The tasks of a software engineer include system and application development, testing, and maintenance. This dynamic, always-changing field blends problem-solving skills with technical knowledge, like as programming, to produce dependable, effective solutions for everyday problems. Software engineering is still a field that requires lifelong learning because of how quickly technology is developing.
It takes time to become a self-taught software engineer. It could take months or years to acquire all the required abilities, such as programming languages, tools, and API design before you land your first job as a software engineer.
Without enrolling in a formal computer science degree program, you can pursue a career as a software engineer by following these easy steps. Remember that there are other options to think about; this is just one.
1. Plan a Career Path
Planning your career trajectory will prepare you for what’s to come and help you make informed career decisions. For example, is your end goal to work at an established technology company or for a nimble startup? Do you want to be in the nonprofit sector or at a consumer technology company? Are you interested in managing people or do you see yourself as an independent contributor?
You don’t need to know all the answers to these questions, but thinking about them before you start your software engineering journey will give you more clarity about the path you should take.
2. Meet the Educational Requirements
Many hiring managers look for candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, information technology, or another relevant field. However, a growing contingency of software engineers is making inroads without meeting formal education requirements. In fact, many applicants have figured out how to become a software engineer without a college degree. Course Report found that online courses and coding bootcamps “require less time, less money and offer nearly equal earnings when compared to a [computer science] degree.”
“…They’re trying to figure out the quality of your thinking. How do you think about it, what kind of data that you analyze, how do you structure the problem, how do you break it down into sub-problems and go ahead and do it” according to the co-founder and chief executive of HackerRank, Vivek Ravisankar. “There are better ways you can assess the computational thinking or the problem-solving skills… that’s what hiring managers care about the most.”
3. Software Engineering Skills
Technical skills—such as fluency in programming languages, knowledge of software development frameworks, and the ability to solve coding and architectural problems—are mandatory requirements for software engineers. Here are some of the specific skills every aspiring software engineer should develop to prepare themselves for a career in software engineering.
- Programming Languages
There’s no getting around it—being a software engineer requires fluent coding skills and the ability to learn new programming languages. Common languages that every software engineer should know include:
- Software development
Although software development and software engineering are different roles, engineers benefit from software development skills because they help to identify and understand specific problems within a piece of software and develop targeted solutions.
- Software Testing
In addition to designing and developing systems and applications, software engineers are responsible for testing technology to ensure it meets the needs of organizations and users. Software testing involves determining ideal systems operations, creating and documenting test plans, creating risk mitigation plans, and composing defect reports.
- Object-Oriented Design
Object-oriented design is a programming model that organizes software around data or objects, instead of functions and logic. It’s widely used because of benefits like encapsulation, which makes application data safer; inheritance, which offers memory efficiency; and polymorphism, which allows one object or method to serve as a template for multiple end products.
- Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking
Software engineering is a rapidly evolving field, and engineers are constantly facing new challenges on both technical and organizational fronts. Understanding how to become a software engineer means being able to rise to the challenge with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
4. Gain Practical Experience With the Help of Real-Time Projects
Real-time computing, also known as reactive computing, refers to software that responds within a given timeframe. Some examples of real-time projects include stock trading applications, multiplayer video games, telecommunications services, aircraft navigation systems, and data analytics programs. The growing popularity of real-time projects means software engineers should have both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience with real-time computing.
5. Stronghold of Software Engineering Tools
In addition to coding skills, software engineers should have a strong command of engineering tools to help them write, document, test, and collaborate with others on their projects. Common software engineering tools include:
- Command-line interface
- Stack Overflow
6. Find a Mentor
Learning how to become a software engineer is easiest when you can learn from someone who already works in the industry. Mentors offer learning and career guidance, give feedback on projects, hold their mentees accountable, and can help with job interview prep by providing insight into the recruitment process and going over practice interview questions.
Mentors have also been proven to assist software engineers with professional growth by expanding their networks and passing along word-of-mouth opportunities. But it’s not the end of the world if you can’t find a formal mentorship arrangement.“There’s no need for formalities for a less experienced person to learn from a more experienced one,” says software engineer Gergely Oroszy. “And for the most part, there are no formalities. At teams and companies where code reviews are everyday practice, this learning happens with every review… code reviews and the discussions during and after helped me significantly level up as a developer. I had many mentors, learning a little from each of them.”
7. Opt for a Course or Get Certified
While some recruiters prefer to hire candidates with computer science degrees, many will take on software engineers who have graduated from online bootcamps or obtained short course certifications because, in addition to learning all the necessary skills to work as a software engineer, graduating from an online course tells recruiters that a candidate is committed to continuing education.
