How to Become a Software Engineer in 2023

Have you ever wondered what it might take to pursue a career in software engineering? If you’re transitioning from a different field, you might be concerned that you don’t have the right educational background or sufficient experience to make the change. The good news is, if you’re just getting started on your path to a software engineering job, there are many ways to qualify — even without a computer science degree.

In this article, we will discuss how to become a software engineer through a variety of different paths, as well as the benefits of this lucrative and growing industry.

What Is a Software Engineer?

Think about the software you use on a daily basis, from internet browsers, to apps, or even your email. These all run on code written by software engineers, who build and maintain the tools and technologies we rely on in our work and personal lives. Put simply, software engineering is the process of designing, building, testing, and maintaining computer software.

Software engineers take an engineering approach to computer science, using what the IEEE calls [PDF, 5.9 MB] a “systematic, disciplined, quantifiable approach to the development, operation, and maintenance of software.” That software might be an app on your phone, an email client on your computer, or the tool your company uses to track expenses.

Across industries, software engineers use an array of coding languages to build software that fulfills a consumer, company, or client need. They might work with data scientists, database analysts, or upper management to achieve their goals. Sometimes they build things from scratch, and sometimes they develop existing products. So while it’s important for them to know the ins and outs of code and be able to think creatively about how to build new tools, they also need to be able to work well in teams, express their ideas and communicate their work clearly, and thoughtfully assess the problems they are trying to solve.

Steps on How to Be a Software Engineer

Even if you have little to no experience in the world of coding or engineering, it’s still possible to land a job as a software engineer. You’ll want to start by learning the basics of coding through an educational option that suits your needs. Once you’ve worked on some of your own projects and developed a strong portfolio, you can begin applying to jobs and start this new phase of your career. Here’s our step-by-step advice on how to become a software engineer, from scratch:

1. Learn how to code

Knowing how to code is essential to pursuing a career in software engineering. Code represents the building blocks of any piece of computer software, so it’s important that the people who build and develop that software understand code from the inside out.

With a wide variety of coding resources available on the internet, gaining a foundation in basic programming principles is relatively straightforward. The main coding languages that most aspiring programmers learn first are HTML, CSS, and JavaScript; these are typically referred to as “front end languages,” and coders use them to design interactive, attractive websites.

Of course, there are hundreds of programming languages out there, each of which has its advantages and applications depending on the role or project. Some of the most popular are Python, Swift, C++, SQL, and PHP. Python, is a general-purpose language that’s popular because its syntax makes it incredibly easy to interpret — it reads like English. According to a 2021 Stack Overflow survey, it’s the third most popular coding language among engineers. Other languages, like MATLAB and SQL, are more specialized. MATLAB is used for scientific research and numerical computing, while SQL is used for database management.

A coding boot camp can be an excellent way to quickly get up to speed, since most boot camps introduce you to a large number of programming languages that have real-world applications. Boot camps are short-term, intensive online courses that focus on developing industry-specific skills and prepare you for a specific line of work or professional skill set.

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2. Get a software engineering education

Very few software engineering jobs require a software engineering degree in order to apply. In the industry, it is becoming increasingly common for engineers to be self-taught, or to learn to code through a combination of boot camps and personal experience. That’s one of the great things about the software industry: it’s a welcoming place for people with a variety of professional backgrounds, and employers care more about what you’re able to contribute than the college you attended.

That said, some people may want to pursue a traditional degree. This is an excellent option if you want to dive deep into the world of computer science and take a variety of software engineering courses, or crave an on-campus experience that places you in a community with learners from other disciplines.

Software engineering often falls within a computer science degree program, and it offers more specialized learning that focuses on software development skills and engineering techniques. It is possible to receive an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree in software engineering, with the associate’s degree taking the least amount of time. There are also online coding degree options for people who want to pursue a more formal degree but need the flexibility of remote schooling.

3. Develop a portfolio

In most industries, when you apply for a job, the most important document you send along with your application is your resume. This gives information on where you went to school, where you’ve worked, and what you’ve achieved in your career. In the world of coding, the most valuable thing you can send along with a job application is your coding portfolio.

When you apply for software engineering jobs, a coding portfolio shows hiring managers what you’re capable of as a coder. If you’re applying for a job that regularly uses Python, for example, they’ll want to know that you’re not just familiar with how Python works but that you’ve used it to write functional, well-formatted code.

The first step to developing a coding portfolio is to work on personal projects. If you’re looking for some ideas, check out this list of 10 prompts from coding website Dotted Squirrel, or GitHub’s extensive list of potential coding projects. Some of these ideas include building a news aggregator, creating an online store from scratch, developing a jobs-listing board, and more. These projects will not just help you fine-tune your coding skills in a variety of different languages, they will also give you something to show for the hard work you’ve done in learning how to code.

An image that shares 10 coding prompts software engineers can complete to enhance their portfolios.

Once you have a couple of projects under your belt, it’s important to present your portfolio in a way that will be attractive to recruiters. After you’ve gathered your project code together in one place, edit it the same way you’d edit a resume or cover letter. First, clean up your code to make it as readable as possible, and revise it so that it is as efficient as can be. You can also add comments to explain the decisions that you made and give recruiters a better understanding of your thought process. You can then upload and easily share these projects on a hosting platform such as GitHub.

