What’s the difference between a software developer and a software engineer? You might think the terms are interchangeable, but there are nuances between the two roles that you need to recognize if you want to work as one or the other.
Software developers and software engineers learn the same fundamentals; depending on the job and their area of expertise, they may also know the same tools, frameworks, and programming languages. However, the scope of their respective jobs is often notably different.
Software engineers generally work at a broader scale than software developers, figuring out how to design and implement entire systems (whether that’s an app, a service, or something else involving software). Software engineering often touches on project management, as it involves getting buy-in from others throughout an organization, as well as working collaboratively toward an overarching goal.
Software developers, on the other hand, are more focused on the tactical implementation of the product. They’re the ones writing and testing code, squashing bugs, and working through all the smaller steps necessary to bring software to life.
What’s a Better Job: Software Engineer or Software Developer?
Neither job is “better.” It all comes down to what you want to do as a technology professional. If you’re interested in more of a self-guided environment—one focused on building software as opposed to interacting extensively with colleagues in other disciplines—a career as a software developer might suit you better. If you’re really interested in building distinct programs and then handing those off to other teams to integrate into a broader product lineup, you might also have a developer mindset.
Software engineers take a more holistic approach. The challenges are bigger, to the point where many software engineers are often tasked with creating the very tools and frameworks that teams will subsequently use to build the necessary software product. Whereas software developers might spend their whole careers in development (eventually ascending to a senior developer position), engineers’ cross-team collaboration and broader approach open them up to a range of other career opportunities, including project manager, system architect, VP of engineering, or even CTO.
Who Earns More: Software Engineer or Software Developer?
Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, estimates the median software developer salary at $98,728 per year, rising even more with the right mix of experience and skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for software developers is $110,140, making it one of the higher-paying roles in tech.
Lightcast puts the median salary for a software engineer at $98,783 per year, nearly the same as a software developer. Glassdoor, which also crowdsources salary data, places the average software engineer salary at $90,321. Depending on the company, other types of compensation (such as stock, bonuses, and performance payments) are also a factor.
For software engineers and developers, learning specialized skills can boost salaries even further. According to levels.fyi, which crowdsources compensation data from technologists nationwide, software engineers with machine-learning specializations can earn a median annual compensation of $225,000 per year. Other specializations are similarly high-paying:
As with so many other tech roles, of course, compensation for software engineers and software developers hinges on numerous factors, including size of your company, its location, and your level of experience. Whether you pursue software engineering or software development as a career, also keep in mind that you’ll always need to keep your skills up-to-date; companies want job candidates who have mastered the latest frameworks, tools, and methodologies.
Can a Software Engineer Be a Software Developer?
Yes. Some organizations treat these job titles synonymously. At smaller companies, a software developer or engineer job may involve components of both roles; for example, a software developer might be asked to apply strategic, holistic thinking to the building and rollout of a software product.
Can I Become a Software Engineer or Software Developer Without a Degree?
The answer to this question is also “yes.” With tech unemployment notably low, companies everywhere are scrambling to secure the talent they need to build and maintain everything from apps to websites. While hiring managers and recruiters are reassured when they see a developer or engineer has certain degrees and certifications, they’re more willing than ever to consider job candidates who have extensive experience working with the required languages and tools, but don’t necessarily have formal educational credentials.
What does that mean in terms of landing a job? You’ll need to design a resume, cover letter, and professional social profiles that list your skills in detail. Include links to a website or repository (such as GitHub) that contains your code and previous projects. Your hiring manager will almost certainly subject you to a series of technical interviews designed to fully evaluate your skills; if you want to prep, head over to a site like Leetcode that offers lots of example problems for a variety of programming languages.
Are Software Engineers and Developers in Demand?
According to Lightcast, software developers are in very high demand, with organizations posting more than a million open software developer jobs over the past 12 months. The average time to fill these positions is 43 days.
Nor will that demand likely die away anytime soon: Lightcast projects that the number of software developer jobs will grow 17.3 percent over the next 10 years, suggesting that software development is a very sustainable career. (It also predicts that software engineering jobs will grow at roughly the same rate.)