What Does a Software Engineer Do? Responsibilities & Specializations

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Software engineers work in one of the fastest-growing industries in existence today. As technology evolves, carving out specializations in artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, big data, and other subfields, fresh opportunities continue to emerge. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020) anticipated a 22 percent increase in positions for software developers between 2019 and 2029, more than quadruple the growth projected across all occupations during that same decade (4 percent).

These professionals unite the theories and methods of computer science, engineering, and math to create software applications, systems, and networks, paying thought to their integration into existing technologies.

Software is designed for two types of users: front-end and back-end users. Front-end users include those who use computers for home, school, and work, and back-end users are those who can make small and big changes to the software to publish content or change how a piece of software is used by front-end users.

A software engineer looks at both the front-end and back-end user experiences and designs programs to perform specific tasks to create and share information such as word processing or video-editing or manage business tasks such as point-of-sale software. According to the BLS, once a software engineer has an overall concept of the application, the work of creating it is given to programmers who write the code and test the application before it becomes available for consumers.

As well, the BLS shows there are generally two types of software engineers: applications and systems software developers. Applications software engineers are tasked with creating front-end user software such as games and word processing and can also include enterprise-level software such as robust databases.

On the other hand, systems software engineers include more complex systems such as operating systems for computers, mobile devices, and automobiles. As computer and mobile devices continue to infiltrate all facets of modern life, the work of software engineers will evolve to serve unprecedented levels of creativity for new and known products and services.

Read on to discover the typical responsibilities of a software engineer with discussions of the specializations and work environments.

Software Engineer Job Overview

As described above, software engineers apply traditional principles of computer science and engineering to create, test, and evaluate software applications and systems. More granularly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) describes the typical tasks in this high-growth profession:

  • Analyze the needs of users in regards to specific software
  • Make recommendations related to existing software
  • Design software components and then determine how each will work in conjunction with one another
  • Ensure that a piece of software continues to function properly by performing routine analysis and maintenance
  • Create instructional materials that help other software engineers or developers utilize the existing software or create software of their own
  • Collaborate with other software engineers or team members to help achieve a common goal

Software engineers serve varied functions depending on their company. They may help design databases to store constituent information for a political action committee; assist in the development of a mobile ride-sharing application; or create project management software for public use. In sum, software engineers can work across virtually any industry, facilitating developments in healthcare, manufacturing, education, government, construction, aviation, and consumer products, among many others.

Software Engineer Specializations

Software engineers can pursue unique specializations in their discipline. Some examples of these front-end and back-end applications include:

  • Games and entertainment systems – A software engineer who specializes in games and entertainment systems can expect to design an application or game, as well as the software utilized by the platform on which the entertainment runs.
  • Digital and embedded systems – These engineers work on the design and implementation of embedded systems, which are computer systems with dedicated functions in a larger mechanical or electrical system. Embedded systems are ubiquitous among electronic devices today, from cellphones to household appliances and medical devices.
  • Modeling and simulation – Modeling and simulation comprise an emerging discipline that is crucial to making research cost-effective. It requires software engineers to design or maintain applications or programs which simulate specific processes without actual testing. Modeling and simulation helps acquire useful information and allows for efficient decision-making without a significant development process.
  • Software project management – Because software engineers often find themselves working within a team, they may be responsible for management of the greater project itself. This requires detailed knowledge of the specific tasks, as well as the ability to manage individual members to help facilitate the process.
  • Networking software engineering – This specialization of software engineering largely focuses on networking and distributed systems, including network architecture, network programming and analysis, and transport and application layer protocols. Engineers in this field typically perform tasks related to network security, as well.

These are a few of the most common specializations in software engineering, although the growing sophistication of technology will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Where Do Software Engineers Work?

Software engineers not only work at startups producing useful apps but also with federal agencies that need assistance with the creation and maintenance of database software; healthcare companies that have pioneered new medical devices; automobile manufacturing plants seeking to optimize operations; or even non-profit organizations hoping to develop a new networking system. The most recent figures from the BLS (May 2019) found the following were the most common employers of the 1.1 million software developers nationwide:

  • Computer systems design and related companies: 33 percent
  • Manufacturing: 11 percent
  • Software publishers: nine percent
  • Management of companies and enterprises: five percent
  • Insurance carriers and related activities: four percent

The majority of software engineers work full-time on collaborative teams with other engineers and programmers.

Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

In general, the day-to-day tasks of a software engineer depend on their individual responsibilities within the greater organization. Here is an overview of sample responsibilities taken directly from job postings on Indeed.com across various subfields of software engineering:

Software engineer at a financial technology innovator

  • Design, create, and implement effective web services and middleware to support front-end applications
  • Analyze, code, test, debug and support financial, risk, and compliance-related programs and applications
  • Analyze and define system requirements for web services
  • Work with architects/QA/BSA to establish unit test criteria
  • Validate constructed code against unit test criteria
  • Provide regular status reports to the manager of platform development

Field software engineer at a private defense contractor

  • Ensure the Tactical Internet Management System remains functional, available, and supports unit mission readiness
  • Operate under a minimum level of supervision
  • Provide field engineering support for software updates
  • Responsible for integration, modification, evolution, testing, knowledge management, quality assurance, and configuration management
  • Assist the unit with network planning/configuration as well as adapting to changes in order to accommodate network architecture revisions as required
  • Maintain awareness of changes in software, equipment, and network architectures in order to ensure accurate information is communicated to the customer

Java software developer at a worldwide online payments system

  • Manage the full lifecycle of application design, development, and the maintenance of enterprise-level applications
  • Perform software analysis, code analysis, requirements analysis, software review, identification of code metrics, system risk analysis, and software reliability analysis
  • Build unit tests and acceptance test suites
  • Build and maintain performance and stability test scripts

As evident from the above descriptions, the responsibilities and competencies of software engineers vary widely. To learn about the most benevolent positions in software engineering, check out Software Careers in Service to Society.

Professional Development for Software Engineers

Because of the team-based nature of this profession, software engineers are encouraged to stay current with the latest trends and research. The IEEE Computer Society is a leading professional organization that serves its members through networking at international conferences, peer-reviewed publications, global standards, and digital libraries of learning opportunities. With membership benefits for researchers, industries, and students, IEEE offers job searching services and committees for software engineers wanting to connect with special technical groups, women in computing, or sister societies

Although it may seem like a misnomer, as modern society becomes more dependent on technology, software engineers can design applications that increase human efficiency and free up time and energy for more person-to-person connections.

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