Software Engineer & Software Developer Career Paths: How They Differ and How They Don't

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The Master of Science in Computer Science, or MSCS, is an extremely versatile degree, and Southern Methodist University Online MSCS-AI graduates go on to hold titles like mobile app developer, artificial intelligence specialist, cybersecurity analyst, cloud architect and researcher. Just over half, however, work in either software engineering or software development, and while these career paths are common, they generate a lot of confusion.

The problem is that there's little to no consensus about whether the software engineer career path is the same as the software developer career path. Even experienced computer scientists disagree about where to draw the line between engineer and developer—or whether it should be drawn at all—making it challenging for master's in computer science students to research software-focused computer science careers.

To find the right trajectory (whether that's the software engineer career path or the software developer path or both), you must understand the different ways employers, organizations and even institutions of higher learning approach these disciplines.

What's the Difference Between a Software Engineer and a Software Developer?

In some parts of the world, 'engineer' is a protected title, but in the U.S., employers can use the term as they see fit—and they do.

Some organizations hire engineers, some hire developers and some employ a mix of both who may or may not have the same responsibilities. When organizations do treat these roles as distinct, scope or scale are often the differentiating factors. At one company, software engineers might build the underlying architecture of a product before software developers build the product itself. At another, developers might be responsible for writing code while software engineers engineer (i.e., design, develop and document) products.

Workspace platform Codegiant uses programmer and developer interchangeably to refer to code writers who know two or three programming languages and are comfortable working with algorithms. It reserves the title software engineer for the highest-level, most skilled programmers capable of designing and implementing the overall architecture of an application.

Google draws a distinction between the two roles shaped by the company's stance that engineering is "programming integrated over time." In this view, developers work on products or features, while software engineers approach programming in a way that takes not just present-day requirements into consideration but also future modifications and maintenance. The distinction is an idle one, however, because the Silicon Valley giant employs engineers, not developers.

Many sources assert that software engineers are developers who apply the principles of engineering to software design, development, maintenance, testing, and evaluation, but there is no well-defined or set practical difference between software engineers and developers. This article explores potential differences but can't account for each organization's treatment of the two terms.

Software Engineering vs. Software Development: Which Is for You?

The software engineering vs. software development decision isn't one you have to make before you apply to a computer science program because the MSCS supports both career pathways. An M.S. in Computer Science from SMU Lyle School of Engineering will position you for growth in software development or software engineering—plus give you the qualifications, skills, and knowledge you need to succeed in various other areas of computer science, like artificial intelligence or natural language processing.

That said, thinking about the software engineer career path or the software developer career path as two separate trajectories can help you narrow down what kind of work you want to do. At some non-tech and tech companies that differentiate between the two roles, engineers may do work focused on the full lifecycle of a software product while developers do work focused on building out specific sections of code. At others, engineers handle architecture, security, server requirements, and the layers of abstract instructions that tell computers what to do, while developers do more feature-specific programming work. And software engineers are more likely to be in charge of projects than developers at some companies.

Whether you'll be happiest as a software engineer or a developer may come down to your aptitudes and the kinds of work you enjoy doing most. Titles alone can't help you make the choice, however. You can find out more about what each role entails below.

What Do Software Engineers and Software Developers Do?

When they do the same job, software engineers and software developers participate and/or guide the software creation process. When they don't, they usually work closely with one another to ensure software projects are successful.

Software engineers are programming experts who take an engineering-focused approach to software development. They do a lot more than write code and may be involved in the design, architecture, implementation, and maintenance of complex software systems and platforms. Their responsibilities can include:

  • Analyzing end-user needs with stakeholders
  • Conducting systems analyses
  • Creating software development workflows
  • Designing, developing, and testing software
  • Determining operational feasibility
  • Developing upgrades for existing software products
  • Ensuring continued functionality during upgrades
  • Guiding the work of programmers
  • Maintaining and improving codebases
  • Overseeing bug fixes
  • Peer reviewing code changes
  • Problem-solving tricky software challenges

Software developers are also programmers whose work is largely driven by the software development life cycle. However, they don't necessarily have to know how to apply engineering principles to the creation of software because they tend to work under tighter constraints than engineers. They might, for instance, work exclusively on web development or a single feature of a larger software product. Their responsibilities can include:

  • Debugging and improving software
  • Determining operational practicality
  • Developing technical documentation
  • Integrating software components
  • Talking through user requirements with team members
  • Testing and deploying programs
  • Writing and implementing efficient code

Again, organizations are free to set responsibilities for these titles as they see fit.

