What Does a Software Engineer Do?

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You’ve probably heard of software engineering, especially in the context of high-paying careers… but exactly what does a software engineer do?

Software engineers design, build, and test software, of course, but there’s much more to it than that.

If you’ve looked at software engineer job requirements on various online job listings, you might be overwhelmed since no two job posts are really alike. 🤔

Plus, you might see different titles in the mix—is there a difference between “software developer” and “software engineer” jobs!?

Well, it’s true that every software engineer career path can look a little different. There’s no one-size-fits-all “day in the life of a software engineer,” because there are many different types of software engineers!

However, there are a whole bunch of typical tasks you’ll be doing and skills you’ll be using if you decide to go into this field—and we can use those to cobble together a solid idea of what a software engineer does.

Software engineers working

In this post, we’ll be focusing on a few different questions about the average software engineer—what do they do? How much does a software engineer make? What are the different types of jobs under this umbrella? How is the work-life balance of a software engineer? Is it a good career option for you?

And if you like what you hear after we’ve given you those answers, check out this post to find out how to become a software engineer.

Disclosure: I’m a proud affiliate for some of the resources mentioned in this article. If you buy a product through my links on this page, I may get a small commission for referring you. Thanks!

What Is a Software Engineer?

By definition, a software engineer is someone who writes the code behind software products (video games, operating systems, apps, features, robots, etc.). 

Generally, they work with teams of programmers, designers, and other professionals to create software applications that meet specific requirements and solve particular problems. 

Depending on their exact role, the software engineer may be responsible for the entire software development life cycle, from concept and design to coding, testing, and deployment.

Software engineer at work

Software engineer vs. software developer

Is there a difference between a software engineer vs developer? Not really. 🤷 The terms are pretty much used interchangeably, and companies tend to view them as the same thing.

That means when you’re on the hunt for a software engineering job, make sure to search and look at postings for both “software engineer” and “software developer” to get the most results. Some companies even refer to the role as “software development engineer.”

Types of software engineer career paths

The reason why there isn’t just one single answer to “what is a software engineer?” or “what do you do as a software engineer?” is that there are multiple kinds who all do different things!

Let’s get a general idea of what a software engineer does in these six roles: 👇

  1. Front-End Engineer: Implements designs using various front-end coding languages (such as HTML/CSS and JavaScript). They develop anything you see on the front-end of a website or application (e.g., page layout, navigation menus).
  2. Back-End Engineer: Focused on how software and websites work. They write the code that powers the functionality and logic of an application—what they work on is very “behind the scenes” and usually never seen by users. Back-end languages include Python and Java
  3. Full Stack Engineer: Combines both of the above. They work on both the front end and the back end of a website. 
  4. Software Engineer in Test (QA Engineer): Sometimes also called Software Development Engineer in Test (SDET), this role focuses on ensuring code is error-free and working exactly as it should be. 
  5. Mobile developer: As the name suggests, they develop software and apps specifically for mobile apps. Languages include Swift, XCode, and Java.
  6. Software Architect: This is a higher-level role that usually requires many years of experience as a software engineer. They make high-level design choices and decide what processes and technologies the development team should use.

Now, let’s look at some of the typical software engineer requirements and responsibilities that usually overlap among these roles.

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What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Keeping in mind that individual roles vary, what does a computer software engineer do in general?

The list of responsibilities includes:

  • Designing, building, and testing software applications
  • Understanding requirements and solving problems using coding/technology
  • Using programming languages to turn instructions into something a computer can understand
  • Coding software from scratch, or collaborating with a team of software developers, or improve/debug existing code

Working with other professionals, e.g. UX designers, graphic designers, product managers, technical writers, etc.

Man coding

These are the high-level answers, but getting a little more specific, what does a software engineer do on a daily basis? Let’s take a look!

A day in the life of a software engineer

Realistically, the daily life of a software engineer might look something like:

  • 📧 Checking your email and/or Slack messages – See if there are any pressing matters requiring your attention. For example, your teammate may be pushing code and you may need to review it, or you may need to answer questions from other teams, etc.
  • 👨‍💻 Reviewing new GitHub activity – Basically check the status of coding projects you’re collaborating on, updating code if someone requests a change, etc. If any team members have opened an issue, for example, you’d want to respond to it. 
  • 💻 Participate in code reviews – Look over code from coworkers and leave feedback, and vice versa, send your code to others to review
  • 🖥️ Actually code! Start working on any tasks that are assigned to you, a project/app/tool you’re working on, etc. You may be working on bug fixes, tools, scripts, features, internal tools, documentation, etc.
  • 🤔 Spend a lot of time troubleshooting, asking coworkers for help, etc.
  • 🧍 Standup meetings where you talk about what you’re working on with your team: what you did, what you plan on doing, any blocks/challenges you’re facing
  • 🫱‍🫲 Various other meetings – strategy, planning, 1:1s with your manager
  • 👥 You might also do pair programming where you pair up with a teammate and watch each other code
  • 🧠 A lot of learning! As Bryan Knight said on the LTCWM podcast, “It’s literally learning something new every day. It keeps it fresh and exciting. As much of a headache it can be when you’re really trying to build something quickly, it also keeps it very interesting and it forces you to learn in order to progress.”

