What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 at the 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 more accessible, a career as a software engineer may be 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 systems, software engineers also test, improve, and maintain software built by other engineers. 

"I get excited about anything that involves solving problems, whether it be figuring out how to optimise a certain part of an existing application or entirely coming up with new applications to solve certain needs," says Murtadha Al-Tameemi, a software engineer at Meta. "Problems, in general, stimulate my brain and give me great satisfaction."

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

  • Designing and maintaining software systems

  • Evaluating and testing new software programmes

  • Optimising 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 usually fall into one of two categories: systems developers and application developers. 

As a systems developer (sometimes called a backend engineer), you’ll build 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. As the UK Digital Strategy continues to take effect, the need for software developers is growing rapidly [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 can meet deadlines and deliver a project on time.

Software engineer salary

Working as a software engineer can be challenging and engaging and tends to pay well. According to Glassdoor (May 2024), the annual median salary for a software engineer in the UK is £53,286 [2]. This yearly salary increases with experience, as senior software engineers pull in £71,303 in the UK, and software engineer IVs can expect around £77,272 annually.

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 also require a specific qualification or certification to validate your skills. A university degree, including course topics like software architecture, networking, and software development, is often recommended when entering this field. Generally, you will need between 1 to 3 A levels to enter a university degree programme and 1 or 2 A to enter a high national certificate or higher national diploma degree programme. For a university course, requirements range from 4 or 5 GSCEs with grades 9 to 4 or 1 to 2 A levels. 

However, there are many ways to enhance your skill set. "Although I did have a formal education, taking online classes on how to build mobile apps, doing internships where I work on projects at a company, and trying to build my side projects was the most helpful," says Laila Rizvi, a software engineer at Meta. Taking a coding bootcamp or participating in a relevant apprenticeship is a popular way to build your skills and become ready to enter a job in this industry. Apprenticeships in software development, DevOps engineering, or digital and technology solutions are great options if you are interested in a career in software engineering. You should aim for around 5 GCSEs in grades 9 to 4 to be a competitive applicant for one of these apprenticeships.

Let’s 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 real people's problems. 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

  • Scripting languages such as Perl or Shell

  • Build automation technologies like Maven or Jenkins

  • API building services like REST or SOAP

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 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

Get started with Coursera.

Take the next step in your career as a software engineer by polishing up some essential skills with professional certificates from industry leader Meta. With the Meta Front-End Developer Professional Certificate and Meta Back-End Developer Professional Certificate, you can gain hands-on experience with industry tools.

Article sources


GOV.UK. "UK Digital Strategy, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uks-digital-strategy/uk-digital-strategy#:~:text=We%20are%20rolling%20out%20world,encouraging%20both%20investment%20and%20innovation." Accessed May 13, 2024.

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