“The only thing consistent in all of life, but especially in the technology industry, is change,” according to Stack Overflow chief technology officer, Teresa Dietrich. “So while it is important to know the specific technologies the job requires, it’s probably more important that you know how to adapt and learn new ones. Everything we are working on today in my teams can be taught to someone with adjacent technical knowledge and a thirst to learn.”
Many job opportunities are shared via word of mouth, which is why having a vast network is useful during a job search. Many software engineers network through schools they’ve attended, via mentors who have helped them, at industry conferences, and through online groups and communities.
“Regardless of the path you’re on, the connections you build over time will pay off, often in unexpected ways,” said Dietrich, who noted that 70-80% of people will find their next job through their network. “A simple introduction, versus another name in a pile of resumes, can make all the difference. Set a goal for yourself of adding a new connection every week or more.”
9. Create a Portfolio and Apply for Jobs
A resume tells hiring managers where you’ve worked; a portfolio shows hiring managers what you can do. Tailor your portfolio to the role you want. Include a variety of projects to showcase your set of skills, include clear project descriptions, and explain any problem-solving methodologies used in your projects. If you haven’t formally worked as a software engineer, consider documenting a personal project to show that you have both the technical and the soft skills to complete a project from start to finish.
What is the Fastest Way to Learn Software Engineering?
Aspiring software engineers can pursue their education primarily through three paths: self-directed learning, college, and coding bootcamps. The option you select will depend on your lifestyle circumstances (e.g., financial resources, planned deadlines, conflicts in schedule, etc.) and your preferences as a student.
Before registering for an academic course, thoroughly weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each option!
Let’s now evaluate the educational possibilities that could enable you to start from scratch as a software developer.
By attending a coding bootcamp, you’ll have the opportunity to gain a set of job-ready programming skills through an accelerated curriculum. Software engineering is challenging to learn from scratch — but with a bootcamp, even industry newcomers can build a strong knowledge base and ready themselves for an entry-level role quickly if they are willing to put in the time, hard work, and dedication.
Coding bootcamps may be worth it for those who don’t have the time or resources to attend a four-year degree program. These courses last just three to six months, depending on whether you opt for a part- or full-time schedule, and are often cheaper than multi-year degree programs. Bootcamps are also highly flexible; many offer virtual, in-person, and weekend options to suit working professionals’ scheduling needs.
That said because bootcamps tend to focus on web-based coding rather than software engineering, a coding bootcamp may not be the best choice for someone who wants to land a job in the latter field as soon as they complete their formal education.
But if you want to develop your coding fundamentals and start gaining work experience as soon as possible, you should still consider enrolling in a coding bootcamp geared toward helping you become a full-stack developer. Such a course will provide you with a “full stack” of back-end (server-side) and front-end (client-side) programming skills. Having this foundation will better equip you to hit the ground running as an entry-level professional and start accumulating real job experience — which you can then use to springboard into software engineering.
College is far and away the most popular educational route among developers today. In 2020, Stack Overflow found that nearly 75 percent of surveyed developers had achieved at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree or higher, remaining consistent with numbers observed in previous years.
Four-year degree programs are popular for a reason: they cover computer science theory and practice, provide communal learning environments, offer access to supportive instructors, and facilitate networking opportunities. These university degree programs are also usually well-regarded by employers.
However, a college education can be less economical than a bootcamp, and a degree isn’t strictly necessary to become a software engineer, though you’ll often have to work harder to achieve your goals. The same survey also found that just over 20 percent of professional developers did not have an undergraduate degree. Roughly 16 percent of surveyed developers also described college degrees as “not at all important” or “not necessary.”
In summary — while college can be a fantastic option for those who have the time and resources to attend, it is not a be-all-end-all academic requirement for everyone wondering how to become a software engineer.
There is also a range of self-directed learning opportunities to explore for those who prefer less formal academic options. For instance, learners can pick up necessary coding skills via free educational websites like edX. In addition to being cost-effective, these classes are designed to suit self-guided instruction and scheduling, making them highly personalized by default.
However, the flexibilities provided by self-directed learning come at a cost. Those who choose to learn independently don’t have the accountability a set schedule or formal instructor offers; rather they are responsible for keeping themselves on track and productive. While this approach may work well for some, those who are less self-motivated may find themselves falling behind on their upskilling timetable.
How Much Can You Make as a Software Engineer?
Software engineering salaries vary, depending on the candidate’s level of education, years of experience, company size, and location. The salary range also depends on the area of specialization. For example, software engineers who focus on front-end engineering make $110,000 a year on average, while big data engineers tend to make around $160,000 a year. The average salary for a software engineer in the United States is around $109,000, according to Glassdoor.