What's The Difference: Software Developer vs. Software Engineer


Updated November 9, 2023

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The software developer vs. software engineer question is common among learners exploring their tech career options. Learn the difference with this career guide.

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The software developer vs. software engineer issue confuses many aspiring technology professionals. Developers and engineers apply advanced technical skills to create computer programs, and their roles overlap in many ways.

While the two professional roles share similar responsibilities and educational backgrounds, they generally differ in their methods and outcomes. Aspiring software professionals may confuse the two positions, but software developers and engineers typically handle different steps when creating applications.

Explore this guide to learn more about the job profiles and specific skills associated with each profession.

Software Development

Software developers apply their advanced insights to create, test, and refine specialized computer applications. They primarily build programs and apps for consumer markets based on user needs.

In performing their core functions, software developers collaborate with other team members, including software testers and quality assurance (QA) analysts. Developers mainly work for specialized computer design companies, though some maintain permanent in-house positions in industries including finance, insurance, and manufacturing.

To create computer and mobile applications, software developers use tools to build, test, update, debug, and refine their creations. Widely used examples include GitHub, Azure, Chrome DevTools, and Atom.

Developers also use programming languages to write the code that makes software run. Examples of common programming languages include Python, Java, Ruby and Ruby on Rails, HTML, C#, and C++, among others.

Software developers typically train by earning bachelor's or master's degrees in computer science or information technology. Others develop targeted skills in compact career training programs known as coding bootcamps. Aspiring software developers can also build the necessary knowledge and skills through self-directed learning.

Developers often build their skills by working as testers and QA analysts before graduating into senior roles.

Software Developer Skills

  • Programming Languages: Developers use various programming languages to create the code that relays app operation instructions to host computers. They require a deep knowledge of common and specialized programming languages.
  • Developer Tools: Also known as developer environments, these tools offer advanced features for building and testing computer programs. Developers benefit from extensive knowledge of multiple platforms, as each offers different situation-specific functions.
  • Mathematics and Problem-Solving Skills: Software developers regularly use logical and linear thinking. These professionals must also find creative ways to debug their programs and solve other issues that arise during the development process.
  • Knowledge of Computing Trends: Successful developers have advanced insights into key trends shaping computer and software usage in consumer markets. They also follow technical trends in the industry and self-direct regular upgrades to their skill sets.

Software Engineering

Engineering principles include a general set of logic-based and process-based concepts used to guide product and system development. Software engineers apply engineering principles to creating applications. Examples of these applications include purpose-built productivity platforms, computer games, and network control systems.

In a sense, engineering principles function as one of the tools specifically used by software engineers. Core engineering principles for software include:

  • The testability and maintainability of program functions
  • Design, verification, and assurance processes (also described as "integrity")
  • Clear and specific external integration standards

Software engineers also have advanced expertise in the same development tools and programming languages.

Unlike many other engineering specializations, software engineers do not require a license. Instead, they ascend into the role through targeted professional experience and strong technical skills.

Software engineers generally develop technical skills in academic settings, such as degree programs and engineering bootcamps. However, as with software development, self-directed learning remains an option for software engineers. Many employers value hard skills and performance capabilities over formal credentials.

The software engineering career path includes tiered levels covering associate, junior, intermediate, and senior roles. Engineers often begin in entry-level associate or junior roles, then move up the ladder every 1-3 years.

Software Engineer Skills

  • Writing and Testing Code: Like developers, software engineers write, test, and debug computer code. These job functions depend on extensive knowledge of developer environments and programming languages.
  • Deep Insights into User Needs: Software engineers often conceive of new computer applications and performance features to improve existing applications. Thus, they require a strong understanding of users' unique preferences and needs.
  • Object-Oriented Design: Industry observers have cataloged a strong move toward object-oriented design (OOD) over the past decades. OOD conceives of software design as a set of processes guided by interactions between abstract data types known as objects. As with many other core software engineer skills, this overlaps with the professional duties of software developers.
  • Collaboration and Interpersonal Skills: One of the defining aspects of the software engineer vs. developer issue is that engineers generally interact with a broader set of collaborators. These include clients, other engineers, software developers, cybersecurity specialists, and nontechnical professionals in management or executive roles.

