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.
Written by Genevieve Carlton, Contributor

If you have a passion for computers and coding, perhaps you've wondered how to become a software engineer. The BLS reports that software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers positions will see 22% employment growth from 2020-30. 

Even more good news: This high-responsibility role is more attainable than you may think.

A software engineer designs, builds, and maintains computer applications. They may oversee a team of software developers writing code. Software engineering careers generally start with specialized education, professional certification, and training. However, there is no single "right" pathway you need to follow to enter this dynamic career field.

Read on for our primer on what software engineers do, what niches they specialize in, and how to become one.

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. 

Comparing software engineers vs. web developers and other programmers, software engineers need broader knowledge and mastery of more coding languages. 

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 engineering jobs are typically full-time and may be in-office or remote.

Summary of the steps to become a software engineer -- identical to the section headings below.
Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

How do I become a software engineer?

Software engineers invest years building the technical skills and knowledge required for their careers. You must also build a portfolio, craft a resume, and gain professional experience. 

This section offers a step-by-step guide to becoming a software engineer. 

1. Determine your software engineering career path.

Software engineering offers plenty of specialized professional paths, including:

  • Game engineer
  • Quality assurance engineer
  • CRM engineer
  • Software integration engineer

You can find a great career based on the skills you develop as you study software engineering. For instance, if you discover you like figuring out how to fix problems in software, a quality assurance engineer role might fit you well.

Keep your dream employers in mind when building your portfolio/skills. For instance, if you want to work for Amazon, develop your skills in CRM engineering and quality assurance.

Also, consider your ideal work life, including minimum salary, company culture, and working at an office vs. working remotely.

2. Learn skills through degrees, coding bootcamps, or certificates.

Software engineers enter the job market through several avenues. 

Most employers expect entry-level software engineers to hold a bachelor's computer science degree, a software engineering degree, or a degree in a closely related field. 

A bachelor's degree typically takes four years. ABET accredits software engineering programs.

Or, you can take a coding bootcamp. These accelerated programs train learners in key programming languages and platforms. A coding bootcamp typically takes 12-24 weeks. This may be a good fit if you're changing careers or don't want to spend the time and money on a degree. 

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

Software engineering programs typically teach these computer programming languages:

  • Java
  • Python
  • C/C++
  • JavaScript

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

3. Take on programming projects and build your portfolio. 

Next, you need to build a coding portfolio. A coding portfolio is a website that displays your credentials and professional experience to employers. You will need to include:

  • Education
  • Certifications
  • Programming projects
  • Samples of your work in the form of screenshots

Your portfolio should evolve as you work. You can even start building your portfolio before you've found your first job. You can use samples of extracurricular work or original graphics and animations you have programmed.

4. Create your resume and apply to your first software engineering job.

Build your resume and start scouring job search sites next. Indeed and Glassdoor offer the most listings, but tech-specific search engines like JustTechJobs can narrow your search. 

Your resume should include:

  • Programming languages
  • Specialization areas
  • Education
  • Professional certifications

Tailor your resume to individual job listings' keywords/expectations. Check out our guide on perfecting your job application.

Competition at tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon is fierce, so consider applying to internships and smaller startups to gain early career experience.

5. Advance your career by earning certifications and continuing your education.

A professional certification may help you stand out on the job market and demonstrate specialized skills as you seek more advanced positions.

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.

The best tech certifications for software engineers include: 

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

Credentials typically remain valid for several years before requiring renewal.

Another way to advance your technology career is earning a graduate degree, such as a software engineering master's degree.

You know how to become a software engineer. Now what?

Now that you have a better idea of how software engineering careers typically start, get ready to make your passion a reality!

Consider joining your university's computer club or online communities like CodePen, JSFiddle, and Github. With community support on top of education and training, you've got a solid foundation to pursue your career plans.

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