two software engineers review code on desktop monitor

Computer software engineers develop, create and maintain computer programs and operating systems. They build upon a computer's existing hardware, which is typically developed by other engineering professionals, to create the programs and systems that users interact with.

Successful software engineers are skilled in programming languages, problem-solving and attention to detail. A career in computer software engineering can be a great fit for someone who possesses these skills and wants the flexibility to work in many different industries. Because software engineers are utilized practically everywhere, you can usually find jobs in a niche that appeals to you, such as finance, entertainment, healthcare and much more.

What does a computer software engineer do?

Computer software engineers design and create computer software. They also have to run extensive tests on their programs and make changes as needed. As technology evolves and becomes outdated, computer software engineers must update their technology to fix issues that arise or simply make the experience better for the user.

Generally, computer software engineers typically focus their expertise into one of two areas:

  • User-facing applications and programs, from graphic design programs to internet browsers, to communication software like Zoom to electronic health records systems and more
  • Back-end operating systems such as Windows, Linux and Android

Software engineers may also be responsible for implementing the systems that employees at a given organization use and provide technical support if those systems fail. This may mean they also create and enforce IT standards within an organization, and update those standards as needed.

Education needed to be a computer software engineer

The education requirements to be a software engineer can vary immensely and are primarily dictated by individual employers. Software engineers aren't required to be licensed—unless an employer specifically requires it for their engineering employees—which means there aren't any universal standards for a software engineer's education. In fact, several famous computer software engineers didn't have a degree at all.

Be that as it may, software engineers must possess certain skills which are typically developed in a degree program or other alternative education program, many of which are offered online. Most software engineers will need at least an associate degree, bachelor's degree or certificate to qualify for entry-level positions so that they may start gaining experience and moving up the career ladder.

Some higher-level positions may require a master's degree or PhD to be qualified. Whether you're looking at associate degrees or doctoral degrees, many schools and universities offer degree programs in software engineering itself. Some software engineers have degrees in computer science, information systems and related subjects instead.

Part of being a competent software engineer is understanding coding languages such as JavaScript, HTML/CSS, SQL and more. Many of these languages are taught in degree programs, but you can learn these skills through certificate or bootcamp programs as well.

Computer software engineer salary

The BLS tracks software engineering salary data for multiple occupations which fall under the computer engineering category. Software developers, for example, had a median annual wage of $127,260 in 2022.

The states that pay software developers the most lay on our nation's coast and include California, Washington, Maryland, New York and Rhode Island.

Computer tech epicenters such as Seattle and Silicon Valley—which generally consists of the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas—boast some of the highest salaries and highest concentrations of software developers in the country.  

Job outlook for software engineers

It's no secret that technology—particularly computer technology—has advanced exponentially in the last few decades.

As this trend continues, computer software engineers will be a part of this advancement for years to come, making their job outlook one of the brightest across all occupations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the employment of software developers will grow 25.7% through 2032, which is about five times faster than the average across all other jobs.

Job growth for software developers through 2032

according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics

Computer software engineers are utilized in just about every corner of modern society and industry, which is one of the reasons their growth is estimated to be so high.

In addition, trends in the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) and a growing need for more sophisticated computer security systems should bode well for software engineers who are essential to both.

Getting Your Software Engineering Career Started

You've earned your software engineering degree. Now it's time to land that first job and start building your career in software engineering. Sounds easy, but of course there's more to it than sending out a few resumes, waiting for offers and coding your way to the top after a few short years.

Where Software Development Can Take You

Software engineers who design and develop applications for customers typically have broader opportunities for advancement. Product development groups are continuously trying to expand or enhance product lines, and software engineers play a prominent role in putting fresh, innovative products in customers' hands, which, in turn, helps companies make money. 

As the BLS describes, a software engineering job that involves developing software applications typically requires a bachelor's degree or higher and can lead to a position as a project manager or lead engineer. The next step might be a higher-level technical or management job. Depending on the company, these roles might include senior software engineer, chief architect or engineering manager.

Where Systems Engineering Can Take You

Inside organizations, systems engineers play a crucial part in making sure internal systems are up and running round the clock. They also research and recommend the latest technologies to implement within an organization and help coordinate implementation plans. These software engineers also usually hold bachelor's degrees, but a two-year associate's degree may suffice for some strictly programming roles, which can serve as a point of entry to a career in software engineering. 

The BLS reports that software engineering jobs in a company's information technology group can lead to a supervisory software engineering position, as well as specialized technical roles in areas such as network security and database development. Some systems engineers might become chief architects, managers of information systems or independent consultants in a particular area of information technology.

Final Say

Software engineering involves both technical skills and artistry—plus an understanding of how people actually use the software that an engineer develops. A software engineer who can demonstrate a blend of these three essential qualities may find a future filled with exciting opportunities in a wide range of industries, from creating practical business applications to designing video games.

Note: National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.