Nowadays, you would be hard-pressed to find a profession as rewarding or exciting as those in the tech sector. None stand out more than the software engineer and software developer among the most common, popular, and lucrative careers available within the tech sector. They are two remarkably similar positions that, when analyzed more closely, are quite different from each other, contrary to popular belief. 

Even though individuals entering either of these professions often find themselves overseeing software and system design, a software engineer is expected to work more broadly. They are involved not only in architecture and construction but ultimately in the testing of whole platforms and systems on behalf of their employer.

Demand for Software Developers and Software Engineers Continues to Grow

According to a report from Hired, one of the leading tech industry employment websites, 2021 brought a whopping 100% increase in overall demand for those in the software engineering field. That trend will likely continue upward throughout 2022 and even beyond.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, our current labor market's existing need for software developers is also rising. The bureau now estimates that, within the next ten years, the industry will see a 25 percent growth in the need for software developers.

Across the entire tech job sector, specifically regarding software developer and engineer positions, the push for additional workers continues to trend upward, signaling excellent news for anyone interested in one of these fields.

However, for anyone considering either of these career paths, it is important to understand that there are unique distinctions between the two positions, from the interests that drive candidates into each field to the particular skill sets that are ultimately required to fill the role.

This article tackles key queries surrounding the common debate about the many differences between these incredibly popular tech-industry jobs. It will describe the key variables of each one and discuss what each potential candidate will need to consider if they embark upon any career path that leads them in one direction or another.

Software Developer vs. Software Engineer: Key Differences in Job Requirements and Salaries

Software developers will use their education, capabilities, and specialized skill sets to construct, revise, and fix applications and software before they make their way to consumers. Throughout the process, they will be expected to document and thoroughly test all aspects of the project.

At a bare minimum, the software developer must have a clear understanding of java,, Python, and C# to stay relevant and remain successful in their field. However, it will take a heck of a lot more than just basic knowledge of coding principles and programming for an individual to become a thriving software developer.

An integral aspect of a software developer's job description involves being active in every part of the overall life cycle of whichever system or application they work on. That includes having a hand in all of a project's initial research and development phases, right on through to the final testing and launch phases.

Although their responsibilities and obligations might be wide-ranging and quite varied, it's not uncommon for software developers to focus on some specific niche market at one point or another in their career and ultimately make their mark within that niche area. For example, you might find a software developer who exclusively works in the field of mobile application development. In contrast, other software developers may remain explicitly focused only on developing IoT platforms.

There are differences in the pay scales for software developers versus software engineers

Payscale, which represents one of the most popular, well-respected compensation research and data firms, reports the following:

  • A software developer's median annual base salary is $74,136, within a pay scale of $52,000 to $108,000.
  • A software engineer's median annual base salary is $89,086, within a pay scale of $65,000 to $131,000.

Regardless of where the software developer or software engineer's salary may fall within the scale, several distinct factors ultimately determine their annual salaries. 

These factors include:

  •  the employer that they work for
  •  the specific industry that they work in
  •  their personal experience and education level
  •  the geographic location where they live and work

Ultimately, the gap that seems to exist between the salary of the average software engineer compared to that of the average software developer can be best explained by the significant variations within each one's specific job functions.

Since a software developer essentially is an individual that belongs to a subset of the overarching software engineering industry, it is the software engineer who will understandably find themselves located on top of the software engineering food chain. Thus, the software engineer will command a higher salary every time.

Software engineers have very different job descriptions than software developers

The responsibilities of an individual who chooses to become a software engineer will extend far beyond those that someone with simple tech knowledge and computer savvy can handle. Software engineers need the background and skill to apply best practice engineering principles when creating systems and programs.

Software engineers also must be effective communicators that can easily interact and communicate with all stakeholders involved in any project they are involved with. Those stakeholders will include coders, users, and everyone else who might be a team member or otherwise crucial to the overall process.

Therefore, there is an inherent need for a software engineer to possess a much broader skill set compared to the average software developer. Software engineers also must have the unique talent necessary to successfully bring analysis, assessment, and scaling to any process or project they may undertake.

The workplace can look different for a software developer versus a software engineer

The software engineer always plays a much more collaborative part in a workplace setting when compared to a software developer.

The developer will likely find him or herself in a situation where they will operate more independently, either as a company's full-time employee, tackling projects on their own, or even as an independent contractor, working remotely.

On the other hand, software engineers literally need to be team players in the workplace. That's because it is essentially part of every software engineer's job description and perhaps the most important aspect of their role in the workplace. The individual will be required to work with many different people, from software developers to other software engineers, all of whom will likely possess different degrees of knowledge, understanding, familiarity, and skill. Software engineers may also find themselves in a situation where they work directly with end users.

Conversely, software developers only work in team settings on a very limited basis, at least when compared to a software engineer. If you're a loner type, a software engineering position might not be your thing, and you should consider a position as a software developer.

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Software Developer vs. Software Engineer: Specific Education Requirements and Options

According to common consensus and evidence, individuals can only realize their dream of becoming a successful software developer or software engineer if, at a minimum, they obtain a Bachelor's degree in computer science, information technology, software engineering, or some other similar area of study.

Although getting an Associate's degree can, in some rare instances, help an individual secure some entry-level position within the field, a Bachelor's degree will always be your best bet, especially if you want to be successful in these competitive fields.

Consider the educational breakdown from the information provided by the popular employment data-gathering firm, Zippia.

The company found the following:

  • 73% of current software engineers graduated with a Bachelor's degree in a related field of study.
  • 20% of existing software engineers graduated with a Master's degree in a related field of study.
  • 4% of current software engineers graduated with an Associate's degree.

Stats for software developers are similar:

  • 72% of current software engineers graduated with a Bachelor's degree in a related field of study.
  • 20% of existing software engineers graduated with a Master's degree in a related field of study.
  • 5% of current software engineers graduated with an Associate's degree.

