What is a Software Engineer? Your Full Guide in 2023

Written By John Sonmez

Software Engineers do the complex work so that we can enjoy efficient software solutions. They’re creating the systems behind the digital tools we use at work or in our personal life.

This takes strong logical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as a deep knowledge of computer science and programming. It’s a challenging, but exciting career, and – as we’ll get into shortly – a highly profitable one.

If you’re technology-affine, have an analytical mind, and love to create slick solutions to people’s challenging problems, Software Engineer could be a fulfilling career for you. 

What a Software Engineer is and does

What is Software Engineering, exactly?

Software Engineering is a discipline of Computer Science that’s dedicated to architecture, development, testing, deployment and maintenance of computer programs. It’s called Software Engineering because engineering concepts are used – together with computer coding – to create software that fulfills the needs of users.  

What does a Software Engineer do?

Software Engineers are asked to carry out manifold tasks on the job. Not only do they design software – they create its code, test and debug it and deploy (release) the software. Ultimately, they need to keep monitoring and updating the “finished” product. 

Tasks & responsibilities

  • Software architecture / design. Software Engineers create the architecture of a software – the blueprint of how its different parts will work together to create the finished product. They also design each individual part of the software.
  • Developing software. Using their deep knowledge of computer programming, Software Engineers also create the code that makes up a software program.
  • Analyzing software solutions. They’re experts at analyzing their own software, or that created by others, using a high-level, engineer’s view.
  • Code-testing. Engineers are known for leaving nothing to chance, and the same applies to the software field. Each step of the way, tests are written and executed to make sure each software feature is working as intended.
  • Debugging software. Once an error is found in the code, the engineer will try to get to its “fix the bug” by addressing its root cause, in a way that avoids causing other problems down the road. 
  • Optimizing software. Many times, a software doesn’t run as fast as it could, or is generally designed in an inefficient way, with a bloated codebase. A Software Engineer’s task is to detect these inefficiencies and clean them up, optimizing the software for performance, scalability and maintainability.
  • Monitoring a software’s performance. They have a responsibility to ensure a software is running optimally under real-world conditions. Performance has to be measured and tracked in both normal and system-stressing situations.
  • Consulting with team members and clients. Counter to the cliché, Software Engineering isn’t a solitary affair. To work most productively as a company, and stay in line with client requirements, collaboration and communication are crucial parts of the job.
  • Maintaining and updating software. After successfully deploying a new software product, the engineer’s work is not done. Most software has to constantly be adapted to new demands, be they additional features, compatibility changes, or emerging security threats. 

Where do Software Engineers work?

  • Tech companies. Software Engineers work at large companies like FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google), but also medium-sized and small tech companies. These jobs come with a high level of responsibility, challenging and often cutting-edge work assignments, and 
  • Traditional companies. Nowadays even companies in traditional fields such as agriculture or construction have digitalized some of their operations. They’re using Software Engineers to create the software to handle various tasks inside their businesses.
  • State institutions. Agencies like the IRS, DoD or NASA look to Software Engineers to build the most secure software for their needs. 
  • Startups. Tech startups employ Software Engineers to develop the new software they want to bring to market. These positions give you the opportunity to work in a fast-paced, creative environment, working on solutions that can change industries, or the world.
  • Education. Engineers are needed to develop programs for research institutions or colleges. They can also become teachers or professors of Software Engineering or Computer Science.

Salaried employment vs freelancing

Working for a paycheck and benefits is not the only way for Software Engineers. A profitable career as a Software Engineering freelancer is also possible. Either way, the nature of the job means it lends itself well to remote work and setting your own hours.

The types of software created by Software Engineers

  • Desktop software. These are PC programs that run on code and interact with the user by means of a graphical interface. This could be anything from calculator apps to music players.
  • Web applications. Software Engineers also create online apps that can be accessed with a web browser. Online shops, e-banking or almost any software-as-a-service (SaaS) app fall under this category.
  • Mobile apps. Apps for tablets and mobile phones have to be expertly engineered, too, so Software Engineers are called on to develop navigation apps, personal development apps, mobile games, and the like.
  • Embedded systems. Embedded systems are microcontroller based systems such as alarms, household machines, or digital cameras. 
  • Operating systems. Systems Developers or Engineers work on the foundation for modern personal computing: The operating system.
  • Management software. For larger companies, Software Engineers are creating software systems for the management of customer data, human resources, or company assets, for example.

Why Software Engineer?


One of the biggest perks of a Software Engineering job is the impressive salary it can generate for you. According to the Dice Tech Salary Report, the average US salary for a Software Engineer is $111,000. 

The exact salary a Software Engineer will make depends on different factors:

  • Location and size of the company
  • Field of specialization/special skills
  • Experience

For example, as a QA Engineer with less than a year of experience, working for a company in Tennessee, you might make only around $50,000 per year.

As a Cloud Engineer with 5-10 years of experience, working in California, on the other hand, your yearly salary could be between $130,000 and $150,000.

Job satisfaction

According to conisar.org, Software Engineers rate how satisfied they are with their job at 3.69 / 5 on average.

Stack Overflow found that what they like most about their jobs are “salary (60 percent), work-life balance (58 percent), flexibility (52 percent), productivity (52 percent), and growth opportunities (49 percent)”.

