How to Become a Software Engineer

Software engineers are more in demand than ever. Organizations everywhere need engineers who can use a variety of programming languages, frameworks, and tools to build next-generation apps, websites, and services. Software engineers also have lots of opportunities to expand into new and unexpected roles—for example, you might start out as a Python-centric engineer, only to find yourself involved in machine learning.

But how do you become a software engineer? What do you need to know, and what kinds of professional pathways are available to you? We spoke with a few experts to help guide your path into software engineering and a long, successful career.

Do you need a college degree to be a software engineer?

“I don’t think there’s any set degree or schooling that someone needs to become a successful software engineer,” Troy Fendall, staff software engineer at Opendoor, tells Dice. “While having a Computer Science (CS) degree is valuable, it’s not a requirement to succeed in this field. I’ve witnessed and worked directly with talented engineers from a variety of backgrounds—those with college degrees, peers who graduated from coding bootcamps and folks who are self-taught. In fact, when companies hire engineers from a diverse set of backgrounds, I’ve found you can build better end products with unique perspectives.”

Danylo Tolmachov, senior director of software engineers at Techstack, agrees: “It’s nice to have [a degree] related to computer science, but I knew a lot of people without specialized education who became really good engineers.”

“There are a lot of self-taught professionals that are successful,” says Sergii Zhuravel, lead software engineer at Absio.

One thing all our experts agree on is that while a formal education may not matter, having mastery of important skills is critical. During the job interview process, recruiters and hiring managers will inevitably subject you to technical interview questions designed to evaluate your skills, including whiteboard and take-home coding tests.

What skills are necessary for software engineers?

“Passion comes first,” says Maksym Mostovyi, software engineer at Rain. “If you are out of passion for the things you are doing, it will be hard to build a successful career and maybe even land a job as a software engineer. Besides that, I would say attention to detail, ability to teach others, and self-discipline are important as well.”

Fendall says: “There are four key skills necessary for software engineers to have a successful career: coding, problem solving, collaboration, and ownership. For someone looking to get started as a software engineer, they should have fluency in one or two programming languages. Aside from the nuts and bolts of writing code, a successful software engineer should also be able to understand a problem and work through one or more solutions, while also understanding the tradeoffs.”

Any aspiring software engineer should also commit to boosting their “soft skills” such as empathy and communication, since many engineers work as part of a larger team and must communicate details of their work to stakeholders both inside and outside of an organization. “Another key trait is collaboration,” Fendall continues. “One must be able to work with others from different disciplines and backgrounds. This involves clear communication and oftentimes compromise. It’s beneficial to have strong opinions, but important to hold them loosely.”

Last but certainly not least, ownership is key. “Hold yourself accountable for reaching out and unblocking any hurdles you may run into; don’t wait for others to ask if you’re stuck on something. Follow through to ensure everything is working once deployed and take responsibility for fixing bugs if not,” Fadell says.

The key takeaway is that being a team player is just as important as knowing how to code well. The era of a head-down developer coding in isolation is largely over.

Is there any specific training software engineers should do?

Specific training can largely hinge on the software engineer’s specialization. For example, the programming languages and tools necessary to become a cloud-centric software engineer differ from the ones required for a machine learning specialization.

Many software engineers debate whether they should pursue a formal two- and four-year education versus bootcamps and/or self-learning. For those who want to rapidly jump into a software engineering career, a quick bootcamp might seem perfect, but as Zhuravel notes, bootcamps aren’t necessarily for everyone.

“You cannot become a software engineer after a bootcamp,” he continues. “But if the question is about those software engineers who already started their career, then I would suggest getting training to improve the most important skills for software engineers. The main rule is: It’s good to learn new things, but we also need to train our existing skills. Sometimes it’s better to learn more about the tools that we already use than to learn something new just for fun or because maybe we will need this in the future.”

No matter what your educational pathway, you can’t beat real-world experience. “The most effective education goes with solving a real problem in a real company,” adds Andrey Sundukov, a Java software engineer at Step. “To find your first job, you need more practice. Try to solve real problems for real people. Do any pet projects or participate in some. That project should be in your resume as your work experience. Since you have it, you have way more chances to get the first real job. Then ask your employer about courses. It should the most effective way to spend time and money on education.”

Keep in mind that your software engineer resume should be “results-driven,” emphasizing how your past work and projects translated into concrete, positive results for organizations. Always make sure to use your experience section to show how you’ve effectively used your skills and knowledge to bring projects to successful completion. If you don’t have much previous experience, you can use your personal projects and education to demonstrate you have what it takes.

Mostovyi adds: “The best training is practice. I would definitely suggest practicing as much as possible. It’s great to try building things on your own, starting from small things, and pet projects to larger ones.”

Overall, you should put an emphasis on racking up as much experience as possible, whether in an organizational context or via personal projects. “I think first and foremost it’s most important to start getting experience,” adds Michael Saccotelli, director of Microsoft Solutions Development at SPR. “Ideally with a team of people. Working and learning on your own can be a great way to stretch beyond what you know, but unless you are in a situation where you can fail with minimal consequence, it is likely better to have a place where you can learn from your team. Working with a team also teaches you how to work as a team.  Most software engineers don’t work in a vacuum so being able to function and work with others is critical.”

Fendall agrees with the need for as much experience as possible, especially on teams with software engineers and other technology professionals: “My advice is to do anything that provides experience coding production-quality products and working with teams. College programs and bootcamps can provide this, but those who are self-taught can achieve this experience by working on open-source projects. However, I think the most beneficial training is what you learn on the job.”

Fendall adds: “I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and even with a ‘traditional’ background, I gained most of my practical skills from real-world work experience. My schooling focused on the fundamentals so I could establish a foundation to build upon. But my willingness to continuously learn is what I attribute my success and career achievements to. For example, when I joined Opendoor as a Staff Software Engineer, I didn’t have experience in Golang, which is one of the core languages we use. However, because I had knowledge in other languages and an openness to learn new concepts, I was able to pick it up quickly. And that remains true for many other things I’ve learned throughout my career.”