mobile applications and web applications to data systems.
Many of today’s software programs utilize artificial intelligence systems and machine learning to help make applications faster, streamlined and more user-friendly. Although not all software engineers are web developers, having some basic web development knowledge can be helpful, especially as Internet connectivity has become a constant in modern daily life.
Aside from your technical skills, your communication skills also matter in software engineering. While people tend to think of software developers and other information technology professionals as being most comfortable working without human interaction – just them and the computer – real-life work in developing any kind of software program often requires a considerable amount of collaboration.
You need to be able to speak, write and express yourself clearly and to engage in active listening to be a good collaborator, especially when you are serving as a computer engineer who must manage the project and design the software that other developers will play a role in bringing to completion. Aside from clients for whom they are developing software applications, software engineers often collaborate with professionals in technical roles in information technology, including computer systems analysts, information security specialists, quality assurance professionals, web developers and other types of IT professionals.
Choosing an Engineering and Technology School for a Software Engineering Degree
For students who are focused on industry applications of their education, some of the best schools for software engineers are ones that include plenty of design projects that allow students to gain hands-on experience. A senior design sequence or senior design project typically involves work addressing a problem or assignment that mirrors real-life software engineering needs, sometimes for a real client with whom the institution has a partnership or collaboration.
On the other hand, students who are more interested in academic and scholarly research may prefer to study at a research institution. Today, there are both public and private options, including some highly active and successful state university options, where faculty conducts thorough research in computer science and software engineering in which students can get involved.
Which Degree Is Best for Software Engineer Careers?
There are numerous undergraduate and graduate degrees available in subjects related to computers and software development. Popular majors for work in this discipline include software engineering degrees, computer engineering degrees, electrical engineering degrees and computer science degrees.
Deciding Between a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering and a Master’s Degree
If you’re looking to become a software engineer, you can take the first step toward your career goals by starting your college search. Most professionals in a software engineering career need at least a bachelor’s degree. This four-year undergraduate degree is the standard educational requirement for entry-level jobs in software development, especially in software engineering roles.
Going to graduate school is optional for software engineering professionals. There are plenty of graduate software engineering programs out there. A software engineer may choose to pursue a master’s-level software engineering degree to help them advance their skills or gain technical knowledge in a new area of specialization.
A graduate software engineering degree may be needed for certain career paths, including work in academia and advanced research. Some software engineering graduates even go for doctoral degrees, although this level of education isn’t commonly required in many industry roles.
Bachelor of Science Vs. Bachelor of Arts Degrees
Most bachelor’s degrees awarded in areas of engineering and computers are Bachelor of Science, or BS, degrees. This makes sense because Bachelor of Science degrees emphasize studies in the natural and physical sciences, mathematics and technology. Like any Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, computer science or a related field, all varieties of software engineering programs tend to be chock-full of science and math-related classes. However, undergraduate software engineering programs still require general education coursework that draws from a variety of disciplines.
Some computer science programs award a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree instead of a Bachelor of Science. This degree still covers the fundamental coursework in computer science, so it can still help you become a software engineer, but it includes more coursework in the liberal arts and the social sciences. Regardless of whether the bachelor’s degree awarded through a computer science degree program is a BS or a BA, this major is still one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.
Choosing a School for a Degree in Software Engineering
You can find the types of bachelor’s degree program options available to computer software engineers in all kinds of higher education institutions, from public research university options to private school environments.
When starting your software engineering school search, consider which specific major best matches your strengths and interests, along with factors like schools’ location, affordability, reputation (as indicated by school rankings) and opportunities.
Research Vs. Professional Practice Focus
If you’re interested in academic research (and not just industry work), you might be better off seeking a bachelor’s degree at a public or private research university. In these settings, you will find computer science and software engineering faculty actively pursuing grant-funded projects, and students can gain firsthand research experience as they work toward their bachelor’s degree in software engineering.
Not every engineer – software or otherwise – has a strong interest in research. If you’re strictly interested in professional practice, you might gravitate more toward software engineering programs that offer plenty of hands-on experience and project-based learning opportunities. These degree programs often have great industry connections for internships and recruiting.
