What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Software engineers design and create computer systems and applications to solve real-world problems.

[Featured image] Three software engineers collaborate on a project on their laptop computers in a brightly lit office.

Software engineers, sometimes called software developers, create software for computers and applications. If you’re an analytical thinker who enjoys solving problems and making digital products easier to use, you may find a career as a software engineer rewarding.

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is the branch of computer science that deals with the design, development, testing, and maintenance of software applications. Software engineers apply engineering principles and knowledge of programming languages to build software solutions for end users.


Software engineer tasks and responsibilities

Successful engineers know how to use the right programming languages, platforms, and architectures to develop everything from computer games to network control systems. In addition to building their own systems, software engineers also test, improve, and maintain software built by other engineers. 

In this role, your day-to-day tasks might include:

  • Designing and maintaining software systems

  • Evaluating and testing new software programs

  • Optimizing software for speed and scalability

  • Writing and testing code

  • Consulting with clients, engineers, security specialists, and other stakeholders

  • Presenting new features to stakeholders and internal customers

Systems developer vs. application developer

Software engineers will usually fall into one of two categories, systems developers or application developers. 

As a systems developer (sometimes called a backend engineer), you’ll build things like computer systems and networks that front-end (user-facing) applications will need. You can do this by:

  • Ensuring that different types of software programs communicate with each other on one platform

  • Creating and enforcing IT standards within an infrastructure 

  • Maintaining documentation of IT systems 

  • Updating to new technologies as needed

  • Collaborating with development teams, senior systems architects, and data science professionals 

Working as an application developer is more client-focused. You may work on either the front or back end of the system, designing software that the end user will interact with. Tasks might include:

  • Developing applications for iOS, Android, Windows, or other operating systems

  • Conducting an analysis of requirements and tweaking software as needed

  • Releasing software updates

  • Working with graphic designers, customer service staff, project managers, and other customer-facing departments 

Why should I pursue a career as a software engineer?

If you enjoy solving problems and have strong analytical skills, a career as a software engineer can be both fun and challenging. And as technology continues to evolve, the need for software developers continues to grow (much faster than average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) [1]. 

Choosing a career as a software engineer gives you opportunities to work in many different industries and fields, as nearly all businesses use software. Whether you enjoy finances, entertainment, sports, real estate, or some other industry, there’s a good chance there are jobs for software engineers. 

It’s also a career that allows flexibility in where you work. You may be able to work from home for companies in other states or even other countries. The important thing is that you’re able to meet deadlines and deliver a project on time.

Software engineer salary

Working as a software engineer can be challenging and engaging, and it also tends to pay well. The annual median salary for a software engineer in 2020 was $110,140, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [1]. Jobs in software publishing tend to draw the biggest salaries. 

Career paths in software engineering

Once you become a software engineer, you can choose which path you want to take (applications or systems) and how far you want to progress with it. You can decide to advance toward a role as a senior software engineer, or you can continue gaining certifications and experience to advance to roles like project manager or systems manager. As a software engineer, you have both flexibility and mobility to create the career experience that is most appealing to you. 

How to become a software engineer 

Getting a job as a software engineer typically involves building the right technical and workplace skills. Some jobs might also require a certain degree or certification to validate your skills. Let’s take a closer look at some of the requirements for becoming a software engineer.

Software engineering skills

As a software developer, you’ll be designing software to help solve problems that real people face. This requires a combination of technical know-how and solid communication skills. If you’re considering this as a career, here are some skills you should focus on building:

  • Coding languages like Python, Java, C, C++, or Scala

  • Object-oriented programming

  • Database architecture

  • Agile and Scrum project management

  • Operating systems

  • Cloud computing

  • Version control

  • Design testing and debugging

  • Attention to detail

Software engineering certifications

By earning a certification, you can build new skills and validate those skills to potential employers. Some jobs might require a specific certification, so it’s a good idea to research some job listings of roles you’re interested in before preparing for a certification exam. Here are some common options:

  • Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP)

  • Certified Software Engineer

  • C Certified Professional Programmer (CLP)

  • C++ Certified Professional Programmer (CPP)

  • AWS Certified Developer

  • Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals



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Do I need a degree to be a software engineer?

A bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related degree program is the most common entry-level requirement for software engineers. But a degree isn’t the only path toward a development job. According to a 2020 Stack Overflow survey, 16 percent of surveyed software developers believe that formal education is not at all important or necessary. Another 23 percent believe it’s only somewhat important [2].


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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm." Accessed September 23, 2021.

2. Stack Overflow. "2020 Developer Survey, https://insights.stackoverflow.com/survey/2020#developer-profile-formal-education-importance-professional-developers3." Accessed September 23, 2021.

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