The Job Market for Software Engineers and Software Developers

You can evaluate your options by comparing the job markets associated with the software engineer career path and the software developer path, but be aware that looking at employment projections may be less illuminating than you hope. Many aggregators of employment data group these two roles together. Market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, for instance, predicts that the job market for both software engineers and software developers will grow by over 30 percent in the next 10 years. The median annual salary for software engineers and developers with master's degrees, according to the company's real-time analysis of job postings, is about $100,000. That figure is compelling but doesn't tell a complete story because software engineers and software developers hold many different titles.

How Much Can Software Engineers Earn?

Software engineers tend to be high earners in roles including:

How Much Can Software Developers Earn?

Software developers seem to earn less than engineers, but salary differences may average out when developers take on more responsibility in roles including:

There are also high-paying leadership roles open to software developers and engineers with the right technical skills, soft skills, and education, including:

While many people associate software engineering and software development with Silicon Valley, engineers and developers work in nearly every industry. There are jobs for software engineers and jobs for software developers in banking and finance, manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and government.

Do You Need a Master's Degree to Become a Software Engineer or Developer?

You can find entry-level roles in software engineering and software development that accept applicants with coding bootcamp certificates and bachelor's degrees, but if you want to earn more money, advance up the computer science career ladder more quickly, guide projects, or qualify for leadership positions, you'll be a far more competitive candidate with an MSCS. Some companies even limit hiring for senior-level developer and engineering positions to candidates with credentials like a computer science master's.

Getting a master's degree is no small undertaking, however, so it makes sense to look at the commitment to earn this degree, the ROI of the MSCS, and the degree's career-boosting potential before enrolling in a program.

Most full-time, on-campus MSCS programs require that students complete around 30 credit hours of core computer science coursework over about two years—provided they don't have other commitments. Students can usually complete SMU's Online master's program, on the other hand, in about 20 months while working full time and continuing to earn income. They complete rigorous classwork and independent work from anywhere, honing their skills in high-demand areas of computer science, including:

  • Algorithm engineering
  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Computer architecture
  • Data mining
  • Database management
  • Information storage and retrieval
  • Logic programming
  • Machine learning
  • Mobile application development
  • Operating systems
  • Python programming

The total cost of SMU's Online MSCS is $43,500—a not insubstantial sum, but one that can seem considerably less daunting when viewed through the lens of the wage premium associated with an MSCS. Forbes found that a computer science master's offered the second-biggest salary boost when it ranked graduate degrees by salary increase, and software engineers and developers with graduate degrees can earn millions more throughout their careers. That's because a master's in computer science is often what it takes to stand out from other applicants in a crowded marketplace, transition out of technical roles and into management or management track positions, or get past HR filters at the big tech firms known for paying engineers and developers exceptionally well.

When Is the Best Time to Get an MSCS?

Contrary to popular belief, the best time to apply to a master's program isn't when your bachelor's degree program ends. As is common among top-rated MSCS programs, Lyle School of Engineering's Online Master of Computer Science program looks for applicants with professional experience. The admission requirements are geared toward professionals with two or more years of experience in computer science, computer engineering or software development for two reasons. First, because the program asks a lot of students. The online MSCS has an AI focus, and students need to be competent in certain core areas of computer science to succeed in the program. And second, because students with relevant experience are more likely to encounter opportunities to apply what they're learning in the classroom in the real world.

Realistically, you don't need a master's to perfect your Java, Javascript, or Python skills. You can help create software platforms or build apps for Android and iOS without going to graduate school. And some software engineers and software developers found startups or even work for companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft without master's degrees. Having an MSCS is still a major asset when your goal is to advance in engineering and development, however. More computer scientists and IT professionals are pursuing advanced credentials—not just for a diploma but to stay current in a rapidly changing tech landscape and to grow their skills—and that's who you'll be competing against in the not-too-distant future.

If you're primed to take your career to the next level, apply now. SMU's 10-course MSCS-AI puts the on-campus student experience online in an intensive career-focused program. In less than two years, you'll have an advanced skill set and the knowledge you need to step into higher-level roles in software engineering and development.