There you have it—the average day in the life of a computer software engineer!

Like just about any job, there will be some days you enjoy more than others. But if you love coding, solving problems, working with others, and building things, the bad days should be few and far between.

Stand up meeting

Software Engineer Work/Life Balance, Salary, Job Outlook

Beyond the actual work involved, what is the life of a software engineer like? Let’s look at a few of the important questions. 

What is the work life of a software engineer like?

What is it like to be a software engineer as far as the work environment goes? These jobs are often flexible and have great benefits. Typically, you can expect a casual work environment (if you’re working in an office) or remote-friendly opportunities. 

Plus, if this Reddit post shows you anything, it’s that software engineers start at lots of different times and often have the ability to choose their own schedule!

Example schedules from that post alone:

  • The typical 9-5
  • 12pm – 7pm
  • 9am – 3pm
  • 8am – 4pm
  • 10am – 6pm

So if you have family responsibilities or other things to juggle in your life, don’t rule out pursuing the life of a software engineer.

How much does a software engineer make?

Time to talk money! As you probably know, software engineering is not exactly a low-paying career. The average software engineer salary is $108,608 per year in the United States.

💰 The software engineer starting salary tends to be about $66-$70,000/year. As you progress in your career, the salary can grow to a high end of $170-$190,000/year.

Plus, when you consider that you can climb up even higher to roles like software architect, the software engineer career path certainly doesn’t disappoint from a financial standpoint.

Is the software engineer job outlook positive?

📈 The projected percent change in employment from 2021 to 2031 for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers is 25%. That’s huge when compared to the average growth rate for all occupations, which is 5%. It is considered to be growing “much faster than average.”

Skills and Education Software Engineers Need

We won’t get into this too much in this article—that’s what How to Become a Software Engineer is for! But here’s a quick overview to get you started thinking about your options.

Education

Do you need a degree to be a software engineer? No. There are lots of options when it comes to education.

For example, you could go the traditional route and get a 4-year undergrad degree in something like computer science, you could attend a coding bootcamp, or you could be completely self taught with online courses, tutorials, or books. 

Many employers don’t necessarily care how you gained the knowledge, they just want to see that you have the skills required to do the job.

woman coding

Languages

It’s a good idea to choose a core programming language and get really good at it. Software engineers often need to know Python or Java.

It’s really more about knowing how to think like a software engineer and solve problems, rather than the language itself. Once you know a language it makes it easier to learn more. 

If you want a specific direction to go in, you could reverse-engineer job postings to discover what coding languages your dream job at your dream company would need.

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Soft skills

Beyond coding, you need to have certain non-technical soft skills like: 

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • And more

➡️ Check out this post to learn more about non-technical skills for the tech world.

Is Software Engineering Right for Me?

Only you can decide this, but if you enjoy jobs that are equal parts collaboration and independent work, you might enjoy being a software engineer. 

Many people have the misconception that coders just spend all their day in a dark room by themselves coding, but it’s actually a very collaborative profession.

If you like solving complex problems, working with technology, enjoy a challenge, and want to learn new things everyday, this could be a career for you.

It could also be great if you have a logical, analytical mindset that can see all sides of a problem and consider the different factors when brainstorming solutions.

FAQs About Software Engineering

Let’s finish up with a few questions to help you decide whether to pursue the software engineer career path and start learning some skills.

How long does it take to become a software engineer?

It depends on a lot of things, like how much time you can dedicate to studying, how you’re learning, what obligations and responsibilities you have, etc.

We run through lots of possible time frames in How Long Does It Take to Learn Coding?.

⏰ In general, expect around two years or more before you land a full-time job. (That said, you can often start earning money much quicker). 

Does software engineering involve a lot of math?

Yes and no. Programming is about problem solving and logic, and so is math. But overall, it really depends on your industry and specific role. Some software engineers may use a lot of math, some may use more basic mathematical concepts.

Being good at math could be beneficial, but it’s definitely not always a requirement.

Do software engineers work from home?

Software engineering lends itself really well to remote work, so yes, a lot of software engineers work from home. In fact, a recent survey shows that 86% are currently working entirely remotely.

working from home

Next Steps

If you’ve made it this far and want to explore becoming a software engineer/developer, check out my step-by-step guide to becoming a software engineer without a degree.

It maps out the full journey with lots of tips and pointers to help you along the way, to give you the best chance of success.

Or, if you’re not sure the life of a software engineer is for you, have a look at some of my other tech career profiles. There are plenty of options out there! You can also take some free courses to see if you like coding.