Hire Developers

What Does a Software Engineer Do? Requirements & Skill Expectations

By Ryan Loftus

Realizing the world’s most promising innovations will require a massive workforce of talented and skilled software engineers. But as the demand for software engineering talent grows, the number of available software engineers fails to keep pace.

Over the next decade, there will be an average of 189,200 openings for software engineers and developers each year. With this huge gap in supply of and demand for software engineering talent, companies of every size and industry are in a fierce competition to hire the best software engineering talent. 

In this post, we’ll break down the statistics, job requirements, and responsibilities of a career in software engineering.

Overview of the Duties of a Software Engineer

Software engineering is a branch of computer science that deals with the design, implementation, and maintenance of complex computer programs. Software engineers develop, design, and test software applications and apply engineering principles to the process of building software. 

A software engineer performs many of the tasks that a software developer does, but with a big-picture, design-centric approach. This distinction means that they’re focused on structure design and eliminating technical debt, in addition to writing great code.

On a more technical level, the core job responsibilities of software engineers include:

  • Writing high-quality, maintainable, reusable code
  • Collaborating with and demonstrating features developed to stakeholders in an Agile environment
  • Designing, developing, troubleshooting, and debugging software programs for enhancements and new products 
  • Conducting routine concept design through the full development life cycle 
  • Preparing and conducting systems programming tests

What Kinds of Companies Hire Software Engineers?

Any company that’s building websites or applications will need to hire software engineers. The employers hiring the most engineers with this skill set are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the world’s largest technology companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Oracle.

But it’s not just Silicon Valley and fledgling startups driving the demand for software engineering talent. Now, more than ever, all companies are becoming tech companies. The COVID-19 pandemic and our current work-from-anywhere era only accelerated this trend. 

Companies in every industry need technical talent to help them modernize and innovate their business practices. Finance, social media, aerospace, defense, consulting, retail, healthcare — the demand (and opportunity) for software engineering talent is near endless. 

And this sense of expansion is, well, expanding — and at a rapid clip. While we don’t have data on the growth rate of software engineers specifically, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does include this job role in its overall data for software developers. From 2020 to 2030, the number of employed software developers in the U.S. is projected to grow by 22 percent — almost triple the 8 percent average growth rate for all occupations.

Software Engineer vs. Software Developer

The discipline of software engineering shares a lot of similarities with software development — and some companies may even use the terms synonymously. Engineers and developers in these roles often work with similar back-end technologies. However, there are some fundamental differences that differentiate the training, experience, and responsibilities of a software engineer from a software developer.

Software developers are responsible for writing, managing, and maintaining software. They’re involved in the full lifecycle of developing software, including research, development, testing, and launch. In contrast, software engineers are responsible for the design, implementation, and maintenance of complex computer systems. Software engineers develop, design, and test software applications and apply engineering principles to the process of building software. 

A software engineer performs many of the tasks that a software developer does, but with a big-picture, system-centered approach. This distinction means that they’re focused on structural design and the elimination of technical debt, in addition to writing great code.

Types of Software Engineering Positions

The titles a software engineer may hold vary drastically, depending on their experience and the company or industry in which they work. The title of a graduate from a coding bootcamp might look different than a candidate with a bachelor’s degree. And the role of an engineer in a five-person startup will differ from one at a 5,000-person company. The expectations and responsibilities of the engineer also scale based on experience.

At the beginning of their career, a software engineer typically starts with an entry-level title like Software Engineer 1. A new engineer will spend a lot of time on testing and quality assurance while learning the internal systems. The tasks they are given are framed around execution of solutions, and they might work in a role with that focus for one to three years.

After gaining experience in an entry-level role, engineers will have the opportunity to move into mid-level roles. At this stage, the parameters of their work become more ambiguous. Instead of basic execution, they’re now responsible for solving technical problems with unknown solutions.

From there, they may have the opportunity to move into more senior-level roles with hands-on development and engineering responsibilities, such as senior software engineer, lead software engineer, and senior software architect. How long it takes to reach this level depends on the company and the skill level of the engineer. 