Students should, of course, consult school rankings and do their own research into the schools and software engineering programs they may potentially be interested in attending. However, as you narrow down your school search, it can help to talk to your own enrollment counselor at your top-choice schools to help determine what institution (and major) is the best fit for you.
Financial Aid for Aspiring Software Developers
For most students, the cost of a software engineering education is one of the biggest obstacles. If you’re serious about becoming a software developer, you’re going to need to invest in earning a degree in software engineering or a related field.
However, you don’t have to sink deep into debt to prepare for software engineering jobs. Financial aid packages can significantly reduce the cost of attending a software engineering program. These aid packages include merit-based scholarships and need-based grants that don’t have to be paid back, as well as student loans that do need to be repaid.
Take advantage of any financial aid opportunity available to you, particularly grants and scholarships, which don’t have to be paid back, and subsidized federal student loans, on which the interest doesn’t start building until after you graduate (or are no longer in school at least half-time).
Program Accreditation for Aspiring Software Engineering Professionals
For all of the degree options an aspiring software engineering professional might pursue, accreditation of degree programs is awarded by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.
The engineering majors are accredited under ABET’s Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs. Electrical and computer engineering curriculum standards are combined under these standards, while software engineering curriculum standards are distinct. Computer science programs are accredited under ABET’s Criteria for Accrediting Computing Programs.
The Association for Computing Machinery also makes curricula recommendations for programs in this field of study. The Association for Computing Machinery’s recommendations as updated in 2020 aim, among other things, to shift curriculum focus from knowledge-based models to competency-based models.
Given how rapidly computer technology evolves, knowledge-based learning can quickly become outdated, while competency-based models of learning help software engineering graduates be more agile in expanding their technical knowledge over time.
Software Engineering Program Options
A software engineering degree program is the most direct path to a career as a software engineer. Software engineering degrees are the most specialized options you’re likely to find for undergraduate students.
The curricula of software engineering degree programs combine the foundations of engineering design work with technical software development skills and project management skills. Building on science classes and plenty of math courses, such as studies in discrete mathematics, these programs also draw from the areas of computer science, information systems and computing and informatics.
In many programs, the curricula include specialized software engineering courses that cover the foundations of software development, software construction and architecture, software evolution, software specification and design and software verification and validation. Software engineering majors may choose to take electives in more specialized or interdisciplinary areas.
For example, although software engineering degrees primarily focus on software, students may use electives to study embedded systems. Embedded systems are microprocessor-based computer hardware systems with integrated software programs that perform a dedicated function in computing. Additionally, while software engineering professionals don’t have to be cybersecurity experts, they may benefit from taking a class in software security.
Software engineering students generally find that their curriculum blends studies in engineering and computer science. However, software engineering degree curricula may not cover the general principles of engineering in the same level of detail as other engineering disciplines do.
Computer Engineering Degree Programs
Not all engineering schools offer a degree in software engineering specifically. If a software engineering major isn’t an option at your intended school, or if you want a more versatile degree so you can keep your options open, consider majoring in computer engineering or electrical engineering.
Computer engineering is the subfield of electrical engineering that is concerned with applying engineering design principles and methods to computers. More specifically, the field of computer engineering encompasses the design and planning of both hardware and software.
Hardware Engineering Vs. Software Engineering
The hardware components are the physical parts that make up computer systems and networks. Computer hardware engineers build and put together the pieces that, once assembled, form the machines humans use for computing. A computer hardware engineer is behind the development of computers, tablets, smartphones and smartwatches, as well as individual components like chips and circuit boards.
Software programs are what people use to operate computers and achieve goals – whether for scientific research and inquiry, routine work tasks or recreation. Software design encompasses both the operating systems that allow computers to run and perform functions and the computer applications that serve different purposes for users.
The Broader Curriculum of Computer Engineering
For some students, the breadth of this major, encompassing both hardware and software engineering, is what makes it appealing. You might enjoy the versatility of this degree program and the opportunity to explore both aspects of computer engineering in more depth, although in your professional life, you’re likely to focus on just one of these two areas. However, if you would prefer to narrow down the focus of your computer engineering degree a little more toward the side of software engineering, you might be able to do that through a formal concentration or specialization.
