How to Become a Software Engineer: Seven Steps

Developers Versus Engineers

What’s the difference between a cutting edge computer system and a worthless case filled with plastic and wire? Well, without the right software, the answer is not much.

If the hardware is your computer’s body, then the software is its brain. Software is the programming that tells a computer how to perform specific tasks. Everything from adding 2 + 2 to mapping the human genome — it’s the software that directs the hardware in all of its tasks. Of course, software can’t write itself. As such, when it comes to computer technology, experienced software engineers are more than important; they’re absolutely vital.

What Is a Software Engineer?

In answering the question — what is a software engineer? — it’s worth noting that although the terms are often used interchangeably, a software engineer and a software developer are not quite the same thing.

Specifically, software developers are responsible for the creation of software from start to finish. The entire development process, including designing, writing, testing, and revising are all part of the developer’s job. Developers also take things out of the lab (so to speak) and work directly with clients and users to help turn concepts into reality. And while software developers may also do the actual coding work, they usually work with computer programmers to ensure a working product. The job of the developer is one that is most focused on project leadership.

By comparison, software engineers are professionals who apply engineering principles to software development. Software engineers are technology-focused, and their responsibilities may overlap with those of a software developer or even a computer programmer. But it is their use of engineering principles that set them apart from other software-related disciplines.

Software engineers play an important role in software creation and are needed across a variety of industries.

Seven Steps to Software Engineering

Whether you’re considering college, wanting to skip the degree and get directly into the workforce, or are looking to make a change from your current career, these steps will get you set on the software engineering path. And no matter how you go about doing it, your first move is going to be getting an education.

1. Get an Education

If you’re planning on attending college, then getting a software engineering degree (or more generally, a computer science or C.S. degree), is probably the most direct route to take. An education in computer science will give you a firm grasp of the background and the theory you’ll need to get into software engineering, and you’ll have access to experienced professors who can help you on your way. On the other hand, a college education can be time-consuming and very expensive. And if you’ve already earned a non-computer science degree and are interested in changing careers, going back to school may not be an option.

A possible alternative is to enroll in a coding bootcamp. Bootcamps are technical training programs that teach coding skills through accelerated, hands-on learning. Compared to traditional post-secondary education options, bootcamps can be significantly less expensive and may produce graduates in a fraction of the time.

1. Get an Education

Coding bootcamps don’t offer degrees, but some bootcamps offer official certifications. That said, the major focus of many coding bootcamps is to help students develop the right technical skills and build impressive portfolios, which are often the deciding factors when it comes to getting hired.

In addition to formal training in programming, you’ll also need to research and read up on a variety of engineering-related topics. Books, online courses, and self-training options are all possibilities to consider. 

2. Supplement Your Experience

We’ve all heard the joke: How do you land an entry-level position? Well, first you need at least three years of experience.

But the truth is that yes, you really should be soaking up software engineering experience well before you ever step into the job interview. As mentioned, coding bootcamps can provide good hands-on experience and help you build a respectable portfolio, but it’s up to you to take things further.

Start by visiting practice coding sites. These sites offer coding challenges, from intermediate to advanced, and can help you exercise your programming muscles. Similarly, contributing to open-source coding projects can help you put theory and experience to work for actual results, while also networking and earning a little peer recognition in the process.

3. Become Part of the Software Community

One of the great things about the high demand for software engineers is that the community itself is usually non-competitive. In fact, many software engineers are more than happy to help get beginners up to speed.

Online coding forums such as StackOverflow are a great place to start. There, you can ask questions, workshop problems, share solutions, search topics, and connect with coders from around the world.

3. Become Part of the Software Community

Don’t limit your involvement to only the virtual community. Attend conferences and get to know engineers in person. Work through your professors and bootcamp mentors to connect with coding professionals who can show you the ropes and offer valuable advice.

A big part of knowing how to become a software engineer is knowing how to network. Put yourself out there and build real relationships, and you’ll likely be better prepared when it comes time to apply for a position. 

4. Build Your Own Projects

Once you’ve gotten your feet wet with coding challenge sites and open-source projects, your next step is to create something entirely on your own. Get creative. Use your coding skills and employ engineering principles and turn concept into reality.

What kind of project should you pursue? It all depends on your interests and your abilities. You could build a simple operating system, create an encryption tool, make a chatbot, invent an app, or design a game.

Just remember to document the process and incorporate your work into your portfolio. And if you’re looking for honest, constructive feedback, share your project with your coding network.

5. Look for Internships

Remember back in step two when we mentioned that a lot of entry-level positions expect you to have experience before they’re willing to hire you? Internships are a great way to earn that professional experience.

Internships offer real-world, hands-on experience, and will give you a more accurate taste of what the life of a software engineer is like. You’ll also have a chance to further build out your professional network. And because many internships are only part-time, you may also be able to pursue your education or earn money while you participate.

Additionally, paid internships are available, so if you can find one, you’ll be earning more than just valuable experience for your time.

Finally, many businesses prefer to hire directly from their intern pools. If you put in the work and prove your worth, you could end up sliding into a full-time position.

6. Set Up Some Interviews

If you’ve been following these steps, then at this point you should be ready to start applying for positions. Make sure your portfolio accurately showcases the range of your software engineering abilities, and create a resume that focuses on relevant skills and experience—your involvement with the local softball league may be important to you, but unless you put your software engineering skills to work in promoting it, then it really doesn’t belong on your resume.

6. Set Up Some Interviews

Online job listings may connect you with some good job openings. Still, in business, sometimes it’s more about who you know. This is where your network really pays off.

Speak with your professors or bootcamp instructors and let them know that you’re looking for employment; they may know about specific openings you’d be interested in. Likewise, other personal and professional contacts can help you find good opportunities and can give you recommendations to help you get your foot in the door.

7. Always Keep Improving

Finally landed that job in software engineering? You’ve still got one step left: to keep going. After all, technology is always advancing, and if you want to keep ahead of the curve in your career, then you need to evolve right along with it.

Make it a point to always be furthering your education, through independent study, side projects, and coding community involvement. Maintain your networking relationships and be willing to help others who are on their way up.

Most importantly, learn from your mistakes and become better. You’re bound to stumble every now and again, but if you can turn setbacks into learning experiences, then you’ll be the better for it.

As we said before, without software, a computer is just an expensive hunk of parts. That’s why the world needs software engineers. And if you follow these steps, hopefully, you’ll be ready to take your place among the software elite and help guide the course of the future.

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