What is the Difference Between a Software Engineer and a Computer Programmer?

The terms software engineer or computer programmer may be confusing to the average computer user. Most of us associate computer programs with the generic term ‘Software’. To us it may seem that the terms are interchangeable. That is not so. The role played by a software engineer is significantly different from that of a computer programmer. Before learning what the difference between a software engineer and a computer programmer is, let us see what is meant by the term software engineering and how it relates to computer programming.

Software engineering is a rigorous approach to development, maintenance and testing of software. These are engineers who must be knowledgeable about software requirements, design, development, maintenance and testing. They must be well versed with the tools and methods used for the development process as a whole. It is thus a convergence of the fields of computer science and systems engineering with a great deal of project management added for good measure. They are expected to have technical skills in addition to managerial skills.

A computer programmer on the other hand, is required to develop, test and maintain code that is to be run on the computer. He is responsible for converting the specifications provided in the software requirements definition phase into working code for the computer. Computer programmers are involved with design and maintenance of websites too. They should be proficient in analysis of programs. They are required to collaborate with manufacturers in developing new methodologies for software with evolution of hardware. Training, documentation and generation of reports are also tasks that should be handled by a computer programmer.

We can observe that the skill set required by a computer programmer is a subset of the skills expected from a software engineer. The computer programmer is a specialist in some areas covered by software engineering. A software engineer is in charge of the overall software development process and is expected to improve the reliability and maintainability of this complex process. A software engineer may have a team of computer programmers working under his supervision. 

The Challenges of a Software Engineer

While it’s true that the engineer is also a programmer, and there are some design duties included in the core job functions, there are also some very fundamental, critical differences in the manner in which software engineers, programmers, and designers complete their work. Many engineers would also argue that there is a marked difference in the quality and performance of the products they produce as well.

Software engineer jobs take a more formal approach to the process of programming software. The manner in which engineers complete their work is much more similar to traditional engineering processes than it is to software programming or designing methods.

Software engineers are often involved in the most complex of design or programming activities. Though every day, run of the mill programs can be designed by less skilled folks, many programs can’t be trusted to just any old programmer.

For example, programs that control important processes – especially in circumstances where human lives may be lost if an error occurs in a program – are primarily the realm of highly skilled software engineers. After all, you don’t want the software that runs a key piece of medical equipment or that which drives the operating system of a nuclear submarine to fail.

This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of design engineer jobs with which incumbents must constantly contend. They are tasked with ensuring the smooth and efficient operations of incredibly complex and sometimes frightening processes with computer enhanced systems.

Design engineers are tasked not only with creating a software program that will serve the basic needs of a business, organization, or other client, but they must also foresee the potential pitfalls associated with the program as well. They must be able to grasp the technological concepts of the methods or practices with which the program is intended to interface and design the software appropriately for the highly technical, and often potentially dangerous, environment in which it will be used.

Although the average programmer or designer may be able to afford a few minor glitches, for those working in design engineer jobs, there is often no such thing as a minor glitch. Of the software fails, the consequences can be great. The pressure that design engineers face on a daily basis is tremendous for this very reason.

Software engineers also face some other unique challenges in the IT world. They must often complete a lot more paperwork than most IT professionals. Once again remaining true to the engineering trade, software engineers will draft designs, test them for quality, integrity and performance, and will frequently redesign them several times before moving from paper or prototypes to the real deal. In fact, many of those who work in software engineer jobs will spend as much as 70 – 80% of their time dealing with paperwork and only 20 – 30% actually writing code for the software itself.

Computer Software Engineer Jobs – Are You Interested in a Career As a Software Engineer?

Computer software engineers are responsible for using mathematics and computer science in order to develop and test computer programming. They will have the primary responsibility of developing a number of different programs, which can include word processing applications and computer games, in addition to operating systems and network applications.

Computer engineering professionals will first analyze the needs of their clients, and then they will create a detailed set of algorithm instructions which can include programming, although this will usually be outsourced to computer programmers. Applications software engineers will often use raw codes such as Java, in order to create applications software, while system engineers will often help a corporation organize its operating systems.

Systems software will usually require a lot of tinkering in order to make sure that it can be utilized effectively by corporations, and engineers will frequently need to modify operating systems and programming in order to meet the needs of their clients.

These individuals will usually work in teams which can include marketing departments, manufacturing, engineering, designers, and artists, in order to work together to bring a software product to market.

System software engineers may work alone depending on the size of the business that their servicing, and they may have assistants underneath them in order to perform the more routine tasks of installing operating systems and other systems applications.

These individuals will frequently work 40 hours a week in clean and comfortable office environments, although they may experience repetitive motion strain and back discomfort. Most employers will require a bachelor’s degree and experience in computer programming, and four fifths of all software engineers had at least a bachelors degree.

In 2006, software engineers had about 850,000 jobs in America, with most working on applications, and about a third working on systems software. A minority of these individuals are freelance computer programmers. Job prospects overall are expected to be quite good and this field will be one of the fastest areas of growth in America over the next decade.

In 2006, the middle 50th percentile of these professionals made between $63,000 and $98,000, while computer systems engineers made more at between $68,000 and $105,000. In 2007, Robert Half Technology reported that software engineers made between $66,500 and $99,750 annually.