The curriculum of a computer engineering major often starts with a general engineering core curriculum – a common requirement for undergraduate study in most engineering disciplines, although it often doesn’t apply to software engineering programs specifically. As part of this engineering core, students in a computer engineering program should expect to complete studies in introductory engineering design and data analysis techniques, linear engineering systems, dynamic engineering systems and hands-on engineering design methods.
Major coursework requirements for a computer engineering program are likely to include advanced computer programming for engineers, electric circuits, digital logic design, computer organization, signals and systems, data analytics, design with microcontrollers and electromagnetics for computing and wireless systems. Students should also expect to take courses that tie together computer engineering topics for real-world application, as well as laboratory coursework and design opportunities.
Electrical Engineering Degree Programs
An even broader option of study for aspiring software developers is electrical engineering. This discipline is one of the main branches of engineering, along with mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and civil engineering. The field of electrical engineering generally spans the study of all electrical and electronic devices, systems and innovations.
When you major in electrical engineering, your coursework might look similar, in a lot of ways, to a computer engineering curriculum. You will study the basics of electric circuits, along with digital logic design, electromagnetics for computing, signals and systems and design with microcontrollers.
Data structures, advanced programming and computer organization may be options for elective study, while your mandatory coursework may include classes in electronic devices and the fundamentals of power and energy. Remember, in this major, you aren’t only interested in designing computers but also in the innovation and development of all kinds of electrical and electronic solutions. Your studies won’t be as computer-focused in this major, although you may have the option to use your technical electives to pursue a concentration in computer engineering.
What About Electrical and Computer Engineering Majors?
It’s worth noting that the subfield of computer engineering has grown so large that some colleges now use terms like “electrical and computer engineering,” instead of electrical engineering more generally, to refer to the relevant major or department. This program title serves to denote the emphasis on computer engineering that students experience in the program.
What can you expect when majoring in a program that combines electrical engineering and computer engineering? Typically, you will enjoy some of the breadth of a traditional degree in electrical engineering. However, you can expect to delve a little deeper into the computer engineering side – including studies in designing both hardware and software – than a purely electrical engineering-focused program might allow.
Computer Science Programs
Software engineering is still a form of engineering, with its emphasis on designing and planning the scope and inner workings of a program, but it’s a little further removed from the field of engineering design than other branches of the field. In fact, it’s possible to become a software engineer without majoring in engineering at all. Many software developers and engineers choose to pursue a degree in computer science instead of engineering.
The Differences Between Engineering and Computer Science
When you major in the computer science field, your curriculum won’t focus on engineering design principles in the same way that a computer or electrical engineering program would. Instead, the curriculum of a computer science degree will emphasize coursework in computing theory and computational systems – especially as they pertain to software development rather than hardware design.
Computer science majors may take more classes focused on using programming languages to write computer code. Writing code requires learning skills in assembly language programming. To cultivate their software development skills, computer science majors often complete a sequence of courses in both introductory and advanced computer programming, as well as coursework in cutting-edge programming tools and techniques.
Computer science coursework typically involves more of a focus on the underlying theories of software development than students will find in their software engineering or computer engineering programs. For example, coursework for computer science majors often includes classes in programming language concepts, computer architecture and the mathematical foundations of computer science.
Of course, students may also take many other courses. Some, like systems analysis, systems architecture and systems programming, focus on computer systems – the combination of the internal hardware components and the control programs that, together, allow for computing capabilities.
Software engineering students in a computer science program also study software architecture, the structures and organization of a software program. Studies in software testing equip an aspiring software developer with the skills to evaluate software applications, identify any defects or risks and determine whether the program being tested is ready for implementation.
Courses in computer science cover algorithms, the specified rules and processes that are used to process, analyze or calculate data based on mathematical principles. Software engineering professionals with a computer science background also take classes in data structures, the means and methods of storing and organizing data. When they study computing and informatics, software developers learn how to design the software systems used for information processing.
