How to Become a Software Engineer

It seems the only two industries that didn’t take a turn for the worse in 2020 were healthcare and technology. Of the two, technology provides an increasing number of jobs and higher salaries. Less than ten years ago, to become a software engineer required a bachelor’s degree. That is not the case today. While getting a college degree certainly won’t hurt your chances of landing that perfect software engineering job, it’s no longer a strict requirement.

It’s critical for hiring managers to focus on assessing a candidate’s skills rather than over-indexing on education. While 50% of software engineers have a computer science degree, another 32% either taught themselves to code or learned through a coding boot camp—and they may very well have the same set of programming skills.”

Mehul Patel, CEO of Hired. Source: 2020 State of Software Engineers.

Employers want to hire people with the most experience and knowledge. A college degree goes some way to demonstrating that the recipient has the necessary training and a commitment to achieving goals. Still, today’s employers know formal education is not the same as real-world experience. A degree doesn’t necessarily ensure an applicant has all the skills for the job. Sometimes, boot camps and online certifications provide the specific knowledge required to be a software engineer.

Now, more than ever, the playing field has been leveled. Employers consider degrees, online courses, certifications, and boot camps, so now is a great time to make a career change and enter the technology-driven world as a software engineer.

What is a Software Engineer?

Software engineering has traditionally been synonymous with programming. However, while a software engineer is a programmer, the opposite is not always true. In addition to creating code (a programmer’s job), a software engineer is also involved in the design, planning, and modeling of systems. The clearest difference between a programmer and a software engineer is their way of working. A programmer almost always works alone, coding a project, while a software engineer works as part of a team and is responsible for a software project’s totality.

To confuse things a little more, ‘software developer’ can also be the job title for these kinds of roles. ‘Programmer’ and ‘software developer’ are usually interchangeable job titles.

Software Engineer's Laptop with Code editor on the screen.

What are the Skills of a Software Engineer?

“Fine art and programming are similar in that great technical skills don’t make for a great artist or programmer.”

Rahul Varshneya, co-founder of Source: How to Tell the Difference Between a Good Programmer and a Great One.

Most of the skills necessary to be a qualified software engineer are easy to verify through coding tests. However, it’s a candidate’s more intangible skillset that leads to the discovery of a great software engineer. Most employers want a software engineer who is not only able to perform well on coding tests but who also demonstrates the ability to get the job done.

Employers want someone meant to be a software engineer – someone with one or more of the following subjective skills:

  • Intuition: Do you struggle with challenging assignments or do solutions naturally come to you? 
  • A love of learning: Varshneya describes this skill as a “genuine commitment to continuous learning. You have to love the fundamental practice of going from not knowing to knowing, every single day”.
  • Pattern recognition: The ability to notice patterns and draw conclusions. One of the many ways to find faster ways of getting things done.
  • Adaptability: Are you on the lookout for new tools and ways of doing things and can you adapt to changing demands?
  • Time and task management: The ability to accurately predict the amount of time needed to complete a task and to manage carrying it out within the required timeframe.
  • A good team player: Do you enjoy helping other developers get better?
  • Embracing mentorship: Mentorship requires you to expose both your strengths and weaknesses. 

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

If a typical software engineer job description aligns with your interests and goals, it’s probably a career path worth pursuing. The following is a sampling of the items in a typical software engineer job description and skill list:

The role:

  • Following standard software engineering practices and development methodologies
  • Working with cutting-edge technologies and sharing your knowledge
  • Providing usability feedback and design input while implementing site updates
  • Participating in and leading technical designs and code reviews
  • Adapting to and learning new and emerging technologies

The skills:

  • Understanding of object-oriented concepts and design patterns 
  • Client-side (front-end) experience: JavaScript, TypeScript, HTML5, CSS3 
  • Experience with databases 
  • Passion for software and software engineering 
  • Ability to learn quickly 
  • Familiarity with software engineering best practices and principles 
  • Having a technical mindset
  • Familiarity with UI/UX best practices
  • Ability to produce clean, commented code

Steps to Becoming a Software Engineer

Now that you’ve decided to become a software engineer, let’s explore the steps required to make it happen:

  1. Set your end goal
  2. Choose your first programming language
  3. Define your online training path
  4. Use the tools of a software engineer
  5. Find and use online communities
  6. Build something you have an interest in
  7. Stay up to date with the latest technologies
  8. Update your social profiles

Let’s examine each step in a little more depth.

