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Software Engineers vs. Software Developers

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What is the Difference Between Software Engineers and Software Developers?

There is no agreed-upon distinction between software developers and engineers. Both professionals create, implement and test software, including computer applications and systems management programs, and many colleges and government organizations consider them one and the same. Yet the internet is full of professionals and references debating the terms. This is not an issue in countries in which the “engineer” title is highly regulated, but in nations like the United States, the differences between computer engineers and computer developers are often a matter of perception. The following table addresses the issue head on.

Software Engineering vs. Software Development

Software EngineerSoftware Developer
How do the fields define and differentiate themselves?Software engineers design, create, and test software, including programs for both computer applications and computer systems. According to software professional Daniel Kaplan, the term “engineer” implies one treats software development as a “craft that he is constantly trying to improve” rather than a single job to complete. Software developers also develop, test, and maintain software. While some experts use “software engineer” and “software developer” interchangeably, others suggest software developers focus primarily on software implementation rather than its design. As one expert writes, software engineers are the architects and software developers the contractors.
What degree does one need to enter the field?The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes no distinction between software engineers and developers, and notes that professionals usually enter the field with bachelor’s degrees in software development/engineering, computer science, or a related field such as math. Note that bachelor’s degrees in software engineering are more prevalent than those in software development. Sometimes software development degrees are treated as specializations for information technology or computer programming degrees.
What do students seeking these degrees learn?Bachelor’s degrees in software engineering are usually highly technical, with a heavy emphasis on design and engineering fundamentals. Course examples include:
  • Computer Systems Fundamentals
  • Calculus for Engineers
  • Design and Analysis of Data Structures and Algorithms
  • Operating Systems
  • Programming Language Concepts
  • Software Architecture
  • Object-Oriented Software Design
Stand-alone software development degrees may be more data- or systems-centric than software engineering degrees. Course examples include:
  • Information Systems Analysis and Design
  • C+ Programming
  • Usability in Software Design
  • Project Management
  • Applied Software Practice
  • Financial Accounting & Systems
  • Software Testing
  • Enterprise Database Systems
Are there any academic specializations associated with this degree? Software engineering can be a specialization in computer science, though more often it stands alone. Examples of software engineering specialty tracks include:
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Digital and Embedded Systems
  • Network Systems
  • Games and Entertainment
Many colleges list software development as a specialization under information technology, computer science, or computer programming degree programs. Possible tracks include:
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Applied Business Statistics
  • Software Systems Engineering
What careers are available to graduates?Like the BLS, O*NET does not distinguish between software developers and engineers. Common job titles for these professionals include:
  • Developer
  • Software Architect
  • Software Engineer
  • Systems Coordinator
  • Infrastructure Engineer
  • Systems Engineer
In what fields or industries might these graduates work? Virtually every industry depends on computers in some way or another. According to the University of Southern California, software engineering and development professionals frequently work in the following areas:
  • Aerospace and defense
  • Business
  • Government security
  • Bioinformatics
  • Computer programming
  • Information technology
  • Communications
  • Computer simulation
  • Computer security
  • Architecture
  • Consulting
Professional certifications There are several professional certifications available to software developers and engineers. Among them:
Schools that offer degrees in these fields
The bottom lineThe relationship between software engineering and software development remains a hotly contested issue in many circles, yet most colleges and organizations make no clear distinction between them. Readers considering either career are encouraged to research degree programs carefully, in particular the curricula or course list, to determine how they differ. It may also be helpful to review computer science and information technology degrees, as some offer specializations in either software engineering or development.

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