Becoming a software engineer takes resilience, dedication, and tons of practice. That’s because software engineers go on to do really important work, like developing the software systems that run everything from smartphones to governments.
There are quite a few steps in the process of becoming a software engineer. We’ll walk you through the process and also:
- Answer the questions “What is a software engineer?” and “How long does it take to become a software engineer?”
- Explain how much a software engineer makes
- Discuss the employment outlook for software engineers
- Go over the five key steps to becoming a software engineer, including potential educational paths
- Look at three universities with top programs for software engineering
Ready? Let’s go!
Software engineers do tons of things, but their biggest job is building the frameworks for software programs and databases.
What Is a Software Engineer?
Software engineers work in a specific branch of computer science that develops and builds digital products, database programs, computer software, and applications software.
Many people assume that software engineers spend their day programming, and that’s partially true. Most software engineers learn multiple programming languages. But they also manage projects, develop prototypes, test software that’s in development, and even design user experiences!
It’s typical for software engineers to work in computer systems design and related industries, like publishing, management consulting, advertising, healthcare, and government. Most large businesses and organizations employ software engineers to design and maintain their websites, databases, web services, software offerings, and mobile apps.
It might sound like a software engineer is the same thing as a software developer. There are actually some technical distinctions between software engineers and developers. You can think of software engineers as the architects who use engineering principles to create software. Software developers also create software, but may not have the same technical background that software engineers do.
Having said that, most people use the terms “software engineer” and “software developer” interchangeably in the United States...even though they’re not exactly the same things.
No matter which term you use, it’s important to recognize that software engineering is a fast-paced, rigorous, and intellectually demanding career. The best software engineers are those who are highly resilient, relentless problem solvers, and effective communicators.
How Much Does a Software Engineer Make?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, the median annual wage for software developers was $107,510. (The BLS lumps software developers and engineers into the same category.) In the same year, the lowest 10 percent of software engineer earned less than $64,240, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $164,590.
But as with any profession, salaries can vary pretty widely for software engineers, depending on the industry they work in, the type of company they work for, and how much experience they have.
Here are the estimated salaries for software engineers across a range of experience levels:
Level of Experience
Like we mentioned earlier, software engineers also work in a wide range of areas! In 2019, the median annual wage for software engineers in some of the profession’s most common industries were:
Management of companies and enterprises
Computer systems design and related services
Insurance carriers and related activities
Keep in mind that these are median salaries, which means 50 percent of software engineers make more than these amounts, and 50 percent of software developers make less. You’ll have to do a little extra research to see how much software engineers in your field make in your area.
What’s the Employment Outlook for a Software Engineer?
The employment outlook for software engineers is very positive. Employment of software developers is projected to grow by 22 percent between 2019 and 2029. This growth is much faster than the average growth for all other occupations in the United States during the same period, which is just four percent.
The explanation behind this growth trajectory may seem obvious: there’s a huge demand for high quality and innovative software, web and mobile applications, and advanced computer security software. Software engineers who are proficient in multiple programming languages and possess knowledge of the most cutting-edge programming tools will be the most appealing applicants for the growing number of software developer jobs.
Becoming a software engineer takes work, but it's an achievable goal if you're focused. Here are the steps you can take to achieve your career goals!
How to Become a Software Engineer: 6 Steps
You might also be asking, “How long does it take to become a software engineer?” The truth is, this can vary widely depending on the educational path you choose. It’s important to remember that there are different options for education and training to become a software engineer that will affect your unique path to starting in the profession.
Let’s take a closer look at how to become a software engineer.
Step 1: Take the Right Classes in High School
During high school, it’s important to take as many math and science courses as you can to start you on the right path. Software engineering requires the kind of logic and reasoning you’ll learn in math and science courses.
If your school offers any kind of computer science, computer programming, or engineering courses, plan to take those as well. These courses can help you start developing foundational knowledge of computer science. You can also participate in computer science competitions for high schoolers, too!
When it comes to math, science, and computing classes, you should definitely consider taking as many as you can at an advanced level. Having AP and IB courses on your transcript will prepare you for college and show admissions counselors that you’re serious about becoming a software engineer.
Outside of classes at school, you should also consider taking a coding course or bootcamp for high school students, or attend a computer science summer program for high schoolers. These programs can range from one week to six months and are offered online or in person. These coding programs give high school students the chance to learn practical programming languages and build hands-on projects—opportunities you may not get through courses at school.
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Step 2: Choose an Educational Path
When thinking about how to become a software developer, there are two main educational paths you can take: getting a college degree, or completing an alternative training program. You’ll need to think about your goals and future career trajectory before deciding which path to take.