Some nontraditional education providers offer coursework within these exciting fields, but you should beware of such programs. Although these options are less expensive and seem more accessible, the harsh reality is that these programs can never replace college or university degrees as common prerequisites for securing a quality, well-paying position within the software or tech industry.

On the other hand, certification programs can hold incredible value for those currently working as software developers or engineers. Through certification programs, you can increase your knowledge and overall expertise. Certification programs can also be a prerequisite for certain jobs, promotions, or projects you are being considered for.

Certification programs are easily accessible and readily available, covering a host of topics, including certification in the use of popular software solutions such as IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle and within niche fields associated with the industry, such as cybersecurity or cloud computing. 

Software Developers, Software Engineers, and How Their Career Paths Are Similar Yet Different

A major difference that separates the career path that candidates will each take on their journey is that the software developer is typically an individual who thrives on flexibility, diversity, and independence, especially in a workplace setting. On the other hand, those who venture down a career path toward becoming a software engineer will be someone who thrives in a team or a group environment.

Along the career path, software engineers eventually become leaders or managers. Still, in every situation, they always find themselves required to work in tandem with many other individuals within a much larger group structure. Often software engineers work in traditional office environments. In short, the software engineer's career path is linear, while the developer's path typically follows various trajectories within their chosen field across the complete landscape that becomes their career.

The software developer's career path is exciting and varied

None of this means that a software developer will not have the same opportunity as a software engineer to enter into a management position or climb the ladder within their chosen field. In fact, it is common for a software developer to start in their profession working as a junior software developer and moving up toward the position of senior developer.

Software developers, especially individuals with no desire to take on any management position in their respective fields, may remain in their job and continue to pursue specialized software development roles, concentrating on niche job opportunities.

Anyone wishing to follow their career path to reach the highest-level positions available in software development should look into jobs like lead developer and systems architect. Typically, these individuals are ultimately charged with designing, maintaining, and implementing IT systems. Anyone embarking on this particular career path might end up as a team leader, software development manager, director, or Vice President of development.

The software engineer's career path always seems to point upward

The common career path of a typical software engineer is usually measured by the experience they have gained throughout their many years climbing the ladder and furthering themselves through continued education and added experience.

Software engineers in an entry-level position, just as they are starting out, might ultimately expect to maintain such a position for a minimum of three to five years before becoming a senior software engineer, which would entail tackling a wide range of management duties and overseeing all of the daily work of their other team members.

Somewhere in their sixth through their ninth year, that individual might be ready to jump into a job role with more responsibility, like a tech lead, primarily charged with managing and overseeing an entire team on their own.

Once the individual has completed about thirteen years in a software engineering position, it's not uncommon for most successful individuals to land even more serious, lucrative jobs like software engineering manager or VP.

Successful software engineers who dedicate their careers to hard work, building institutional awareness, and enhancing individual skill sets might even secure a Chief Technology Officer position. That job represents the highest tech executive position available in most markets and sectors. A Chief Technology Officer is charged with the important task of overseeing a company's research and development as well as managing all its technology needs.

A successful software engineer might even find their career path leads them to a place where they have an opportunity to take ownership, or at least partial ownership, over the company's products or specific processes.

Software Developers vs. Software Engineers: Your Key Takeaways

Software developers and software engineers are in high demand, and that trend is expected to continue

Future employment prospects among individuals who choose a career as either a software developer or a software engineer continue to seem incredibly bright. That is primarily because there is a seemingly never-ending demand for the talent, experience, and expertise that only an educated software developer or software engineer brings to an organization.

From an employer's perspective, both positions are crucial to a company's overall success.

This continuing demand will no doubt continue to gain traction just as all of the emerging technology around us will continue advancing at lightning speed, making both job functions increasingly valuable for employers across many industries.

A constant, ever-growing push for innovative software solutions means that industries will continue hiring individuals with the skill, institutional experience, and educational background necessary to fill these important roles.

Software developers and software engineers are not the same

Members of the public and even those inside of the tech sector, even in their job postings, conversations, or otherwise, mistakenly confuse "software developers" with "software engineers," using each term as if they were interchangeable. However, it is important to remember that each of these terms and the jobs they represent are not the same.

Yes, similarities do exist, but each one approaches their daily tasks, overall assignments, and the science behind the industry quite differently, regardless of whether we are talking about application development or systems building.

Of course, similarities do exist when we look at particular character traits associated with both positions. Both are incredibly detail-oriented and display truly impeccable problem-solving capabilities. Each shows a certain sensibility combined with a good imagination and a healthy curiosity. Of course, both will undoubtedly excel in the subject of mathematics.

Their technical skills are also, to some degree, going to overlap. However, a software engineer always has more responsibilities within their role when compared to a person working as a software developer. Therefore, they require a far broader and very specific skill set, and they need to display an ability to work in and flourish inside a team environment.  

Both the software developer and the software engineer have much to offer

Although a software engineer is an individual that might easily and will most likely possess the same skillset as someone filling the role of software developer, the opposite doesn't always ring true. Software engineers are far more likely to find themselves in a position where they work on entire systems, which will require them to think about big-picture situations when managing and designing.

There is good news, however, for the software developer who feels inadequate compared to the software engineer. Over time, it is not uncommon for software developers to find new creative job opportunities that will allow them to expand and develop their existing skillset and further their career, eventually finding success by moving into a position as a software engineer.

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David Malan
Account Manager
A specialist in the field of market analysis in such areas as software development, web applications, mobile applications and the selection of potential vendors. Creator of analytical articles that have been praised by their readers. Highly qualified author and compiler of companies ratings.

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Software Developer vs. Software Engineer: Important Differences to Consider