How to Become a Software Engineer

It seems the only two industries that did not 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 will not hurt your chances of landing that perfect software engineering job, it is no longer a strict requirement imposed by hire agents.

“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 most knowledge. A college degree shows that the recipient has the necessary training and a commitment to achieve goals. Still, today’s employers know formal education is not the same as real-world experience. A degree does not ensure an applicant has the skills necessary for the job. Sometimes, boot camps and online certifications provide the specific knowledge sought to fill a software engineer position.

Now, more than ever, the playing field has been leveled for those with a desire to become software engineers. Employers equally consider degrees, online courses, certifications, and boot camps. Now is the perfect time to make a change and enter our technology-driven world by becoming a software engineer.

What is a Software Engineer?

Software engineering has traditionally been synonymous with programming. While a software engineer is a programmer, the opposite is not always true. In addition to creating code, which a programmer does, a software engineer is involved in the design, planning, and modeling of systems. The easiest way to look at the difference between a programmer and a software engineer is a programmer almost always works alone coding his project. In contrast, a software engineer works as part of a team responsible for a software project’s totality.

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

To confuse things just a little more, the term software developer is another reference to the same fields as a software engineer and a programmer. The consensus is the terms software developer and programmer are interchangeable.

What are the skills of a software engineer?

In a technology article published in Inc., Raul Varshneya wrote, 

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

The right people for a job will possess the skills required to complete the work. A software engineer’s skills are just one of the puzzle pieces when searching for a solution. Most skills necessary to be a qualified software engineer are easy to verify through coding tests.

It is the more intangible skill set that will lead 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, demonstrating the ability to get the job done. They 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 the solutions come to you naturally? 
  • 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.”
  • Recognizing patterns – The ability to notice patterns and drawing conclusions. One of the many ways to find faster ways of getting things done.
  • Adaptability – Are you always on the lookout for new tools and ways of doing things?
  • Time and Task Management – The processes used today require a developer to have the ability to accurately predict the amount of time needed to complete a task.
  • 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 you don’t like doing what a software engineer does, you may want to explore other occupations. If a typical software engineer job description aligns with your likes and goals, you have made the right decision. The following is a sampling of software engineer job description items you will find scattered throughout the job listings you review:

  • Understanding of object-oriented concepts and design patterns 
  • Client-side (frontend) experience: JavaScript, TypeScript, HTML5, CSS3 
  • Experience in databases 
  • Passion for software and software engineering 
  • Quick learner 
  • Familiar with software engineering best practices and principles 
  • Have a technical mindset
  • Provide usability feedback and design input while implementing site updates
  • Familiarity with UI/UX best practices
  • Work with cutting edge technologies and willing to share knowledge
  • Able to produce clean, commented code
  • Follow standard software engineering practices and development methodologies
  • Participate and lead technical designs and code reviews
  • Adapt and learn new and emerging technologies

As you read through this list, if you felt even more excited to become a software engineer, then you have selected a career path that you will enjoy and in which you can excel.

Steps to become a software engineer

Now that you have decided to become a software engineer, let’s explore how you can make it happen.

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

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

Set your end goal

Being a software engineer can mean many different things. You can follow these steps and become a software engineer but taking a more targeted approach will give you more focus and add strengths specific to that 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. Frontend engineer
  9. Backend engineer
  10. Blockchain engineer
  11. Full-stack engineer

As you can see, deciding to be a “software engineer” is not enough. Each of the above-listed software engineer positions needs 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.

Choose your first programming language

According to the 2020 State of Software Engineering 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 you 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 will make on your path to become a software engineer. If you decide to use the second list in making your decision, you may find yourself uniquely positioned to fill new jobs in the near future. The safer route is to use the first list, but “safer” is not for everyone.

According to codecademy.com, there are over 600 programming languages. That mays seem overwhelming, but the language you should learn first should be the most used within the industry you have chosen for your career.

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

With a specialization and programming language selected, you are now ready to begin searching for online training courses and define a learning path that will lead to your career goal in the most timely and effective way.

Define an online training path

Person Learning Software Engineering.

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, “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].”

From a July 2018 feature article in CIO,

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

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 is 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.

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 dumb 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 trolling these sites will let you know. When they come across a “lazy” question, one that has already been asked and answered (even years ago), they can be very direct and almost rude in their response. In a community of software engineers, time is money. No one likes spending the time to read a question or request only to find someone has already provided a working response.

Be aware of others’ time. Try and find an answer to your question before posting it and expecting others to do the work you should be doing. You learn more by finding solutions than you do by asking questions.

Build something you have an interest in

While you are taking training courses online, you will develop small applications and tools that may seem silly to you and a waste of your time. Always complete the projects covered in the course you are taking.

That doesn’t mean you can’t work on other projects that interest you. The projects you pick for yourself will be more fun and keep your interest longer than those covered during an organized teaching plan. You will be able to relate to your projects and are more likely to complete them, and maybe even enhance them as you finish later lessons in a course full of boring projects.

Working on your projects as you are learning allows you to build a portfolio of projects that are unique to you and not standard class projects everyone has completed.

Stay current with the latest technologies

Technology evolves rapidly. If you do nothing to stay current with advances, you will 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 is essential for a successful software engineer.

Here 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 is 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 the articles. Study the web.
  • Use the online communities you have joined. Participate in the conversation threads. Become an active member of the community, not just an observer.
  • Watch podcasts. If you currently don’t follow a podcaster, find one that covers topics you are interested in and watch or listen to their podcasts. You will be surprised at the content value provided by a good podcaster.
  • Attend events. You may have to attend virtually, but you can still listen to presentations, ask questions, and even socialize with other attendees.
  • Take courses online. Never stop learning. Once you have completed the goal you set to become a software engineer, continue to search for more classes. There is 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 to learn continually.

Update your social profiles

As you reach milestones on your path to become a software engineer, update your social profiles, and share what you have learned and what you are 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. Software engineers will connect with you, and your network will grow. The software engineers in your network will share opportunities they know about and will even provide you with recommendations. The developer community can recognize a talented software engineer through their communications online in forums, Q&A sites (i.e., Stackoverflow, Quora), and language and industry groups. You will learn that you don’t need to meet and work with a software engineer to know that they are good at what they do.

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

Conclusions

To become a software engineer may seem 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; you could design a personalized, custom path to any career. Universities have made degree opportunities available online. Certifications can be completed virtually. There are education sites like Coursera, PluralSight, Udemy, and more that offer specializations and courses to enhance your resume and move you toward your career goals.

We have seen many changes made in our society and the education sector in 2020. New online opportunities will continue to increase, and more people will turn to these resources for career growth and retraining opportunities.