The Field of Software Engineering
Software engineers develop concepts for computer programs and applications, and write the code, usually as part of a development team, to execute their ideas. The most visible accomplishments of software engineers are globally popular web applications like Google and Facebook, but software engineers are also involved in imagining every possible use for computers, and then enabling those uses. The core architecture and systems that underlie everything computers can do require a team of expert software engineers to build and maintain, and the demand for these highly skilled individuals is on the rise.
Online Software Engineering Training and Degrees
To become a software engineer, there are a few different educational paths you can pursue. Some colleges offer degrees with the words “software engineering” in the name, but there are broader topics to study that can lead to a career in the same field, such as:
- Computer Science: The field of computer science involves software engineering, but goes even deeper into how information is stored and communicated, and the implications for human interaction. Computer scientists learn many programming languages, and can have careers in various strata of the computer technology industry, from system architects to founders and CEOs of companies.
- Mathematics: Complex math, especially algorithmic math, is at the heart of much technological innovation now. To study mathematics is to study the nature of information itself, and numbers are the foundation of computer technology. Every computer and digital device operates on the simple precepts of binary code, and all digital information can be expressed as a series of ones and zeros. Modern mathematicians almost all use computer programs to test their hypotheses, and working as a mathematician is likely to involve a fair bit of software programming. The best software engineers combine solid mathematical knowledge with an ability to empathize with people and work at the intersection of humanity and technology.
- Physics: Computer technology relies heavily on the discoveries of physicists, because the way that electricity is transmitted and received underlies all the movement and storage of information in computers. Physicists are always at work to devise more efficient ways to store information and transmit it, which has allowed the power of personal computers to double approximately every 18 months for the past decades, in a lockstep progression known as Moore’s Law, after Gordon Earle Moore, a chemist and physicist and co-founder of Intel.
Skills Learned in Online Software Engineering Degree Programs
Computer science and software engineering programs have the dual challenge of needing to impart foundational knowledge about the history of computers and software, how they work on the circuitry-and-microchips level, and needing to prepare students to participate in extremely rapid innovation and a very competitive job market. The skills you’ll learn in a software engineering degree program include:
- Programming in Several Languages: There are thousands of programming languages, each with strengths and weaknesses, support communities, and optimizations for various tasks. No single programmer can learn every language, but once you learn one, it gets much, much easier to learn a second. Many popular programs depend on several programming languages to operate and interface with servers, APIs, and users, so learning more than one is pretty much inevitable for serious software engineers.
- Testing and Iterating Programs: Building good software requires a lot of testing, debugging, and making small improvements before testing again. This process is called “iteration,” and knowing how to iterate rapidly is a valuable skill, which is mentioned in many job ads for software developers.
- User and Market Analysis: So many new programs are put on the market every day that consumers can’t possibly use them all regularly. Creating software that meets the needs of a specific demographic requires research and insight. Going to school for software engineering can help you learn to spot trends in the market and find unfulfilled needs and untapped markets for computer functionality.
Programming Languages and What They’re Good For
Among the thousands of programming languages that exist, there are a few that have risen to the top as the absolute best or the industry standard for particular uses. The following is a list of a few programming languages or computer terms you are guaranteed to run into during software engineering courses, and brief explanations of them.
- Perl: This programming language is used for everything from system administration to bioinformatics applications, and is a key component of the internet. It was invented around 1987 and still forms a major part of the substrate upon which current internet services and web applications are built. Perl is a procedural language, meaning that the programmer defines the steps that the program must take to achieve the sought outcome.
- Ruby on Rails: Ruby is a programming language commonly used for web development, and Rails is a framework that many Ruby developers use to eliminate redundancy in their work. Ruby has existed for longer than Rails, but the two are mentioned together more often than not because of the popularity of Ruby on Rails in the web development community. The popular social network Twitter was originally developed using Ruby on Rails.
- PHP: PHP, or hypertext preprocessor, is an object-oriented, procedural scripting language used primarily for web development. This extremely common language undergirds much of the World Wide Web (which is not the same thing as the internet, but does rely upon it), and is a crucial skill for any software engineer who wants to develop for the web.
Careers for Software Engineers
Computer programmers and software developers are among the most sought after workers in the world now, because the need for them is growing far faster than the number of new ones that are being educated in top universities. Many software engineers work for large corporations like Google for a few years, and then decide to strike out on their own and start companies. There is a whole ecosystem of startup incubators and venture capitalists looking to find the next big idea, develop it rapidly, and monetize it. Some common job titles that appear on employment advertisements for software engineers include:
- Back-end Developer: The back-end of any service or product is the mountain of code that is stored on servers and accessed via the internet, which props up many of the most popular services today.
- User Experience Specialist: The user experience of a product or service is the collective effect of the parts of it that actual people interact with. A web page’s navigation bar, a cell phone’s buttons, a blog’s comments system; these are all part of user experience, and because of the catch-all nature of the term, and the many factors that can influence user experience, there are now people who have the phrase in their job titles.
- Project Lead: These jobs usually go to people with a great deal of experience working with a particular programming tool or standard. You won’t likely get a project lead position right out of school, but a master’s degree will certainly get you closer to this goal.
Career prospects are excellent for new software engineers just entering the field. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for them “is projected to grow 30 percent from 2010-2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.”
Also, “the median annual wage of applications developers was $87,790 in May, 2010.” That number may be slightly different for systems developers or any of the other myriad job titles available in the software industry, but it will still be tens of thousands of dollars higher than the median wage for most occupations. Technology is a great field to get into right now if you want to make money, but it takes an analytical, math-friendly brain to excel in the field.
How to Pick a Software Engineering School
Fortunately, it is a little bit easier to tell which software engineering schools are better than others because high profile companies are quite public about the schools that they recruit and hire from. Unfortunately, those schools are often Ivy League universities, and are super difficult to get into. That’s OK though, because there are plenty of non-Ivy League colleges that provide great instruction on how to be a software engineer.
It helps a lot when choosing a computer science or software engineering program to know what kind of work you are interested in doing. Choosing the topics you study and the programming skills and styles you practice can help you land your first job, and from there, you can let your career be guided by innovations in the field, of which you’ll have an insider view if you work at a major company, or even a new startup.