70% of Software Engineers are happy about their work overall. This is 5% above the average job satisfaction rate in the US.

Remote work ability

Remote work makes Software Engineers more productive. And because all their tasks can be completed over the internet, it’s the perfect profession to go remote in. Around 80% of Software Developers and Engineers are working remotely or in a hybrid environment today.

Job outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs in software development will grow by 25% within the decade – in contrast to only 5% growth in all industries on average. With emerging fields like Blockchain, Cybersecurity and Machine Learning offering new opportunities for Software Engineers, job outlook continues to look positive in comparison to other fields.

Career paths

Today, there’s a considerable number of career options for Software Engineers to choose from:

  • QA/Test Engineer
  • Data Engineer
  • Cloud Engineer
  • Full-Stack Engineer
  • ML/AI Engineer
  • Game Engineer
  • Embedded Systems Engineer
  • iOS/Android Engineer
  • Security Engineer
  • Technical Program Manager

Software Engineer vs Software Developer

The job description of a Software Developer is very close to that of Software Engineer. Both use programming languages to create the code necessary for a software project. 

But where they differ is that a Software Engineer also takes on the larger-scale task of designing the architecture of the software – which is where the required engineering skills come to fruition.

How to become a Software Engineer

There are different paths to becoming a Software Engineer — getting a degree, taking courses, or going completely self-taught.
Regardless of which path you went with: To have a chance in the competitive Software Engineering job market, the result needs to be that you’ve mastered certain hard skills (including one or more programming languages) and soft skills.

Essential Software Engineer skills

To be a great Software Engineer requires you to develop a number of skills to a high level. There’s the technical, or “hard” skills on one side, and the more intangible, (inter-)personal “soft” skills on the other. Both are essential for a successful career in Software Engineering.

Hard skills

  • Algorithms.
  • Object-oriented programming.
  • Software development methodologies
  • Software architecture
  • Database knowledge
  • Mastery over platform, programming language, and framework
  • Clean code principles
  • Design patterns
  • Testing  
  • Debugging 

Soft skills

  • Critical thinking & problem-solving ability.
  • Emotional intelligence & empathy.
  • Communication & confidence.
  • Teamwork
  • Negotiation skills
  • Creativity
  • Productivity & time management


Software Engineers use a variety of programming languages to accomplish their projects. The most popular ones include:

  • Python
  • JavaScript
  • C++
  • C
  • Java
  • PHP
  • SQL
  • Rust
  • Go


There’s many high-quality online courses for Software Engineers to learn the tools of the trade and level up their skills.

Some of the most popular platforms include Codecademy and Udemy.

Software Development from A to Z at Udemy is the perfect course for beginners to start learning to code software from the ground up.

Codecademy's Full-Stack Engineer Career Path is a 6-month deep dive into front-end and back-end development.

Remember to keep working on your own projects alongside your coding education.

Can you become a Software Engineer without a degree?

All else being equal, a candidate who also has a Software Engineering degree is likely to get the job over someone who’s self-taught. But, it’s absolutely possible to compete in the market and get a lucrative position as a Software Engineer without a degree. What’s valued most by employers are demonstrable hard and soft skills, as well as relevant experience — which a self-taught developer can prove with programming projects completed on his own time. An impressive portfolio plus other marketing tactics can win you a job as a Software Engineer, even if you never went to college.

Associations and organizations

It’s a good idea for any Software Engineer or those aspiring to the job to join an organization of like-minded professionals for learning and networking purposes.

  • Agile Alliance
  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA)
  • Information Systems Security Association (ISSA)
  • Network Professional Association (NPA)
  • Society for Modeling & Simulation International (SCS)


Should I become a Software Engineer?

Whether you should or should not become a Software Engineer comes down to your analytical ability, affinity to Computer Science topics, willingness to persevere through challenges, hunger for immersive learning, and passion for problem-solving. If you’re interested in becoming a Software Engineer, and you have some or all of these traits, you should go for it. It’s certainly one of the most profitable careers you can choose for yourself.

How long does it take to become a Software Engineer?

Depending on which education path you choose – and the effort you put in – you can become a Software Engineer in anywhere from 6 months to 4 years. The traditional college route takes 4 years, while someone who is self-taught or went through a coding bootcamp might be ready to start applying for jobs after just 6 months.

How do you become better as a Software Engineer?

The most important tips to become a better Software Engineer are to seek out mentorship, to become an expert in Test-Driven Development (TDD), and to never stop learning. The software field is changing fast, so you should split your time between perfecting your fundamentals and learning new concepts and skills. 

What are Software Engineers like?

Software Engineers are intelligent, highly analytical and logical thinkers. They are ambitious and disciplined. They love a challenge and to solve tough problems. Software Engineers value contribution, which is why they do their best to serve their clients and improve their lives by creating the software they need. Sometimes they go above and beyond to make the customer happy with their product.

Do you need math to be a Software Engineer?

Yes, you do need good math skills to be a Software Engineer. Programming languages and principles are based on math concepts – understanding them and their use is essential for mastering Software Development and Engineering. In a Software Engineering job interview, the candidates’ math abilities are tested with coding questions whose solutions use math, as well as concrete math problems.