How Do I Become a Software Engineer?

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Technology-centric organizations like Google and Amazon and companies in healthcare, finance, education, and other industries employ software engineers to stay at the forefront of innovation and technology. Indeed, the software engineer’s job is vast and can vary from creating new mobile apps to designing systems-level software to pushing the envelope in multiple and highly connective ways.

Software engineers have the insight to apply their skills beyond mere programming to include the process of development from design through to testing, implementation, and long-term maintenance and product improvement. Software engineers are often proficient in several programming languages and fluent in at least one. Because of their continuous exposure to code and integrated development environments, software engineers are often able to pick up a new language, such as Java, Objective-C, Python, or C++, quickly if the job requires it.

While stories abound of famous software engineers who either never attended college or dropped out, a bachelor’s degree in software engineering accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) is preferred by many employers and is required to sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam in many states. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that licensure for software engineers, also known as software developers, is not always required, but having licensure increases a job seeker’s opportunities.

While computer science (CS) degrees have been around for much longer than 30 years, software engineering degrees are still relatively new. As a result, software engineering degrees tend to be more applied and provide a tighter focus on building solid software, from design through quality assurance to release, and then again for each subsequent release or new application.

In addition, while CS majors can and do code, CS degree programs emphasize mathematical and theoretical computing and expand what’s possible or improve existing computing methods. By contrast, software engineering programs tend to emphasize proven software development methodologies and techniques.

In the end, both computer science and software engineering programs are possible entry points to a software engineering career. However, it’s worth noting that several states require prospective software engineers to earn an ABET-accredited BS in software engineering degree before certifying as a software engineer, should the software being developed put the public welfare at risk in any way.

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Skills and Traits of the Successful Software Engineer

Many people can succeed in the software engineering field, but an inherent interest in both technology and engineering should exist since these are so fundamental to the career. In addition, there are many different types of jobs available in the field, and specific interests and passions may help drive a person’s career direction. According to Arkhitech, a solutions provider, and O*NET OnLine, some of the skills that could be helpful to a successful software engineer include:

  • Technical knowledge: Programming languages are constantly updated, as are the processes and technologies that make specific solutions viable. Staying up-to-date on new skills, technologies, and methods can result in more creative and focused solutions.
  • Attention to detail: Software engineers often need to oversee many different parts of an application, project, or system, meaning there is a constant need to be aware of how various aspects of an engineering project are symbiotic.
  • Being a team player: More often than not, a software engineer has to work as part of a team and ensure that a specific app or project continues down the pipeline toward speedy completion and implementation.
  • Problem-solving: Although there may be more than one solution to a problem, software engineers need to decide between the various alternatives and identify the overall best case use fit.
  • Creativity: Software engineers often need to devise new solutions to achieve the desired functionality, factoring in constraints, dependencies, and established best practices.

Software Engineer Role Requirements and Responsibilities

Those entering the software engineering field will be tasked with unique engineering responsibilities on the job and foreseeably in project management or in helping guide projects through the product release cycle. Understanding the processes of testing and feedback is also essential to the career.

According to the BLS, a bachelor’s degree in computer and information technology, software engineering, or a related field helps provide the foundational education for licensure. Classes such as engineering statistics, applied linear algebra, software engineering testing lay the foundation for future careers in software engineering. Some programs require a capstone project to enable students to synthesize their learning better and be more uniquely prepared to enter the career field.

Licensing for Software Engineers

Should software engineers be licensed? Many arguments exist about whether licensing is necessary for the field, mainly since software engineering is still relatively new.

In 1998, Texas was one of the states to make PE licensing of software engineers a priority. It began licensing through the use of a portfolio review. Completing a college degree, gaining work experience, and passing the appropriate engineering exams typically are the steps that software engineers need to take to become licensed.

In 2008, support for a licensing exam for software engineering began at the behest of the IEEE Computer Society and multiple additional organizations. That licensing exam – Principles and Practices of Software Engineering — became available in 2013 and is offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), which also provides other engineering licensing exams. In addition, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has a committee dedicated to monitoring and recommending changes in state law resulting in 30 states requiring licensure. However, NCEES discontinued this exam in 2019 due to a lack of participation and adaptation.

In 2022, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) offers the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) for college graduates and the Principles and Practices of Engineering (PE) Software exam for those with four years of experience. The PE Software exam is rigorous and lasts for eight hours, featuring a total of 80 multiple-choice questions. Results are usually available within eight to ten weeks following the examination.

In short, a candidate must first pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam upon graduating from an ABET-accredited BS in software engineering program (some states still allow candidates with other degrees or even no degree to sit for the exam). Then, after four years of relevant work experience, candidates can take and pass the Principles and Practices Exam of Software Engineering. Please note that the specific experience requirement varies by state.

As of January 2022, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits 27 online engineering programs, including software engineering and information technology.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Software Engineer

Becoming a software engineer is somewhat straightforward, but there are variations in degrees pursued at the college level. Below is a list of common steps:

Step One: Graduate from high school (four years). Students are encouraged to prepare in high school by taking as many math, science, and programming classes as possible, including advanced or AP courses.

Step Two: Earn a bachelor’s degree (four years). Students can apply to several colleges offering software or computing engineering degrees.

For example, Middle Georgia State University offers a 120-credit online bachelor of science in information technology specializing in software engineering. Students in this program must earn a grade of C or higher in all courses. The core curriculum includes 42 credits in precalculus mathematics, lab science, public speaking, and human-computer interaction. In addition, students can choose from nine concentrations, including software engineering, web applications development, and networking technologies and administration.

  • Location: Macon, GA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: ABET
  • Tuition: $114 per credit (in-state); $307 per credit (out-of-state)

Step Three: Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam (timeline varies). The FE Exam offered by NCEES is the preliminary exam all engineering licensure candidates must take. In addition, some undergraduate programs include preparation courses for the FE exam, which students can take before or after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering.

Step Four: Earn work experience (four years). To qualify for the PE credential, applicants must earn four years of professional engineering experience under the supervision of a licensed PE. Study guides and courses are available to prepare for this exam.

Step Five: Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Software exam (timeline varies). Those seeking the PE Software credential need to graduate from an ABET-accredited program, pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, gain at least four years of experience (varies by state) in the field working under a PE, then pass the PE exam in their specific engineering discipline – in this case, software engineering. Professionals are encouraged to contact their state’s board of engineering to learn more about state-specific licensing requirements for software engineers in the state where they plan to work.

Step Six: Earn a master’s degree (optional; two years). If your undergraduate degree is in a different field from software engineering, or if you wish to deepen your software engineering knowledge and hone your skills away from the workplace, consider a master’s degree in software engineering.

For example, Arizona State University offers a 30-credit online master of science in engineering in software engineering (MSE). This program requires ten courses offered over 7.5 or 15-week classes. This degree program is designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, software engineering, or a related field.

Core courses include software verification and validation and testing; software project, process and quality management; software engineering principles and concepts; and a portfolio capstone course. Graduates from this program pursue careers in senior managerial and executive roles and optimize and streamline software processes.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Tuition: $1,022 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Software Engineer?

As illustrated above, the length of time it takes to become a software engineer depends on a student’s background knowledge and commitment to completing their coursework. However, a focused student on a direct path to a software engineering career can become a licensed software engineer approximately eight to 10 years after graduating from high school.

To learn more about online software engineering degree programs, please visit our page, which outlines a complete list of different types of online degree programs.

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