How to become a software engineer: A step-by-step analysis
Your curiosity is insatiable — you’ve always been a problem solver, analyzing to get to the root of an issue. You’re the type who loves to understand how things work, and that intrinsic inquisitiveness met its match in technology. From growing up with bulky desktop computers to watching them transition to the sleek handheld devices we use today, your interest has long been piqued by our increasingly digital landscape. And now that you’re scoping out potential careers, technology seems like a natural fit for you.
You’re likely drawn to the growth and job stability a field like technology offers, and if you’ve been looking into these career paths for a while now, you’ve probably come across the prospect of working in software engineering. Even if you think you’d be a good fit for the career, you’ll want to dig into the details and learn exactly how to become a software engineer.
We spoke with a handful of tech experts to learn about what it really takes to land a job in this line of work. Read on to learn from their years of experience in the field and see if software engineering is the right fit for you.
The thought of becoming a software engineer excites you — who wouldn’t want to design and build operating systems, computer applications and network control systems for a living? Software engineers use data structures and algorithms to create gameplay structure within videogames, analyze sport statistics and enhance mobile streaming. They also create application programs, such as games for mobile phones or banking apps. Successful software engineers must be well versed in multiple programming languages and databases, while continuing to develop their expertise throughout their careers.
“The learning will never stop for any software engineer,” explains Alexandra Bohigian of Enola Labs, a software engineering company. “In fact, we always ensure our engineers are learning new languages and programs to keep our team up to date.”
The work of software engineers is based off computer science, engineering and mathematical principles, along with a scientific approach and strict structural foundations. The skills that software engineers develop include design, construction, debugging and configuration management. Their knowledge base is as broad as the industries in which they’re employed — software engineers are needed everywhere, and demand is growing.
Like much of the technology industry, demand for software engineers is strong, projected to grow 24 percent through 2026. That’s more than three times the average rate of growth for all occupations nationwide. And of the job openings posted in the past year, the median salary of software engineers was $110,000*, a figure significantly higher than the median salary of all jobs requiring bachelor degrees, which currently sits at $64,000.**
How to become a software engineer
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for becoming a software engineer. That said, there are two prominent paths that most take when entering into this career.
Multiple avenues can lead to a career in software engineering. The primary path follows the traditional track: an undergraduate degree in computer science or a similar program, plus hands-on experience through an internship. “A computer science degree is typically the gold standard for software engineers and serves as a great base for any career,” Bohigian says.
Aside from computer science, similar majors — such as management information systems and technology management — also fit the bill for software engineering, points out Adam Amrine, owner of Adro Solutions.
Degree programs of this type lay the foundation students need to become software engineers, including systems programming, machine organization and design and analysis in algorithms. Software engineers also need engineering fundamentals such as common algorithms, standard language and technical approach.
Aside from a formal education, hands-on training and internship opportunities also form a critical step for students to get in the workforce. “If someone is going to pursue a career in software development, the best place to start is with a hands-on internship,” Amrine says. “I was hired by the company where I interned before graduating from college. I believe it is most effective way to get a job after graduating. I would suggest students look for and apply to internships as soon as possible.”
Down the line, a software engineer may wish to pursue continued education. Some professionals may opt to gain a master’s degree or certificate in Management Information Systems, which encompasses information system design and maintenance in a business environment, along with IT infrastructure, global e-commerce and systems analysis. With certification, a software engineer can also become licensed, which allows them to handle legal and technical documents directly related to software construction.
While many enter the career with a bachelor’s degree, the field is also home to a number of individuals who are self-taught or have learned through other avenues, including boot camps and online resources.
“To become a successful software engineer, one must have the intrinsic motivation and interest to solve technical problems. Formal education helps, but ultimately those who get hired are those who can do the work, not the credentials behind your name,” offers Kim Desmond, cofounder of CodingNomads.
It is important to note, however, that individuals without an education in computer science may not fully comprehend its fundamentals, such as abstraction layers, data structures and algorithms, explains Mark Herschberg, chief technology officer at ShermansTravel.
“It certainly is possible to become a software engineer without a formal education. For example, someone could go through a coding boot camp,” Amrine suggests. “However, I don’t think you’ll likely get the in-depth knowledge of certain concepts, such as how different algorithms work or how to develop code or databases most efficiently.”
While successful software engineers can emerge from both paths listed above, an analysis of the job postings from the past year revealed a preference for candidates with a formal education. Of the 193,616 software engineer job openings listed, 93 percent required an education of at least a bachelor’s degree. The most commonly sought degrees included computer science, computer engineering and management of information systems.*
It’s also true that employers may want to see examples of your work. They’ll also want to gain a sense of your work ethic and commitment to learning. “I can see certain benefits to contributing to open source projects and creating public repositories in places like GitHub where students can share their work. Some organizations may look at these to see [a candidate’s] coding style,” Amrine explains.
“Software engineers should aim to learn as many languages and programs as possible while in school, while seeking internship experience to specialize in areas that they find the most intriguing,” Bohigian recommends.
It’s clear that a broad knowledge base and demonstrated enthusiasm for learning combined with tactical experience make for an appealing software engineering candidate.
Now that you know the basic requirements of becoming a software engineer, what are you waiting for? Take the first step and begin scoping out strong programs that can set you up for a successful career.
The College of St. Scholastica’s Computer Information Systems program, for example, allows students to select from a variety of interesting concentrations, including software development and business analysis. Students can even customize their concentration, ensuring they study the specialties they’re truly interested in.
You can learn more by checking out our article, “What makes St. Scholastica’s computer information systems degree different from the rest?”
*Source: BurningGlass.com (Analysis of 193,616 software engineer jobs posted between Feb 1, 2017 and Jan 31, 2018)
**Source: BurningGlass.com (Analysis of 6,438,124 jobs seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree between Feb 1, 2017 and Jan 31, 2018)
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