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Software Careers: Comparing Developers vs. Engineers

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Software is a pretty ubiquitous word these days. It’s the thing that puts our computing power to work in a way that’s easy for users to understand. While some people might look to careers that spend time operating various technologies, you want to be in on the ground floor. You want a hand in making a product nearly every industry depends on.

The potential financial and job opportunity benefits to such a choice seem obvious. But less obvious is deciding—and discerning—between the roles of software developer versus software engineer. What makes these important software careers different? How do you know which option is best for your plans?

“In the industry, you’ll find that these titles are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably, however they are in fact different,” says Melanie McSally, CEO and founder of WyzeTribe.

McSally says the roles are both essential components to a team since software developers and software engineers tend to have different skillsets and areas of focus. “These two mindsets will have different approaches and perspectives.”

If you are thinking of training and working in software, you want to be able to tell the difference between developer and engineer. Maybe you’ll even choose one of these roles for yourself! Read on to discover the essential differences between software developers and software engineers.

Software developers vs. software engineers: The basic roles

“A software engineer has the education and training to utilize scientific methods and engineering principles to create solutions to engineering problems.” McSally emphasizes that this approach is true across all types of engineering and remains true in software. “They consider all aspects of their solution, from how it will traverse through the project life-cycle, to how it will interact in its home environment once deployed.”

This wide angle view and planning allows software engineers to create many solutions to each problem or challenge and choose the best solution with all variables accounted for. Think of a methodical approach based on information and testing.

“Software developers care about everything that engineers do—but on a restricted scope,” says Ben Hartwig, CSO and head software engineering at InfoTracer. “Developers write a full program while an engineer works with other items of the hardware system.” Hartwig also says that software developers use readymade tools to build their creations and focus on building software that can run across various types of computer devices.

Software developers tend to find solutions with creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, according to McSally. “They are more likely to have on-the-job training and work by trial and error. Their solutions can be quite genius and innovative, though they don’t typically base those solutions in engineering principles.”

Software developers vs. software engineers: Education and experience needed

It probably won’t come as a surprise, but both of these highly-technical roles are likely to require a college education. Our analysis of over 82,000 software development job postings from the past year found that 89 percent were seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree at a minimum.1 For software engineers, we found 91 percent of job postings were seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree at minimum.2

Both roles require a similar level of education, so how do they stack up when it comes to experience requirements? Our analysis of software developer and software engineer job postings found the following.

Software developer job posting experience requirements:1

  • 0 to 2 years: 28.8 percent
  • 3 to 5 years: 47.8 percent
  • 6 to 8 years: 15.9 percent
  • 9+ years: 7.5 percent

Software engineer job posting experience requirements:2

  • 0 to 2 years: 22.4 percent
  • 3 to 5 years: 52.3 percent
  • 6 to 8 years: 16.9 percent
  • 9+ years: 8.4 percent

As you can see, there’s still a fairly similar breakdown of experience requirements, though it appears software engineering roles may have a slightly higher bar for experience requirements.

Software developers vs. software engineers: Important skills

There’s also a substantial overlap in the technical skills needed for these roles, according to our job posting analysis. Both roles typically seek candidates with a strong understanding of SQL, Java®, JavaScript®, C#, and C++ and Python®.1,2

The big differentiator here is how these skills apply and on what scale, according to Gary Stevens, founder and front-end developer of Hosting Canada. “Software developers build software from scratch, such as a web application. Software engineers, on the other hand, apply engineering principles to the designing, development, maintenance and evaluation of software, dealing with large-scale issues systematically.”

Developers do pretty much what engineers do, but on a smaller scale, and are generally more creative in their work, Stevens says.

Software developers vs. software engineers: How to choose?

With so many similarities in these two careers—how could someone choose the best fit? There’s no set-in-stone blueprint for either, but McSally says those who have a passion for math and science, like order and structure, and tend to think more analytically and systematically tend to fit best in software engineering roles.

“If you’re more of a free spirit, color outside of the lines, think of rules as more of a suggestion, and tend to think more creatively than analytically, then software developer might be the role for you,” McSally says.

Stevens largely echoes that line of thought.

“If you like the thought of systematic ways of solving problems, you should look at being a software engineer; and if you like the thought of creatively solving problems, then software development is probably what you want to go for,” Stevens says.

Is a software career in your future?

Are you thinking a software development or software engineering career could be a good choice for your future? Whichever way you are leaning—both of these paths can start with an education that covers the foundations of computer science.

If you could use a little more detail into what kind of person thrives in these roles (and if that person might be you) check out, 8 Signs You Should Consider Becoming a Software Developer.

1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 82,218 software developer job postings, May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020)
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 323,321 software engineer job postings, May 1, 2019 – April 30, 2020)

Java and JavaScript are registered trademarks of Oracle Corporation.
Python is a registered trademark of The Python Software Foundation, Inc.
Microsoft C# is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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