How to Become a Software Engineer

Essential Education, Skills, and Job Interview Prep

Software engineers build the applications we use in our daily lives. If you want to learn how to become a software engineer, you’ve picked a great time to join this booming field.

Software engineers are slightly more skilled than software developers and also take on more responsibility. If you’re already considering becoming a software developer, spending just a bit more time could yield an even more fulfilling career. But first, let’s look at what a software engineer does, and the differences between an engineer and a developer.

What Is a Software Engineer?

A software engineer applies the principles of engineering to build software projects. They must be fluent in software design, multiple programming languages, software deployment strategies, quality assurance, and more. Their goal is to ensure that the end product meets the requirements of their client and the consumer.

By contrast, software developers are the more creative side of the equation. They use their problem-solving skills to create useful features in the software applications they’re working on. This means they have the freedom to build the software in the way they think is best.

Usually, software developers work with software engineers to bring a project to fruition. Software developers tend to handle the bulk of the coding, while engineers look at the bigger picture to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Software Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

The median salary for a software engineer is around $86,978 per year, according to PayScale. This is higher than the average for a developer, as it accounts for all of the skills that a software engineer brings to the development process.

The field is expanding as more companies are relying on technology to meet consumer needs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software development jobs are expected to grow by 22 percent by 2029. This growth rate is much faster than the average of four percent across all jobs.


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Entry-Level Software Engineer Job Requirements

Many companies want to hire software engineers who have a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering, plus work experience. But there are also companies that will hire you as long as you can prove that you’re capable of doing the work.

How to Ace Your Software Engineering Job Interview

The best way to prepare for your job interview is by researching the company that you’re applying to. Then, brush up on the skills that are mentioned in the job listing.

The key qualities that potential employers want to see in a software engineer are programming skills, analytical thinking skills, and creativity. As long as you do pre-interview research, you should have no trouble acing it.

Below are a few common questions you may be asked in your software engineering job interview.

Common Software Engineer Job Interview Questions

  • What programming languages do you know how to use? What are your preferred languages?
  • What’s your process for testing code and finding bugs?
  • Can you walk me through the software development life cycle?
  • How do you explain problems to stakeholders who may not understand the technical side of your job?

What Degree Should I Get to Become a Software Engineer?

In recent years, many reputable colleges and universities have started to offer degrees in software engineering. If these options don’t appeal to you, you could also get a degree in computer science, computer engineering, or another related field.

Though most of these are bachelor’s programs, there are also other relevant degree options.

Associate Degree in Software Engineering

An associate degree program gives students the base amount of technical knowledge they will need to start working in an entry-level position. This two-year degree may not be enough for some employers, but if you have the technical ability to pass the entrance test, you should be able to land a job.

In these programs, students will learn popular programming languages that are used to build computing applications. They will also learn networking, web design, and testing skills.

Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering

A four-year bachelor’s degree will open more doors than an associate degree, as you will spend an additional two years diving deeper into software engineering. Most software engineering jobs will require that you have a bachelor’s degree in one of the fields mentioned above.

These programs are usually created for full-time students. However, there are also online options that offer more flexibility for those who need to continue working while getting their degree.

Master’s Degree in Software Engineering

A master’s degree is a post-graduate option for those who want to advance their education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Many of these programs take about two years to complete.

Having a master’s degree will make your job applications stand out when compared to other applicants. But since a bachelor’s degree is the standard prerequisite for entry-level positions, you may want to spend a few years working before you decide to obtain your master’s.

Software Engineering Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is the highest level of education. These programs take years of study and research, as students must write a thesis on an original subject. Because this is such an advanced level of study, it is likely that your doctoral program would be focused on refining the processes currently used by software engineers.

At this level, your research may even contribute to groundbreaking new concepts in software engineering. Doctoral degrees are usually pursued by experienced software engineers who are trying to secure a senior position.

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Software engineers apply engineering principles to the world of software development. Their job places them at the intersection of programmer, software quality assurance tester, and businessperson.

Below are a few of the duties you will be expected to carry out during an average day as a software engineer.

Manage a Team

Senior software engineers often supervise the development of a specific type of software. At this point in their career, they can map out the steps a company needs to take to put out a successful product.

They will know how long a project should take, how to budget for it, and how to manage expectations. They will also understand each team member’s responsibilities and will know how to get the most out of them.

You’ll acquire these skills naturally after years of working in the field. As a beginner, you’ll most likely be on the receiving side of these instructions.

Ensure Quality Production

Often, entry-level software engineers will have to test code and fix bugs before a software product can be published. Bugs can take many forms, and it’s important that the final software product works across all computer operating systems before it is released.

As you get started in the industry, you’ll only be checking for simple bugs and errors. But as you learn, you’ll eventually be put in charge of reviewing every line of code to make sure the software is operating properly and efficiently.

Preserve Legacy Code

As a junior-level software engineer, you’ll help maintain legacy code for certain projects that are already in production. In web development, for example, you may be tasked with ensuring that a website continues to function as new versions of common browsers are released.

As a senior software engineer, you’ll sometimes have to refactor a product’s code to keep it functional as the source code ages.