4. Explore software engineering jobs

Now that you’ve studied up on code and fine-tuned your portfolio, it’s time to start looking for software engineering jobs. If you’re new to the industry, you’ll most likely be looking for entry-level coding jobs. Entry-level software engineers often perform the more routine tasks required of any given project, such as documenting and debugging code, familiarizing themselves with the company’s codebase and developing their programming skills, working with more senior engineers to develop software, testing and improving existing software, and writing basic code. These job titles are often listed as something like “Junior Software Engineer” or “Entry Level Software Engineer,” and can provide you with valuable on-the-job learning to bolster your skill set and eventually qualify you for more advanced roles.

As with any industry, the jobs that you are able to get will depend on your software engineer qualifications. Just as important as your coding skills are your “soft” skills, like communication, self-direction, and ability to work with a group. While it’s easy to exclusively think of software engineer requirements as the ability to crank out a bunch of code, it’s also important that software engineers be able to clearly communicate what they’re doing and why. They need to be able to document their own code so they can pass it on to others, and they need to be receptive to feedback from both their peers and their superiors.

If you’re interested in getting into software engineering through a less traditional career path, consider applying to work at a startup. Even if you don’t begin as a software engineer, you will develop marketable skills in a work environment where you have a rich array of resources at your fingertips and are working closely with others who can teach you valuable lessons. You can always work on side projects while you work in other jobs as well.

5. Become a software engineer

As we’ve mentioned, the simplest path for someone who wants to become a software engineer is to start as a junior or entry-level software engineer. These are often lower-paid positions, but they offer clear paths to career development.

While a software engineer’s job description will always vary between companies, it often involves developing code to build products that solve a problem or achieve a goal; and then testing and refining that code to make sure the product is functioning at its highest potential. According to CareerOneStop, the median software engineer salary is $92,870, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median pay for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers is $110,140.

Of course, there are many other available jobs for software engineers and individuals with a strong coding background. For instance, you could also consider a job as a full stack developer. These are developers who work on both the front and back end code, meaning they have control over not just how a piece of software works, but what it looks and feels like to the end user. According to the BLS, the 2020 median salary for all web developers and digital designers (including full stack developers) was $77,200. Keep in mind that these numbers always vary by location, job title, and experience.

If you’ve developed a strong eye for code but want to work on things from a more high-level perspective and get some management experience, consider a job in product management, which entails overseeing a product’s full life cycle, from initial creation and development to final release. This requires an understanding of code, as well as strong project management, communication, and critical thinking skills.

There are countless jobs available to people with a coding background. As you begin your job search and talk to people in the field, you’ll learn more about which jobs are most suited to your interests and skills.

Why Become a Software Engineer?

Programming jobs are becoming more essential as our lives grow increasingly reliant on the technology they build. As tech becomes a bigger part of just our lives, so do the industries that sustain them, and the demand for people with knowledge of coding and software engineering grows. These are lucrative careers with significant growth potential.

The job outlook for software engineers is promising. As more products develop that use or need software, more jobs arise for people who can build that software.

Job growth in this sector over the next decade will likely be somewhere between 9% and 22%. According to CareerOneStop, there will be a 9 percent increase in job listings for computer systems engineers/architects between 2020 and 2030. The BLS predicts that jobs will increase by 22% for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers.

This is a lucrative job market, and it’s common to start earning six figures after a few years of work in a junior position. According to the BLS, the median pay for software developers lands somewhere between $105,000 and $110,000, depending on their area of focus. Of course, salary numbers will differ significantly between entry-level positions and positions requiring more experience, but software engineers with 2–4 years of experience can expect to earn the median salary.

How to Become a Software Engineer FAQs

If you’re curious about how to become a software engineer, we’ve answered some questions you are likely to have.

Software is the umbrella term for all of the programs and other information that computers use to operate. This information instructs the computer on what to do so its users can apply them to achieve a goal or complete a task. Email servers, desktop and mobile apps, and word processors are all examples of software that individual consumers regularly use.

Software engineers research, design, develop, launch, and test software. That means they imagine what software should look like and how it should operate based on their company’s goals and their users’ needs. They then use code to build that software, making sure that it works successfully through testing and bug fixing.

The terms “software developer” and “software engineer” are often used interchangeably. While both positions entail the building, development, and testing of software, the main difference is that software engineers usually take a more formal engineering approach, thinking analytically about each step and often inventing tools rather than using ready-made tools.

The amount of time it takes to become a software engineer will depend on the path you choose to get there. If you decide to go with a coding boot camp, you can learn the necessary skills in just a few months. If you’ve completed a boot camp and added some coding projects to your portfolio, you can begin applying to jobs less than a year after beginning your course.

Difficulty is subjective; some prospective coders will take to new languages relatively easily, while other learners may feel like they are trying to master an alien tongue. Even when coding is difficult, you can rest easy knowing that there are many online resources to help you learn different programming languages.

Become a Software Engineer Today

Now that we’ve discussed how to become a software engineer, you have the information you need to start your new career journey. Software engineering is a field that is absolutely accessible to people without tech experience, as long as they are ready to jump into the world of coding. Enrolling in a coding boot camp won’t just help you learn the most relevant programming languages — it will also give you practical job training and professional consulting to help you land the coding job of your dreams.

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