The key requirement to reach senior-level engineering roles is the ability to handle even more complex and ambiguous problems, with an understanding of their implications on the business. At this stage in their career, the work that senior engineers do becomes exceptionally valuable to the technical teams that hire them. 

While they spend several years honing their skills, their responsibilities expand to include taking more ownership of projects, working independently in a team environment, and mentoring project team members. Senior engineers might also start specializing in particular technologies, such as databases, cloud computing, information operations, or systems architecture.

With some experience under their belt, a software engineer often faces a crossroads in their career. The first path for experienced engineers is to pivot into people and team management functions, where hiring, mentoring, resource planning and allocation, strategy, and operations become a larger component of their role. At the higher levels of an organization, these titles include:

  • IT Director
  • Chief IT Architect
  • Software Engineering Director
  • VP of Engineering
  • Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO)

The other possible career path is to continue as an individual contributor, where they can develop deeper technical expertise in various technology languages and frameworks. A large number of engineers opt to stay in roles as individual contributors, and they enjoy equally fulfilling careers. 

The motivation behind this decision is that many experienced engineers aren’t necessarily interested in or qualified to be managing a team. And engineers in an individual contributor role have the opportunity to focus on growing their technical skills and learning emerging technologies.

Salary Comparisons and Job Outlook

On average, software engineers tend to receive a salary higher than the national average in their country of origin.

In the U.S., for example, the average salary in 2020 was $53,400. In contrast, the average base salary for software engineers in the U.S. is $117,993 — 121 percent higher than the national average.

Engineering salaries also vary depending on specialization, with in-demand competencies commanding a higher compensation. For example, the average salary for software engineers specializing in machine learning and data science is $129,000. In contrast, the average for those specializing in testing and quality assurance is $103,000.

Entry-level software engineers can expect to occupy a lower salary band, while more senior positions provide a higher average compensation. Software engineering salaries can vary widely based on a number of factors, including industry, location, and company size.

Software Engineering Requirements

Technical Skills

Software engineers use a range of programming languages to build applications. These often include:

  • PHP
  • Ruby
  • Python
  • Java
  • .Net
  • C
  • C+
  • C# 
  • Rust
  • Go

Out of the above languages, the most widely known are Java, C, and Python. Software engineers also use database tools such as SQL Server, Oracle, and MySQL to manage user data.

Recruiters and hiring managers looking for software engineers should also look for in-demand competencies beyond programming languages. These include PHP frameworks (Zend, Symfony), Ruby on Rails, Linux experience, cloud platforms (AWS, GCP, Azure), and version control software (SVN, Git). 

Soft Skills

Technical competency alone isn’t enough to succeed in a software engineering role. Analytical, mathematical, and problem-solving skills are a must in any technical job. And in a digital-only or digital-first environment, soft skills are even more critical. 

Employers may put even more stock into engineers with strong soft skills, such as:

  • Time management
  • Communication
  • Project management
  • Creativity
  • Problem solving

Experience

After skill competencies, the most important qualification for software engineers is experience. For some employers, on-the-job experience and training is a critical requirement.

Then, there’s the question of education. About 75 percent of developers worldwide have a bachelor’s degree or higher. If you’re recruiting, screening, or hiring engineers, there’s a high likelihood that many of them will have a degree. And many companies still require engineers to hold four-year degrees.

But companies looking to hire engineers should also be prepared to recognize other forms of education and experience. Competition for skilled software engineers is sky-high, and it’s not uncommon for job openings requiring a degree to go unfilled. But employers that prioritize real-world skills over pedigree gain access to a much larger pool of skilled talent.

Research has shown that 86.7 percent of developers have taught themselves a language, framework or tool outside of a classroom or course. And bootcamps and online training are popular ways to learn new technical skills.

It’s becoming increasingly more common for the best candidate for an open role to be one who has no higher education or on-the-job experience. Because of this, many of the world’s leading tech companies no longer require a 4-year degree. Employers that are willing to hire engineers from a diverse range of backgrounds will have a much easier time scaling their team and can diversify the perspective the team brings to the table, as research shows diversity of perspective is beneficial to the bottom line.

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