Essential Software Engineer Skills

Software engineers must have at least some programming skills, an analytical eye, and management skills. These teachable skills can be applied to almost every responsibility we’ve mentioned in this article so far.

Below is a more in-depth explanation of some of the key software engineering skills.

Programming Languages

Regardless of where you work, you’re going to need to learn to code. JavaScript is an industry standard, but the tools will vary depending on which specific area of software development you work in. For example, data science relies heavily on the Python and R programming languages.

As an entry-level programmer, you will use your programming skills every day to build software.

Analytical Ability

You’ll need to be analytically minded to make smart decisions about the software you’re working on. Whether you’re finishing a product or starting a new one, you’ll have to take many factors into account as you complete your daily tasks.

Your supervisors will train you to analyze code for bugs. But you also must be able to analyze your software projects on a wider scale. After a few years of experience, you’ll learn what it takes to finish a software project on time and under budget.

Management Skills

Much like an analytical eye, management skills are best learned through experience. You’ve probably worked with a bad manager or two before, so you already have examples of what not to do.

You’ll get plenty of chances to practice management throughout your career, but it might also be worth taking a few courses in management to build a foundation.

How to Become a Software
Engineer: A Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you know what a software engineer does, let’s look at what you need to do to become one. The five steps below will help put you on the track to success.


Look at Job Listings

It may seem strange to look at job listings before you’re qualified for a job. However, browsing job descriptions will give you a sense of the skills you’ll need to start working in software.

You’ll likely see a lot of posts that require JavaScript, but many listings will also require Java, C#, or Python. Be sure to look at the specific duties of each job to make sure there are options that align with your area of interest.


Decide Your Course of Study

How you decide to study software engineering will impact your future career. For example, getting an associate degree will take the least amount of time, but hiring managers will pass you over in favor of candidates who have a bachelor’s degree.

If you want to get into the tech industry quickly and at a lower cost, you may want to attend a coding bootcamp. Although this isn’t the same as getting a bachelor’s degree, you can still get hired if you can demonstrate that you have the skills to fill the role in question.


Learn Your Craft

Once you have decided on your learning method, you can start studying. Although the program you have chosen will provide you with the tools and materials you need, it’s always a good idea to supplement your education with a few industry-standard books and online tools.

As you study, you might find that you’re struggling with certain concepts, so don’t be afraid to follow up with your teachers.


Get Some Experience

After you’ve completed your education, you’re technically ready to go out and find the job of your dreams. But almost every job listing will say the company is looking for someone who has experience.

Completing some freelance work or getting an internship after graduation will help you stay sharp, and will also allow you to build up your portfolio. A diverse portfolio will show your mastery of code will help you stand out from other entry-level applicants.


Apply for a Job

Now that you have the skills and a portfolio to show potential employers, you can finally start applying for jobs. Don’t be afraid to apply for positions that you may feel underqualified for.

The worst that can happen if you apply is a simple rejection. The worst that can happen if you don’t apply is that you miss out on a great start to your career. So be confident, do some research, and take risks so that you can find a job that will help you grow.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Software Engineer?

It takes anywhere from six months to four years to become a software engineer, depending on your course of study. Some bootcamps are as short as three months. If you choose this route, then spend another few months working on your portfolio, you can have a job in no time.

Many coding bootcamps also accept high school graduates. So if you’re young and unsure whether attending college is right for you, this could be an alternative way to work toward a career while you contemplate your long-term goals.

Should You Become a Software Engineer in 2021?

If you’ve already been thinking of entering the tech industry, then yes. The number of software engineering jobs available is rising quickly. Companies desperately need engineers to create new products so they can keep up with consumer demand for online and desktop software.

After a few years working as a software engineer, you’ll have the experience you need to take on more responsibility in your career. This will lead to a higher salary and more fulfilling and creative work.

Who knows, you could end up building the next open-source software marvel or a medical app that saves lives. Regardless of where you end up, you’ll make good money doing it.

Software Engineering FAQ

Is software engineering hard?

It depends on how easy you find coding. Some engineers think that some aspects of software engineering are easy, while other tasks are not. Your experience will vary based on how much you enjoy programming, problem-solving, and reviewing code. It’s a good idea to try out free coding resources like Codecademy or Free Code Camp to see if you like it.

What’s the best field for software engineers?

If you like math, then you may enjoy working in data science. If not, then you should start as a general software engineer. Within the field, there are niches in cyber security, web development, and more, so it can take a while to find the right fit. 

Are software engineers well paid?

Yes, but this also depends on the cost of living in your city. If you’re making $60,000 and your first job in Jackson, Mississippi, where PayScale reports the average salary is $54,000, then you’re doing pretty well.

But if you’re making the same amount of money and living in New York City where the average salary is $79,000, then you’d need to find a new job quickly.

Is software engineering a good career?

It’s a great career. As with any job, there will be ups and downs, but software engineering is unique in that it allows for a lot of growth. Plus, you’ll get to pay back all the help you received at the beginning of your career by mentoring new software engineers as you progress up the ladder.

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