How to become a software engineer: A complete guide

Learn how to become a software engineer and how to determine your tech career path, plus what to expect from software engineering careers and salaries.

Software engineers create and test software programs. The dynamic, engaging career path offers six-figure salaries and high employability.

The tech field is evolving, offering new opportunities for software engineers. Today's software engineers specialize in cutting-edge tech like cloud computing platforms, virtual reality, and gaming. Companies in diverse industries turn to software engineers to solve problems and improve operations.

Becoming a software engineer requires strong technical skills. Many software engineers hold a bachelor's degree in computer science or software engineering. These professionals are valued for their skills and education: The median software engineer salary exceeded $110,000 in 2020.

This guide shows the path to software engineering, from educational options to landing a job. 

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What do software engineers do?

Software engineers develop, design, and test software applications. They apply engineering principles to the process of building software. 

Using programming languages like C++, Java, and Python, they design software for computer applications, mobile apps, cloud platforms, and web applications. They work closely with other tech professionals -- particularly software developers, programmers, and quality assurance specialists -- to make sure programs run smoothly. 

A software engineer's responsibilities often include:

  • Planning the process and approach to creating software

  • Designing models that show the various parts of programs

  • Testing software to identify and correct errors

  • Working with a team of software developers and testers

Software engineers typically work full-time. The largest employers of software engineers and developers include computer systems design companies, software publishers, and manufacturing organizations. 

What's the difference between software engineers and web developers?

Software engineers and web developers both use programming languages, but the positions require different skills and strengths.

Web developers focus on building and maintaining websites. They typically use languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. 

Software engineers focus on quality assurance, testing, and software architecture. Compared with web developers, software engineers often earn higher salaries.

Considerations before starting a software engineering career

Before applying to software engineering programs or bootcamps, you must understand the field and job market. Here are a few key considerations for future software engineers.

  • The U.S. workforce includes around 1.8 million software engineers, software developers, and quality assurance analysts. Between 2020-30, that number is projected to grow by 409,500 positions, much faster than most jobs. 

  • Software engineers can work remotely. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many tech employers moved to remote operations, a trend that will likely continue.

  • The median software engineer salary exceeded $110,000 per year in 2020 -- above the average for computer professionals.

  • Technology continues to evolve. Software engineers must expand their skill sets to remain competitive.

  • Collaboration is an important part of software engineering. Software engineers work closely with teams, which requires strong communication skills.

  • Software engineers can transition into roles like software developer or supervisor with experience.

  • Most software engineers hold a bachelor's degree.

How do I become a software engineer?

Software engineers invest years building the technical skills and knowledge required for their careers. Software engineers must also gain professional experience, build a portfolio, and craft a resume. This section offers a step-by-step guide to becoming a software engineer. 

Learn skills through degrees, coding bootcamps, or certificates

Software engineers enter the job market through several avenues. Most employers expect software engineers to hold a bachelor's degree in computer science, software engineering, or a closely related field. A bachelor's degree typically takes four years. ABET accredits software engineering programs.

Another route is a coding bootcamp. These accelerated programs train learners in key programming languages and platforms. A coding bootcamp typically takes 12-24 weeks. 

In addition to bachelor's degrees and coding bootcamps, software engineers can pursue one-year undergraduate certificate programs.

Software engineering programs teach these main programming languages:

  • Java

  • Python

  • C/C++

  • JavaScript

Software engineers may also learn Ruby, PERL, SQL, or other languages depending on their specialization.

Take on projects, practice skills, and build your portfolio

Projects help software engineers strengthen their skills and showcase their achievements. By building core software engineering skills and creating a portfolio, learners prepare for the job market.

During a software engineering program, students begin to build a portfolio. The portfolio can include class assignments, internship projects, and freelance projects.

As software engineers expand their skills, they can gradually update the portfolio to demonstrate more advanced expertise. Software engineers often display their portfolios on GitHub or a professional website. 

Pursue internships

An internship provides valuable experience and helps software engineering students build a professional network. Internships also help future software engineers specialize in their field. 

Internships make candidates more competitive on the job market. On average, job candidates who complete an internship receive 16% more job offers than those who do not. 

Many computer science and software engineering programs provide internship opportunities for students. Programs connect learners with tech companies hiring interns. Many companies also post internship opportunities on their websites or job boards. 

Determine your software engineering career path

Many different industries and work environments employ software engineers. Software engineers also specialize in areas including modeling and simulation, gaming, and testing.

Before entering the job market, software engineers should consider their interests and strengths. For example, software engineers interested in web applications might consider pursuing web development. Strong problem-solving skills help professionals who specialize in software quality assurance. 

Choosing a focus area early helps software engineers find a good fit and advance their tech careers. 

Earn software engineering certification(s)

A professional certification helps candidates stand out on the job market and demonstrate specialized skills. Many tech companies offer certification in their products. For example, Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce all grant professional certifications. 

Candidates typically need a mix of education and experience to earn their credentials. Most organizations also require a test.

Some common software engineering certifications include:

 Credentials typically remain valid for several years before requiring renewal.

Create your resume and apply for jobs

Software engineers need a strong resume to stand out in the booming field.

A software engineer resume should emphasize technical skills and prior experience. Most resumes include a skills section listing programming languages, software proficiencies, and platforms. Job candidates should also showcase their education and work experience.

In addition to a resume, some employers may ask for a portfolio of previous work. Employers often assess candidates' problem-solving skills and technical knowledge. 

Software engineers can also pursue freelance roles. Companies post freelance and contract positions on their websites or job sites. 

What is the starting salary of a software engineer?

In 2020, the median software engineer salary exceeded $110,000. Starting salaries vary depending on experience, job title, and location.

How long does it take to become a software engineer?

Software engineering careers typically require a four-year bachelor's degree. Some positions require a master's degree. 

Is it hard to be a software engineer?

Successful software engineers bring strong analytical and problem-solving abilities to their roles. The position requires technical skills and an ability to work collaboratively.