Graduate Programs for Software Engineering Professionals
Whatever computer-focused Bachelor of Science degree you choose will teach you the software engineering principles required to get started in the field. At the graduate level, students of software design can specialize their studies even further.
For example, you might seek out a software engineering program that offers concentration options in areas like data science, cloud computing, cybersecurity or networking software. Alternatively, you might opt for a master’s degree in a slightly different area, such as information technology or computer information systems.
Some software engineering professionals who are eyeing a move to management might consider a technical-focused Master of Business Administration, like an MBA in software engineering, information technology or cybersecurity. Having a computer science bachelor’s degree doesn’t limit your MBA concentrations options to only tech-focused areas. Depending on your interests, you could also combine your undergraduate software engineering degree with an MBA in finance, economics, business analytics or project management.
You don’t have to go for your master’s degree in software engineering right after earning your bachelor’s degree. Software engineering professionals often go back to school after gaining some experience in entry-level roles in their field. For working software developers, part-time and online programs can help put an advanced degree within reach. However, if you prefer to learn in-person rather than online, there are many programs offered on campus, as well. Studying full-time and potentially seeking out an accelerated degree program can help you finish your graduate software engineering education in less time, regardless of whether you’re studying online or on campus.
How Can Students Prepare for a Career in Software Development?
Higher education is crucial for aspiring software developers. Computer programmers may have the option to prepare for their careers with a less formal education However, learning engineering and computer science requires more study of science and math, and especially more of an emphasis on theory, than you would encounter in a boot camp on programming languages.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a bachelor’s degree is the minimum level of education needed for software developers of all kinds and noted that some employers in the field look for candidates with master’s degrees. As such, earning a bachelor’s degree in software engineering or a related field is a good start to this career path. Other ways to improve your career prospects in software engineering include internships during college and acquiring professional software developer certifications.
Software Developer Internships
One way to put yourself on the path to a career as a software developer is to start gaining real-world work experience even before you graduate with your bachelor’s degree. Students in a software engineering program are often encouraged to complete an internship or co-op experience as part of their curriculum. Through your internship, you learn what it’s really like to work as a software developer and put your technical skills to work on real projects under the guidance of experienced professionals. Software engineering students who participate in a co op, a lengthy hands-on experience, often take five years to complete their bachelor’s degree but graduate with a year of paid work experience under their belt.
Private companies in the tech industry, engineering services and many other companies hire software engineering interns. If you’re interested in working for the federal government, consider looking for internships with government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Reserve Bank.
Software Engineering Certifications
Earning your bachelor’s degree matters, but technical skills in software engineering are what really impress potential employers. One way that a software developer can showcase their capabilities is by pursuing professional certifications.
Some of the professional credentials that pertain to software engineering include:
- The Certified Software Engineer (CSE) credential from the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP)
- The Professional Software Engineering Master (PSEM) certification from the IEEE Computer Society
- The Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional (CSSLP) credential from the cybersecurity professional organization (ISC)²
Additionally, there are industry certifications in many different programming languages, platforms and services, including:
- C programming language
- Microsoft Azure
- Amazon Web Services (AWS)
- Agile project management
Certification for software engineering professionals is voluntary, not mandatory. However, more computer and information technology professionals than ever before are reporting that they have at least one industry certification, according to reports by Global Knowledge Training LLC. These reports have highlighted the numerous benefits of earning certification, including increases in software developers’ earning potential, opportunities for advancement, professional credibility and quality of work.
Software engineering is a field that offers generous salaries, a high growth rate and a chance to combine your computer technology skills and your problem-solving abilities. Any number of computer-focused bachelor’s degrees can prepare you for a successful career in one of the high-paying jobs as a software engineer. The question to ask yourself, as you consider options to prepare you for a career as a software engineer, is how narrow you want the focus of your degree to be.
Would you prefer to major directly in software engineering, or would you like to learn about computer science or computer and electrical engineering more generally? Are you more interested in aspects of practical engineering design or in the underlying theories of computer science?
There’s no right or wrong answer, only a matter of the personal preference of each individual software engineer. Software engineering professionals can approach the field from any of these backgrounds, and the highly positive job outlook for the software developer occupation means that there are likely to be plenty of job opportunities available.