Let’s look at the first path, which involves getting a college degree in computer science, software engineering, or a related field. Computer science is the most common major for an aspiring software engineer because it’s available at most schools and trains students in the skill sets that are needed to be an effective software engineer.
Certain schools may have a software engineering major, minor, or specialization track. These programs will focus more intensely on the engineering skills you need to develop before you enter the software engineering field. If you’re still researching colleges, we recommend you check out programs that offer some kind of software engineering specialization.
If you’re wondering how to become a software engineer without a degree—or if that’s even possible—here’s the deal: getting a degree in computer science isn’t the only way to get a job as a software engineer. Many companies won’t require you to have a computer science degree as long as you have training and experience in the field’s most important skills for a software engineer. There are even some companies that don’t require college degrees for their software engineers!
This means that another option instead of going to college or as a supplement to your college degree is an alternative training program. For instance, some universities (like George Washington University and Rutgers University) offer eight to twelve week programming courses that are considered a “coding bootcamp.” These bootcamps are rigorous, hands-on, and extremely challenging, but many companies recognize them as an acceptable way to show you’re developing the skills needed to start as an entry-level software engineer. Oftentimes you’ll leave these bootcamps with a certification...but you won’t earn a full-blown college degree.
These programs typically have required class meetings, assignments, meetings with the instructor, and an end-of-course project. They may also focus on professionalization, including helping students network with local companies, develop resumes, locate job opportunities, and prep for job interviews.
But not all of these “bootcamp” programs are created equal. There are some software engineer training programs that you definitely shouldn’t rely on to help you get a job. Some for-profit companies offer online-only, independent study style programming courses that are labeled bootcamps but aren’t actually rigorous or respected enough to help you get a software engineering job. Be on the lookout for these predatory programs! Make sure the program you join has a proven track record, has accreditation, and/or is affiliated with a non-profit university.
Deciding what type of software engineering you want to do—and practicing a lot!—will help you jumpstart your career.
Step 3: Choose a Specialization and Start Practicing
Software engineering is one of those fields that values real-world practice. Many of the most successful software engineers spend lots of time learning programming languages, designing systems for fun, and practicing their coding skills. The good news is that you can practice all of these skills outside of a classroom, too.
It’s no secret that learning programming languages is tough. And the truth is that it’s difficult to gain the experience you need to become proficient in programming languages if you’re not practicing them outside of class. It’s a lot like learning a foreign language! You wouldn’t be able to speak a new language without practicing lots on your own, and the same is true for coding languages. The more you practice independently outside of the classroom, the more prepared you’ll be to get a job as a software engineer.
Along with a solid background in programming languages, you’ll also have to pick a few areas of specialization. While you should know how to do a little of everything, most software engineers have expertise in one or two areas. You could become a specialist in a specific programming language, like SQL or Java, or pursue an area like web development, DevOps, mobile development, or technical stack development.
Once you know which path you’re interested in, you can start learning languages and skills through formal training and independent practice that will prepare you for a job as a software engineer.
Step 4: Get Required Certifications (Maybe)
The next step in how to become a software engineer is getting certifications in the programming languages you’re trained in. Unfortunately, though, the field isn’t in total agreement about the importance of certifications. Some are considered outdated, and some companies don’t require them at all. Like with other aspects of how to become a software developer, you’ll have to do research on what certain companies expect to decide if pursuing certifications is worth your time.
For example, say you want to work with a very specific app development company. Spend some time looking through their job postings for software engineers. Do any of these positions require certifications...and if so, which ones? That can give you a good baseline idea of whether you need to pursue additional certifications!
If you do need certifications, where can you get them? Certifications are offered through technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle, or through professional organizations like IEEE. Earning a certification usually involves taking an exam...so you’ll have to study! While not everyone will need certifications to become a software engineer, having them on your resume can make you more marketable in certain circumstances.
Networking can involve linking computers...but in this case, we're talking about building the professional relationships you'll need to be successful in the future.
Step 5: Start Networking
Networking is another important step for how to become a software developer. There isn’t necessarily one specific time when you should be networking. In fact, networking is something you can start doing as soon as you start your education.
Here are some actions you can take to build a strong network. First, educate yourself on the local job market for software engineers. Learn about the identity and values of the companies you’re interested in working for. Then, make contacts with people who work at these companies. You can reach out to people on social media, or you can check with your school to see if they have alumni they can put you in touch with. If you’re taking a training course, see if your instructor would be willing to set up a meet and greet or give you some contacts.
