Software developer vs engineer: key career differences

Updated 31 May 2023

If you're interested in a career in software development, it can be helpful to understand the various roles in the field. Software developers and engineers are two common positions in this field that are similar but have some key differences. If you're considering one of these positions, learning more about those differences can help ensure that you seek the right training and that you're choosing the best match for your career goals and skills. In this article, we outline the main differences between a software developer vs engineer, including their primary duties, skills, qualifications and work environments.

Software developer vs engineer

To understand the difference between a software developer vs engineer, it's important to first understand the definition of each term. These terms refer to two distinct roles in software development. Software developers focus on the implementation of software applications, using programming languages and software tools to write code and create functional software. They typically have expertise in coding and primarily concentrate on the practical aspects of software development.

Engineers focus more on the design and architecture of software systems and consider factors such as scalability, maintainability and reliability. They may participate in project management, testing and documentation of software projects. While there's some overlap between the two roles, software engineering is usually a more senior and specialised position.

Related: Software designer roles and responsibilities (With skills)

What is a software developer?

A software developer is a professional who designs, creates, tests and maintains software applications. They use programming languages such as Java, Python or C++ to write code and build software that meets the needs of businesses or individuals. Software developers work closely with clients, end-users and other developers or engineers to understand their requirements and develop software solutions that are user-friendly and effective. They may specialise in developing mobile apps, web applications or desktop software.

Related: Senior software engineer interview questions (With answers)

Software developer duties

To better understand the purpose of a software developer, consider the following duties that are typical of the position:

  • Analysing user requirements: software developers work closely with clients and end-users of the software or application to understand their needs and requirements. They analyse these requirements to determine the best way to design and develop software solutions that meet those needs.

  • Designing software applications: based on user requirements, software developers design software applications. They determine the overall architecture of the software, create algorithms and develop data structures.

  • Writing code: software developers use programming languages to write code that creates the software application. They ensure that the code is complete, consistent and error-free.

  • Testing software applications: after writing code, software developers test the software application to ensure that it functions as intended and meets quality standards. They use various testing techniques such as unit testing, integration testing and system testing.

  • Debugging software applications: when developers find bugs or errors during testing, they debug the software application to fix the problem. They use debugging tools to identify and fix issues in the code.

  • Maintaining software applications: once the developer releases the software, they're responsible for maintaining and updating them. They may also provide technical support to end-users who encounter problems while using the software.

Related: Software engineering FAQs (With salary and explanations)

Software developer skills

Software developers need many crucial skills, including:

  • Proficiency in programming languages: software developers have expertise in at least one programming language but are typically proficient in multiple languages.

  • Problem-solving skills: software development involves solving complex problems. Software developers can analyse requirements, identify potential issues and form creative solutions to those problems.

  • Attention to detail: writing code requires a high level of attention to detail to ensure it's accurate and free of errors. Developers typically have strong analytical skills to identify details that others might miss.

  • Communication skills: software developers communicate with clients, end-users and other developers, requiring strong communication skills. They often explain complex technical concepts for non-technical audiences, requiring a strong understanding of how to translate such information in a way that anyone can comprehend.

  • Collaboration skills: software development is typically a collaborative effort. Software developers frequently work effectively in teams, communicate with team members and share their expertise and knowledge.

  • Technical proficiency: developers understand the basic operations of computer systems and have technical expertise in troubleshooting and using software, development programmes and other tools on a computer system.


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Software developer qualifications

The qualifications for a software developer typically include a bachelor's degree in computer science, software engineering or a related field. Alternatively, some software developers may have completed a technical certification programme or have gained relevant work experience in the field. Many employers also require software developers to have experience working with specific programming languages or technologies, such as cloud computing platforms.

Work environment

Software developers typically work in an office environment, either on-site or remotely. They may work independently or as part of a team. The work environment is often fast-paced and may involve tight deadlines and shifting priorities. The position can require full or part-time hours.

What is a software engineer?

A software engineer is a professional who applies engineering principles to design, develop and maintain software systems. They use their knowledge of programming languages, algorithms and computer systems to create software that meets the needs of clients and end-users. Software engineers are involved in the entire software development lifecycle, from requirements gathering and design to coding, testing, deployment and ongoing maintenance. Engineers are typically senior members of the development team, focusing on architecture and integrating software and hardware.

Related: What do software engineers do? (Including duties and skills)

Software engineer duties

Software engineers have many duties, including:

  • Integrating software and hardware: engineers help unite software and hardware by coordinating with hardware engineers to determine the parameters of each system and what coding language and functionality may be necessary to ensure the software functions with its intended hardware.

  • Leading development teams: since engineers typically serve a senior or junior role on the development team, they often lead the team or a group of other engineers and developers during the process.

  • Developing and testing software: software engineers use their knowledge of programming languages and computer systems to develop software applications. They also test their software to ensure that it's free of errors and bugs.

  • Designing software architecture: software engineers design the architecture of software systems. This involves identifying the components of the system, their interactions and their dependencies. Software engineers also design the interfaces between components to ensure that they're interoperable and maintainable.

  • Optimising software performance: software engineers optimise the performance of their software to ensure that it meets the functional and performance requirements of the project. This may involve profiling the software to identify areas for optimisation and implementing changes to improve performance.

Software engineer skills

Software engineers need various skills to perform their job duties, including:

  • Knowledge of software development methodologies: software engineers typically have experience working with various software development methodologies, such as Agile, Waterfall or DevOps. They understand the principles and practices of each methodology and can apply them to their work.

  • Software development tool skills: software engineers are usually proficient in using software development tools, such as integrated development environments, version control systems and testing frameworks.

  • Time management: software engineers can manage their time effectively to meet project deadlines. They prioritise tasks, delegate work to others if necessary and can work efficiently under pressure.

  • Programming proficiency: software engineers are typically proficient in multiple programming languages, as they may use one or more in a single project. They also understand how to apply these languages in different programmes and software for the best results.

  • Continuous learning: software engineering is an evolving field, so software engineers commit to continuous learning. They learn new programming languages, tools and methodologies and stay updated with the latest trends and best practices in software development.

Related: Developers vs programmers (With differences and salaries)

Software engineer qualifications

Typically, software engineers have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in software engineering, but many have graduate degrees. Since engineer positions are often senior positions in a development team, employers typically prefer candidates with leadership or project management experience. Experience with programming or software development and professional certifications in specific software or programming platforms may make you a more desirable candidate and allow you to get better positions.

Work environment

The work environment of a software engineer can vary depending on the company and industry they work in. Many software engineers work in an office environment, either at a company's headquarters or at a satellite office. Some software engineers work remotely. Software engineers can work full time, part time or on a contract basis. They may work independently or as part of a team, collaborating with other engineers, designers and project managers.

Which career is right for you?

Deciding whether software engineering or development is a better career fit depends on several factors, including personal interests, skills and career goals. Software development typically focuses on designing and writing code to create software applications, while software engineering involves applying engineering principles to the entire software development lifecycle, including design, development, testing and maintenance. If you enjoy writing code and have a strong foundation in programming languages, software development may be a better fit for you. If you enjoy problem-solving, system design and working on large-scale projects, software engineering may be a better fit.

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