What's the Difference Between Software Developers and Engineers?

Tech industry insiders often explore the difference between software developers vs. software engineers through direct comparisons. One commonly cited model describes engineers as creators of the architecture that powers computer applications and developers as individuals who use that architecture to carry out programming tasks. In this sense, software developers function as a specialized subset of software engineers.

Another model explaining the difference describes engineers as the professionals who conceive of and design solution-oriented systems. Meanwhile, developers apply technical skills to refine and realize those systems. To use a metaphor, think of software creation like a restaurant — software engineers design the menu, while software developers make the actual food.

Despite technical differences in their job profiles, the fields of software development and software engineering often overlap. Many employers and industry sources even use the terms interchangeably. Engineers and developers work together, and dynamic software products cannot function without the contributions of both types of professionals.

Other sources and organizations use alternate terminology, using "front-end developer" to describe software developers and "back-end developer" to describe engineers. Most observers consider software engineering the more difficult and complex discipline, which is reflected in their higher average pay rates.

The following table summarizes key similarities and differences between the two job titles.

Front-End vs. Back-End Developers
Software Developers Software Engineers

What They Do

  • Execute theoretical product designs by writing and testing code and functions
  • Debug and troubleshoot issues encountered during the development process
  • Architect solutions to high-level usage issues and problems regarding computer applications
  • Build scalable software products and systems
  • Write and test code

Average Salary



Programming Languages

Python, Java, Ruby and Ruby on Rails, HTML, C#, and C++, and others

Engineers and developers have comparable programming language proficiencies

Frameworks and Libraries

Django, Flask, TurboGears, PyTorch, Ruby on Rails, Garden, Spring, Play, and others

Engineers and developers have comparable framework and library proficiencies

Who They Work With

Software engineers, testers, and QA specialists

End clients, software developers, cybersecurity specialists, nontechnical stakeholders

Source: Payscale, November 2022

Which Career Is Right for Me?

Software engineers and developers both possess advanced technical skills relating to programming languages, dev environments, frameworks, and libraries. Both career paths also draw heavily on strong logic, sequential thinking, and problem-solving skills.

However, software engineers generally deal with broader questions of product and system design. Conversely, software developers primarily focus on carrying out the technical tasks that bring theoretical concepts and designs to life.

Professionals who combine high-level creative and conceptual thinking with strong technical skills may be more drawn to engineering roles. Individuals with more task-oriented mindsets regarding product development, debugging, and troubleshooting may make a better match for software development.

Common Software Developer vs. Software Engineer Questions

Is software development easy?

Software developers require advanced skills in programming, navigating development environments, and troubleshooting. The profession demands aptitudes for problem-solving and logical thinking. It is a challenging career path, as reflected by its high pay rates.

How do you become a software developer?

Aspiring developers can build foundational skills through bootcamps, degree programs, or self-directed learning. From there, the typical career path includes gaining experience in tester and QA roles before working as a senior front-end developer.

What does a software engineer do?

Software engineers create practical solutions to computing and networking needs. They design, create, test, and refine applications that meet those needs using the same set of technical tools as software developers.

How long does it take to become a software engineer?

Employers split the software engineering profession into ranked tiers that reflect seniority and relative levels of responsibility. Entry-level associate and junior roles are open to new professionals, while intermediate roles require at least 1-3 years of experience. Senior software engineers usually have at least five years of experience.

Reviewed by: Darnell Kenebrew

Darnell Kenebrew is a data analytics engineer at Meta and an executive captain for COOP Careers — a nonprofit for overcoming underemployment. A first-generation college graduate, Kenebrew earned a bachelor's in computer science, kicking off his career in tech, data, and engineering.

Kenebrew strongly believes in giving people a chance and that everyone should have an equal opportunity within the job market. He believes that COOP Careers helps this equality materialize.

Kenebrew is passionate about how the industry is shaped with data and how data can be leveraged in many aspects of business decisions to meet goals. In addition, he's passionate about inclusion, community, education, and using data for good. He hopes that he can pivot business decisions to make a meaningful impact and that his work will positively impact end users while meeting business goals.

Kenebrew is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Page last reviewed Nov 8, 2022

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