How to Become a Software Engineer

The complete guide to starting your career in software engineering.

People learning how to become a software engineer

Although we may not sometimes realise it, technology is becoming an ever more invasive part of the world around us. From our personal phones and computers to the infrastructure that controls our electricity, to transport and healthcare systems, our lives are increasingly dependent upon computer programs in order to function normally. It’s no surprise, then, that as this technology becomes more sophisticated, talented software engineers are in high demand.

If you have an analytical mind, a strong numerical background and an affinity for problem solving, then a career in this fascinating field could be the perfect fit.

This is everything you need to know about how to become a software engineer.

1. Research the Profession

As with any career choice, it’s vitally important to do your research before you come to any decision. This will allow you to weigh up both the pros and cons of the role and ascertain whether it’s a good fit for you.

Job Description

Software engineers are responsible for planning, writing, developing, testing and maintaining software that can be used for a multitude of purposes (and within a variety of systems). Their knowledge is built upon the application of mathematical techniques, logic concepts and the understanding of various programming languages.

They work within a variety of industries, typically developing applications or programs that are tailored to meet the specifications and needs of their employers.

Although they may differ depending on the individual demands of the role, some of the typical responsibilities of a software engineer include:

  • working closely with clients, business developers and other stakeholders to fully understand what their needs are and how the software can achieve them
  • clarifying requirements, resources and timescales with the client and the development team (including designers, animators and any other relevant parties)
  • breaking down and mapping out in simple written terms what exactly each stage of the program is going to do
  • translating the design plan into a programmable language (known as coding)
  • running and testing the code in order to look for, and correct, any errors or issues (known as debugging)
  • keeping accurate logs and records of the process, including any changes, issues and results
  • maintaining, amending and supporting programs and systems once they are live and in operation with minimal disruption to users.

Although much of their skills are transferable, many software engineers prefer to specialise in a particular field or area. Some examples include:

  • web development (client side or server side)
  • operating systems
  • robotics
  • artificial intelligence
  • office applications
  • data mining/analysis
  • video games
  • information systems
  • embedded systems
  • cybersecurity/cryptography
  • communications and networks
  • commerce
  • business and finance applications.

Essential Skills and Qualities

Software engineers require various skills and traits as it is a very concise and complex profession. Some of these include:

  • problem-solving skills – software engineers are often asked to write programs that make processes easier or more effective; you will need to think of logical ways to overcome problems and implement them in your code
  • attention to detail – just one small oversight or error in your code can cause the whole program to run incorrectly, so you need to ensure that nothing skips your attention
  • organisational skills – software development is a very rigid and structured process, so you will need to work to timelines and in alignment with the rest of your team
  • numerical skills – much of the theory and background knowledge of software engineering (and computer science, in general) is based on mathematical concepts, so you will need to be confident and comfortable in your numerical abilities
  • communication skills – much of the time, you may be explaining very complex technical issues to non-technical stakeholders; being able to break down and convey these issues in simple terms are important – you will also need to be a good listener in the early stages of the process, capable of understanding what exactly the client’s requirements are
  • project management skills – as you gain experience and seniority, you will likely be put in charge of managing software projects through their entire cycle; understanding various project management methodologies and concepts will help you to transition into a more leadership-based role with ease.

Working Hours and Conditions

The working hours of a software engineer can vary depending on their industry, but they generally operate on a typical 9-to-5 weekday schedule. In the weeks leading up to a live launch or when other deadlines are approaching, however, you may be required to work longer hours and possibly weekends in order to get everything finished on time.

If you are primarily focused on the maintenance and development of live software, then you may be called into work if a problem arises; some companies even put engineers on an on-call rota to better manage this issue.

While there may be some travel involved to client sites, you will likely spend most of your time in an office working with computers.

Salary Prospects

In the UK, graduate software engineers can expect to start at around £18,000 per year, although with experience this will rise to between £25,000 and £50,000. Senior engineers and managers, meanwhile, can expect to earn anything above that, particularly in London.

In the US, the average salary for a software engineer is quoted at around $103,500 per year, although there is again the scope to earn much more at management level.

Job Outlook

As previously mentioned, software engineers are highly in demand; this is reflected by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, who claim that the job outlook is set to grow at a ‘faster than average’ pace over the next seven years.

2. Get the Qualifications

For most employers, you are likely going to need a minimum 2:1 bachelor’s degree in computer science (or a similar IT-related course) in order to be seriously considered for a position, although there are alternative ways into the industry.

It’s possible, for instance, to undertake a postgraduate qualification (such as a master’s degree) in a relevant field, as long as you can demonstrate ongoing professional development in your previous career. Or, if you’d prefer to avoid school altogether, then some organisations are exploring software engineering apprenticeships as a means to fill their skill gaps.

In some cases, especially at smaller companies and startups, you might not even require any formal education at all. It’s entirely possible to become a programmer through self-taught means (in fact, many talented engineers have learnt their trade online). If you can demonstrate your proficiency and convince potential employers of your enthusiasm for and dedication to the role, then it’s not implausible that you may be given a chance.

If you’re a school leaver, make sure you review all your options. Knowing where and what to study can save you a lot of time in the long run, so talk to the schools you’re interested in about their teaching facilities, their industry links and how they can help you break into the field when you graduate.

3. Land Your First Job

As a sector that is classed as understaffed, the odds are in your favour when it comes to landing a job; that doesn’t mean you should be complacent, though. Make sure your software engineer résumé is up to date, and it highlights your technical proficiencies (as well as any experience or education you have), and brush up on your programming skills as you will definitely be assessed on them.

Be professional in your interview preparation, and make sure that you research the kinds of interview questions relevant to software engineers you're likely to be asked. For larger tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook, meanwhile, you may also need to conduct additional research into what the recruitment process entails.

Building a strong network is also important, as people are often keen to work with engineers that they have dealt with before and that they trust. There are also numerous IT-specific online job boards that list new opportunities depending on your industry, preferences and location.

Finally, make sure you are fluent in a range of programming languages, too. According to TechRepublic, the most sought after are Python, Ruby, JavaScript, Java and C++, although there’s a wealth of other languages in use, too.

4. Develop Your Career

The projected career path of a software engineer is fairly linear, with promotion usually dependent upon ability and experience. After around five years, you could expect to start supervising a small team, while progression into management is ultimately dependent on the individual. Some engineers prefer to focus more on the programming side of things, while others want to test themselves as leaders. It’s very common, therefore, for senior software engineers to undertake project management qualifications and other management training courses.

Alternatively, you can specialise and build authority in one particular area or choose to develop your portfolio and test yourself in a variety of roles and settings. Returning to education in a teaching or academic capacity also remains an option.

On the whole, though, as technology evolves, software engineering offers an unprecedented opportunity. You could develop your own application or program that solves a particular problem (or offers value to customers), allowing you to potentially build your own business empire; in fact, the only restrictions are your imagination and your ability.

Software engineering is a highly technical profession, but it is also very rewarding, with the potential to achieve great things. If you think you’ve got what it takes, then why not opt for a career in this fascinating and highly lucrative field?

Are you a software engineer? What other tips would you give? Let us know in the comments section below.

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 15 August 2017.