what is a software engineer

A software engineer is a licensed individual with the training to design, develop, implement and maintain software systems and products. As the use of computer software expands, software engineers become more important.

To understand what a software engineer is, we also need to appreciate the development of software itself – from running on the most rudimentary of computers to being the intelligence system behind almost everything we use today.


What is a Software Engineer?

A software engineer understands the code and architecture of a program, and is trained to write programs and amend them as necessary. Software Engineers also need to look beyond what individual programmes do and consider how software can be integrated and extended within the programme’s structure.

Programmer vs Software Engineer

Unlike the traditional programmer, software engineers rarely get involved with the streams of 1’s and 0’s that drive our favourite websites and apps. Instead, they concern themselves with integrating software into products. For easy reference, just remember that programmers create the code while software engineers create and test the environments in which that code lives!

Why are Software Engineers different?

While the process of creating and testing programmes might sound fairly straightforward, it is made more difficult by the complex structure of the systems being utilised. This is because computer or digital environments are generated by the opening and closing of millions of switches, or based on the storage of magnetic data.

Pure mechanical and electrical engineers deal with components that can be seen and touched, therefore design is easier and problems can be solved quicker. This is not the case with software engineers who have to take a whole new approach to fault finding. When you cannot see what the problem is, you have to use a new set of skills to determine what is happening.

Naturally, this means that software engineers must have the right training and skills to be able to do their job properly.

Training is Key

Equipping yourself with the knowledge to carry out detailed software analysis and fault finding takes a combination of good education, excellent problem solving skills, and sheer tenacity.

Typically, software engineers are degree educated and have an interest in computing and computer hardware – after all, software engineering is something that you have to love doing in order to be able to do it properly.

To be a top software engineer, you will need to have:

  • A full understanding of electrical and computing principles
  • A deep understanding of functional problem solving
  • An eagle-eye for coding
  • A respectable level of level of intelligence and ability
  • A high degree of intuition to be able to successfully hunt problems and issues
  • The drive to constantly update their software engineering skills and knowledge

What can a Software Engineer expect to do?

Whereas a programmer writes programs, it’s a little bit more complex for software engineers, who are responsible for working through the entire software lifecycle from implementation and testing, to roll-out of a solution. Software engineers are the experts responsible for enabling software to work and fixing it when it fails.

This means that one day might be spent creating and running test programs, another producing the documentation used by vendors and the public, and yet another day spent ensuring that all conditions have been tested and fault conditions negated.

It might sound straightforward but for complex systems this process can take months or even years to accomplish.

A worthwhile career?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defines software engineers as professionals who apply the principles of engineering to software development, but that is far too simplistic to describe such a wide ranging and hugely important role.

Software engineering is a growing field and as we embed increasingly complex software into an ever greater number of systems, the need for those who understand and can work with the whole product will only increase, and that means that big salaries will always be in the offing.

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