Step 1: Set Your End Goal

Being a software engineer can mean many different things, so taking a more targeted approach will give you focus and help you develop strengths which are relevant to your particular goal.

Below is an ordered list of the hottest software engineering jobs, according to a February 2020 article published by TechRepublic:

  1. AR/VR engineer
  2. Gaming engineer
  3. Computer vision engineer
  4. Search engineer
  5. Machine learning engineer
  6. Security engineer
  7. Data engineer
  8. Front-end engineer
  9. Back-end engineer
  10. Blockchain engineer
  11. Full-stack engineer

As you can see, simply deciding to be a “software engineer” is not enough. Each of the positions listed above fall under this title and they each require industry-specific training. Setting a specific goal and specializing in an industry will lead to more success in achieving your dream of becoming a software engineer.

Step 2: Choose Your First Programming Language

According to the 2020 State of Software Engineering Report published by Hired, the 10 most commonly used programming languages are:

  1. JavaScript
  2. Python
  3. Java
  4. HTML
  5. TypeScript
  6. C++
  7. Ruby
  8. PHP
  9. Go
  10. C

According to the same report, the 10 most in-demand programming languages are:

  1. Go
  2. Scala
  3. Ruby
  4. TypeScript
  5. Kotlin
  6. Objective-C
  7. JavaScript
  8. Swift
  9. PHP
  10. Java

The first list shows the languages in use today, while the second shows trends for the future. Selecting a programming language to learn is perhaps the most important decision you’ll make on your path to become a software engineer. If you use the second list to make your decision, you may find yourself uniquely positioned to meet the demands of future roles. The safer route is to use the first list – at least to begin with – but “safer” isn’t for everyone.

According to, there are over 600 programming languages. This may seem overwhelming, but the first language you learn should be a popular one within the industry you’ve chosen for your career.

If you want to work in healthcare, finance, or machine learning, it’s a good idea to learn Python. For cybersecurity or web development, go with JavaScript. These are just a couple of examples. You should do some research into your specialization and see which languages are best suited to it. If you can’t decide, JavaScript and Python are safe bets.

With your specialization and programming language selected, you’re ready to begin searching for online training courses and to define a learning path that will build the skills needed for your career goal.

Person Learning Software Engineering.

Step 3: Define Your Online Training Path

More and more universities offer online learning paths to obtain a bachelor’s degree in computer science (the most common degree for software engineers). Most of these online degree programs will let you set your own pace, but there is usually a high tuition cost involved. You have to complete a minimum number of required classes, and each class has its own fees.

There are also many free or less expensive online opportunities to acquire a specific skill, such as a computer language. Most of these online training courses provide certificates of completion or even widely recognized industry certifications.

According to HackerRank’s 2020 Developer Skills Report, “Gen Z is more likely than any previous generation to utilize boot camps. Nearly one in six say they’ve leveraged boot camps to learn new skills”. It further reported that “32% of hiring managers are bringing on boot camp grads and 72% of them say those hires were equally or better equipped for the job than other[s]”.

The debate will continue over the true value of a traditional computer science degree to becoming a successful engineer, but what is for certain is that route may not be accessible for everyone, and that shouldn’t exclude those people from the jobs market.”

Scott Carey, InfoWorld. Source: The most valuable software developer skills to get hired now.

Step 4: Use the Tools of a Software Engineer

You must use the software engineering community’s tools as you learn new skills. Becoming familiar with standard development tools will enable you to communicate and work with the community more efficiently.

