Software Developer vs. Software Engineer: What Are the Differences in These Roles

Written by Coursera • Updated on

How do software developer duties differ from those of software engineers? Explore which career path is best suited for your interests and learn how to get started.

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Pursuing a career as either a software engineer or software developer can be exciting and rewarding. While the jobs are similar, the skills and interests that make them a good fit for the roles differ significantly.

Software developers design specific computer systems and application software. Software engineers work on a larger scale to design, develop, and test entire computer systems and application software for a company or organization—software development is a subset of software engineering. 

Understanding each role in the workplace 

Software engineers tend to be in more collaborative roles in the workplace, while software developers may find themselves working in a more independent environment. Either of these careers may take place in an office workplace or remotely. People in these roles may work as company employees or independent contractors. 

A software engineer may work with many different people on a team, including other engineers and developers. Individuals working in this role may also work with users to determine software needs. 

Software developers work with other developers and programmers on a limited basis. A lot of a developer's work involves working with applications or operating systems more than other people. 

Both roles are critical to the infrastructure of a company and their work affects the performance of software systems, applications, and network systems. 

Discover the skill set differences

There are a lot of crossovers when looking at the skill sets of software developers compared to software engineers since both jobs involve creating and developing systems and applications. Software developers and software engineers should be analytical, strong problem solvers, able to troubleshoot, and be good communicators. However, some differences are important to note if you’re trying to decide which career path is best for you. 

Learn the skills of a software developer 

  • Proficiency in popular programming languages like Python, Java, C++, and Scala

  • Ability to write and test code

  • Creativity 

  • Ability to look at the big picture and small steps along the way 

  • Presentation skills

  • Familiarity with cross-browser compatibility

  • Proficient in developing responsive web designs

  • Ability to work on front-end application development 

  • Knowledge of algorithms and data structures 

  • Time management skills 

Learn the skills of a software engineer 

  • Extensive knowledge of a wide range of programming languages 

  • Proficient in software development and computer operating systems 

  • Proficient in advanced mathematics 

  • Ability to apply engineering principles to software creation 

  • Leadership skills 

  • Ability to debug software and systems

  • Ability to create scalable domain-specific pipelines and languages

  • Ability to create the tools needed to develop software

  • Project management skills 

Explore the differences in career paths

The main difference in career paths for software engineers compared to those of software developers is that software developers tend to have more flexibility and variety. Software developers may also be able to work remotely or in a freelance position easier than a software engineer. Career paths for software engineers could result in overseeing a team of people within a company and requiring more teamwork than software development positions. 

Software developers can choose a few different trajectories that aren’t as linear as engineers. Developers who want to work in a managerial position may get started as a junior developer before becoming a senior software developer. 

Developers who don’t want to manage others may stay in this role and pursue a specific type of development like front-end, back-end, full-stack, or mobile development. 

If you’re interested in management positions, you can choose to pursue a career as a lead developer or technical architect or information technology (IT) systems architect who creates, maintains, and implements IT systems for a business. If following this path, the next step could likely be as a development team lead or software development manager, and finally director, vice president, or chief technology officer. 

Opportunities for software engineers—what and when

Up to three years—software engineers just entering the profession might spend up to three years building, launching, and debugging systems or applications as entry-level software engineers. 

Three to five years—the next step is senior software engineer, where you might branch out into overseeing other engineers. 

Six to nine years—from here, you may want to move into a tech lead position, which requires between six and nine years of experience. This is a managerial role, so you’ll likely have a team of people to manage. 

13+ years—at this point, as an engineering manager or VP of engineering you may have ownership over processes or products. Individuals in these roles usually have upwards of 13+ years of experience in the industry. They can potentially have the opportunity to become a chief technology officer (CTO)—the highest technology executive position in a company. These individuals are in charge of an organization's research and development (R&D) and oversee an entire organization’s technological needs.

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The job outlook for each field

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics places both software designers and software engineers in the same category when assessing the job outlook for each field. 

Employment of software developers and software engineers is projected to grow 22 percent from 2020 to 2030. About 189,200 openings for software developers, software engineers, and related jobs are projected each year, on average, over the decade [1]. 

The future looks promising for these career paths as demand builds for the skills and knowledge of both software developers and engineers. As technology advances and the need for innovative software grows, so does the need for people who can design, create, build, and implement computer systems and applications software. 

The salary range for each field 

The median annual base salary for software developers working in the US is $73,659 a year, with a range between $51,000 and $112,000 a year [2]. The median annual base salary for software engineers working in the United States is $88,653 and a range of between $64,000 and $139,000 a year [3]. 

Factors such as location, industry, and company can all play a role in salary. For example, software developers in California have a mean salary of $137,620, while developers in Massachusetts have a mean salary of $119,630 [4]. The level of experience is another important factor when it comes to salary. 

Pursuing certification or degrees

As of 2022, 73 percent of software engineers and software developers working in the US have earned a bachelor’s degree, and 20 percent have a master’s degree [5]. 

An associate degree in industrial IT or computer science can provide access to some entry-level jobs, but a bachelor's degree is often the standard minimum education requirement for software engineers. Earning a master’s degree allows you to pursue research, management, and information security careers.

For software developers, most employers may require a degree in software development or other areas such as computer science, computer programming, and related disciplines. As with software engineering, a master’s degree in software development might improve your chances of pursuing management positions. 

Read more: Bachelor’s Degree Guide: Resources for Your Undergraduate Education

Pursuing certifications is an effective way for working professionals to expand their knowledge base. Many software development and engineering careers even require certifications before working with certain software projects. These certifications provide verification that you know enough about the software to work with it. 

Common certifications offered to software engineers and software developers are: 

  • Oracle 

  • Microsoft 

  • IBM 

  • Cloud computing 

  • Cybersecurity 

How Coursera can help 

On Coursera, you’ll find certifications, Specializations, and Guided Projects specifically designed for software developers and software engineers seeking to further their knowledge and advance their careers. 

Certifications can build your reputation within your field, possibly leading to overall greater job satisfaction as you grow into a highly sought-after professional in your industry. On Coursera, you can find these popular certifications and Specializations: Data Structures and Algorithms Specialization, Python for Everybody Specialization, and Google IT Automation with Python Professional Certificate

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specialization

Data Structures and Algorithms

Master Algorithmic Programming Techniques. Advance your Software Engineering or Data Science Career by Learning Algorithms through Programming and Puzzle Solving. Ace coding interviews by implementing each algorithmic challenge in this Specialization. Apply the newly-learned algorithmic techniques to real-life problems, such as analyzing a huge social network or sequencing a genome of a deadly pathogen.

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specialization

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Learn in-demand skills like Python, Git, and IT automation to advance your career

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm.” Accessed May 25, 2022.

2. Payscale. “Average Software Developer Salary, https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Software_Developer/Salary.” Accessed May 25, 2022.

3. Payscale. “Average Software Engineer Salary, https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Software_Engineer/Salary.” Accessed May 25, 2022.

4. US News and World Reports. “Best Jobs: Software Developer Salary, https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/software-developer/salary.” Accessed May 25, 2022.

5. Zippia. “Software Engineer Demographics And Statistics In The US, https://www.zippia.com/software-engineer-jobs/demographics/.” Accessed Accessed May 25, 2022.

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