Software engineers and web developers' work intersects frequently, but the two professions differ in important ways. Software engineers come from a rigorous technical background, while web developers specialize in web-based platforms.
Few tech professions are more frequently confused than web developers and software engineers. To a layperson, they sound close to synonyms. In reality, these two job titles relate to different skills, work environments, and end products.
Read on to learn how to distinguish web development from software engineering, and what skills and education you will need to jumpstart a career in either field.
What do software engineers do?
Software engineers create software products that meet the specifications of operating systems, networks, and hardware. It is thanks to software engineers that we have software for word processing, organizing information, and games.
To work as a software engineer you typically need knowledge of computer science, mathematics, and a wide array of programming languages.
Software engineering encompasses researching and developing new software programs and systems, writing and testing computer code, and evaluating software products for user experience and operational efficiency. A software engineer's knowledge and skills often include computer science specializations such as machine learning, database systems, and robotics.
You can commonly find software engineers in the technical departments of computer systems design, software publishing, and management-related companies. They usually work full time, focusing on maintenance of existing software, research into user needs, and long-term projects in new software development.
What do web developers do?
Web developers build and maintain websites and other applications for web-related platforms. You can thank web developers for writing the code that allows websites and mobile applications to work properly.
There are two main types of web developer: frontend and backend. Frontend web developers write the code that creates the interface users encounter. Backend developers specialize in code infrastructure that delivers data and services to the front end.
Becoming a web developer requires basic computer literacy and knowledge of common programming languages such as Python, C++, and Java. These professionals should be familiar with user experience, graphic design, and database management concepts.
The most common employers of web developers are marketing and IT-related.
Web developers work part or full-time, often as freelancers. On a typical day they may juggle multiple projects, including creating layouts or wireframes, writing code, and integrating backend data from various sources.
Comparing software engineers and web developers
Web development has lower education requirements than software engineering -- it's one of the most important differences between the two. Read on to learn about the distinctions in these two career paths.
To become a software engineer, you typically need at least a bachelor's in computer science. Some employers may prefer candidates with a master's or higher. Software engineers are highly skilled professionals with foundational knowledge of computer science, math, and programming languages.
Bootcamps are often touted as a college alternative, but for software engineers, they can be a mixed bag. Completing a bootcamp can add to one's skills but cannot replace the technical background software engineers need.
Web developers often need little more than an associate degree in web development, computer science, or graphic design to enter the field. While a computer science major is a plus, it is not essential.
The lower threshold for becoming a web developer also means that coding bootcamps can give you the programming skills you need. One bootcamp and you might be ready for the job market.
Software engineers make top wages in exchange for their technical skills and knowledge.
In 2020, the median annual wage for software engineers was over $110,000. Top employing industry such as software publishing and manufacturing pay even more. At the highest levels of experience, software engineers can make $200,000 yearly.
Web developers do well in terms of salary, but not quite as well as software engineers. The median annual wage for web developers in 2020 was around $77,000.
These salary expectations make web developers one of the best occupations with lower educational barriers to employment. In fact, 10% of web developers make more than $124,000 annually.
Job growth and employment demand
Software engineers have a very positive job outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that software engineer employment will grow by 22% by 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
As technology advances, more industries rely on software. This requires engineers who can develop and test new kinds of software to solve emerging problems.
Web developers are also in high demand. BLS data estimates that web developer employment will grow by 13% by 2030, above the average for all occupations.
Mobile apps and other web-based applications are essential to marketing, financial services, and retail, so web development skills are valuable.
Certifications can help you stay ahead in the software engineering field by verifying your knowledge of programming languages, contemporary computer science issues, and industry standard tools. Some essential software engineering certifications include:
You can expect to pay around $150-$300 for most software engineer professional certifications. Software engineering credentialing usually also requires several years' experience.
Web development certifications allow you to increase your pay grade, role, and skillset. Professional credentialing can help you graduate from freelance work to a salaried position. Popular web developer certifications include:
While credentialing requirements for web development are relatively lax, it is still common for web developers to seek certification to stay competitive.
Next steps on the career ladder
Software engineers have leg room to advance in their field. Extensive software engineering experience can lead to a higher-paid leadership position as a senior software engineer or software engineering manager. However, you can also use software engineering as a launch pad to advancing your technology career elsewhere.
Some software engineers switch careers to become computer or data scientists. Still others use their industry experience to become product managers or upper management in computer systems-related companies. It all depends on your career goals.
Web developers can advance by specializing. User experience researchers and game developers often make more than a low-level web developer. Some developers eventually work as web content managers overseeing web developers.
Web development's multifaceted nature gives an in to different areas within tech, including software engineering, information systems management, and database administration. Mastery of graphic design and workflow management might lead to work as an art director or project manager.
Which is right for me: software engineering or web development?
Though web development and software engineering share common ground, the two careers cater to different interests and strengths. Keep these differences in mind when choosing your career path.
Software engineers generally need an aptitude for math and logical thinking, plus an interest in computer science. Even an entry-level software engineer usually knows several programming languages.
In contrast, web developers do not need the high educational level and stronger technical background required for software engineering. These professionals succeed by combining computer literacy and basic programming skills with design and user experience concepts.
Can a software engineer be a web developer?
A web developer is technically a software engineer who works on web-based applications. Some trained and educated software engineers may choose to work in this field.
Is a software engineer the same as a software developer?
Some employers refer to software engineers as software developers. The two terms "developer" and "engineer" are used interchangeably in this context.
Can I work from home as a web developer?
Some web developers may be able to work from home, especially if they work as freelancers. Since their work is web-based, it may not be necessary for them to work in an office environment.
Can I work from home as a software engineer?
Software engineers usually need to commute to work and work closely with a team. They often need quick feedback on projects, which is easier to gather in an office setting.