Some of the tools every software engineer should be familiar with are:

  • Git and Github: these are source control repository and version control tools used by most software engineers.
  • SQL: the Standard Query Language (SQL) used when working with databases.
  • Excel: it’s not just a spreadsheet application. You can do many things using Excel that will help you as a software engineer.
  • Jira: a commonly used work management tool used by developers and product managers.
  • IDE: an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) used to edit, manage, and debug code. Search your online communities for their favorites.

There are many others, but you should become familiar with the most commonly used development tools and use them as you learn how to program.

Step 5: Find and Use Online Communities

Every programming language will have its own set of communities and forums to provide help with language-specific questions. The most popular sites to go to when you have a question are:

There are others, but these three are the most frequently used by developers today. When posting a question, remember that no question is stupid, BUT do your research to see if someone else has already posted a similar problem. If you don’t do the leg work, the experts reading these sites will let you know. No one likes spending time reading a question or request only to find someone else has previously provided a working response.

Try and find an answer to your question before posting it and don’t expect others to do the work you should be doing yourself. You learn more by finding solutions than you do by asking questions.

Step 6: Build Something You Have an Interest In

As part of the training courses you’re taking online, you’ll develop small applications and tools that may seem silly to you and a waste of time. However, always complete the projects covered in the course you’re taking.

This doesn’t mean you can’t also work on other projects that interest you though. The projects you pick for yourself will be more fun and keep your interest longer than those covered during an organized teaching plan. You could relate them to your course projects, meaning you’ll be more likely to complete them and even enhance them as you finish later lessons.

Working on your own projects as you learn allows you to build a portfolio of work that’s unique to you rather than relying on a portfolio of standard class projects which everyone else has also completed.

Step 7: Stay Up to Date with the Latest Technologies

Technology evolves rapidly. If you do nothing to stay current with its advances, you’ll quickly fall behind your peers and become a dinosaur in the industry in a short period of time. It can be a lot of work to keep up with all the changes, but it’s an essential part of being a successful software engineer.

Here are a few things you can do to remain up to date with changes in your specialty:

  • Surf the web: That may seem like a “Duh!” statement, but it’s perhaps the most important thing you can do to stay current. Don’t just blindly surf, looking at the latest YouTube and TikTok videos. Search for technology topics. Follow the links in articles. Study the web.
  • Use the online communities you’ve joined: Participate in the conversation threads. Become an active member of the community, not just an observer.
  • Watch and listen to podcasts: If you don’t currently follow a podcaster, find one that covers topics you’re interested in and watch or listen to their episodes. You’d be surprised at the content value provided by a good podcast.
  • Attend events: Even if you attend virtually, you can still listen to presentations, ask questions, and even socialize with other attendees.
  • Take courses online: Never stop learning. Once you’ve completed the goal you set to become a software engineer, continue to search for more classes. There’s always something new to learn in the programming community.
  • Get certifications: There are many certifications in every aspect of software engineering. Earning a certification adds to your value, and it helps you keep learning.

Step 8: Update Your Social Profiles

As you reach milestones on your path to becoming a software engineer, update your social profiles and share what you’ve learned and what you’re learning now. The more people that know about your goals and achievements, the more you have to gain.

Networking is a tremendous tool in software engineering. The software engineers in your network will share opportunities they know about and can even provide you with recommendations. The developer community can recognize a talented software engineer through their communications on forums, Q&A sites (like Stackoverflow and Quora), and language and industry groups. You’ll learn that you don’t need to meet and work with a software engineer to know that they’re good at what they do.

Share everything you accomplish with your social networks. That big break everyone is hoping for often comes from someone who knows someone.


Hopefully becoming a software engineer seems a little less daunting after reading this article. In today’s connected world, the opportunity is available to everyone. There are so many learning tools online, ready to help you design your own custom career path.

Top universities offer both in-person and online degree programs, while education sites like Coursera, PluralSight, and Udemy provide a wide range of online courses to enhance your résumé and move you toward your goals. New online opportunities are likely to keep growing, meaning more and more people are turning to these resources for career growth and retraining opportunities.