Networking is much more than going to mixers and having awkward conversations with strangers. It’s learning what you don’t know yet, then connecting with people who are eager to teach and help others become successful software engineers too.
Step 6: Apply for Jobs and Prep for “Whiteboarding”
The last major step to becoming a software engineer is applying for jobs and going for interviews. Applying for jobs is fairly straightforward, but prepping for interviews can take some serious time and energy.
Job interviews for software engineers are notoriously grueling. If possible, try to do at least one mock interview with someone who understands how interviews work in this field. Practicing will help prepare you for the experience and let you develop your answers to tough questions.
Interviews for software engineers can cover everything from practical skills to tougher topics such as algorithms, and architecture design. You’ll also probably get questions about your past experiences, challenges you’ve overcome, and how you deal with failure. In interviews, it’s important to perform well on all of these aspects, not just the more complicated coding questions. (For a list of general interview questions you can practice with, check out this article.)
The portion of software engineering interviews that can make interviewees really nervous is whiteboarding. Whiteboarding is when the interviewer asks you to solve a coding problem on a whiteboard with an old fashioned dry erase marker. You won’t know what the problem is before the interview, so it’s important to be familiar with the coding languages the company you’re applying to uses and have functional knowledge of algorithms. When given your problem during the interview, you’ll write out your solution on the whiteboard, then most likely discuss your reasons for choosing that solution. You may even have to troubleshoot your solution with your interviewer.
Whiteboarding can be stressful because you’re performing under pressure. The best thing you can do to prepare for this aspect of software engineering interviews is to practice—a lot. Many software engineers who have survived the interview process will say that they practiced whiteboarding every day for weeks. If you don’t have the capacity to practice whiteboarding every day, just practice as often as you can. You might also consider talking with a course instructor or other students about the whiteboarding process.
Of course, acing an interview can lead you to your ultimate goal: becoming a software engineer!
MIT is one of the best schools for aspiring software engineers. (Faolin42/Wikimedia)
3 Universities With Top Software Engineering Programs
There are many universities with excellent computer science programs. Below, we briefly describe three of the top computer science programs at U.S. universities for becoming a software engineer.
MIT houses its computer science program in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science department. For aspiring software engineers, the best “course” or educational path within this degree program is Computer Science and Engineering. This course of study focuses on principles of computing, designing computing-based solutions, and applying computer science theory and software development fundamentals.
Students in this program are also highly encouraged to engage in independent study and research for course credit under faculty supervision—an opportunity that gives students the chance to engage in necessary practice.
UCal Berkeley’s Computer Science Bachelor of Arts program takes a broad approach to educating students in computer science. The degree program aims to prepare students for careers in research to long-term technical leadership in industry through study of theories of computation, design and analysis of algorithms, architecture and logic design of computers, and programming languages, among other highly relevant skills.
Even though this is a “broader” Computer Science degree, students do have the option to take specific courses about software engineering. Berkeley also has a software engineering bootcamp program that allows students to learn software engineering without pursuing a four-year degree.
The Computer Science degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is housed within the Engineering Department. For future software engineers, the B.S. in Computer Science is the best degree option at this school. It’s also recommended that students who want to be software engineers complete the Software Engineering Certificate in addition to the four-year bachelor’s degree.
The certificate program requires students take additional courses in subjects like systems programming, distributed systems, and programming language design. The goal is for students to gain a more in-depth understanding of software engineering to help jumpstart their careers after they graduate.
How to Become a Software Engineer: Recap
Our overview of how to become a software developer has probably clued you in to the fact that there are many different entry points into this profession, with tons of hard work and practice along the way. Since we covered so much info, we’ll give you a recap of the most important details for how to become a software developer below:
- Research areas of specialization and determine what programming languages and skills you want to learn.
- Practice, practice, then practice some more!
- Choose an educational path, whether it’s a twelve-week coding bootcamp or a four-year degree in Computer Science.
- Pursue certifications based on your research on what different employers require.
- Network with software engineers in your local area or at companies you plan to apply to.
- Apply for jobs, prepare for interviews, and practice lots of whiteboarding.
Participating in computer science competitions can really show admissions counselors that you’re serious about a career in computer science. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the 11 best computer science competitions for teens.
You’ll also need a great GPA if you want to get into your dream school. But what makes for a great GPA, anyway? Don’t worry: this article can help you figure out the GPA you need to get in.
A few engineering programs may require you to take SAT Subject Tests as part of your application process. Here’s everything you need to know about SAT Subject Tests.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.