Software ‘Developer’ or ‘Engineer’: What’s the Difference?

An Engineer oversees the system as whole using engineering principles, whilst a developer focuses on creating functional software.

5 MIN READ

The answer? Well it depends on who you ask!

There isn't an official distinction between the roles, with companies using their own experience and knowledge to define descriptions that suit their needs. To confuse matter further, there can be regional variations as well, with a distinct difference in education. However, the variety of data sources can be assessed and analysed to draw conclusions from.

According to Computer Science Degree Hub software developers and software engineers have separate roles:

“Software engineering refers to the application of engineering principles to create software. Software engineers participate in the software development life cycle through connecting the client’s needs with applicable technology solutions. Thus, they systematically develop processes to provide specific functions. In the end, software engineering means using engineering concepts to develop software.

On the other hand, software developers are the driving creative force behind programs. Software developers are responsible for the entire development process. They are the ones who collaborate with the client to create a theoretical design. They then have computer programmers create the code needed to run the software properly. Computer programmers will test and fix problems together with software developers. Software developers provide project leadership and technical guidance along every stage of the software development life cycle.”

Udacity agrees there is a strong separation:

“The terms Software Developer and Software Engineer, contrary to popular belief, are not interchangeable. A Developer knows how to code and may have the technical skills needed to build meaningful products. A software engineer follows a systematic process of understanding requirements, working with stakeholders and developing a solution that fulfills their needs. A Developer tends to work alone. A software engineer is part of a larger team”

So what does that mean in practise? Let’s explore the difference in more detail.
 

Software Engineer Skills and Job Descriptions


A Software Engineer is a highly proficient Software Developer that is capable of managing a complex system. A person who is not only able to build a fully functioning app but is experienced enough to know how to build it in a way that is easy to refactor, self-documenting, and as a result easier to debug. 

They will play an active role as a leader, consultant and individual contributor on various projects. They must provide analytical advice in identifying and implementing new IT uses in order to help clients and the company reach strategic objectives. They must be able to manage resources, coordinate development tasks and supervise technical project plans. They often collaborate with IT, operations and development staff through the software development lifecycle

They know that consideration and forethought on the front end can save days of work and headaches down the road. They devote themselves not to making the cleverest code, but to making their code obvious. They know the best piece of code is the one you never have to write. 

Software Engineers are expected to:

  • Have technical expertise, with experience working on a wide range of projects  
  • Be proficient with pattern design to create resilient and fault tolerant systems
  • Use testing automation using tools such as Gherkin, Cucumber or Ansible
  • Know how to create and maintain IT architecture, large-scale data stores, and cloud-based systems. 
  • Build scalable deployment pipelines, to support Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery
  • They must be able to work effectively by themselves and with remote teams.
  • Senior software engineers must oversee complex systems analysis, design and development programs. 

A Software Engineer role will typically involve:

  • Research, design, develop and test their software as well as compiling and distributing software over the network
  • Modify existing software is to resolve defects, to adopt a new hardware or improve its performance.
  •  Analyze the user needs and assess software requirement including design feasibility and  cost/time constraints. 
  • Consulting with customers regarding specification and design. 
  • Coordination of system software for deployment and installation
  • Supervising is the work of technologists and engineers
     

Software Developer Skills and Job Description

A software developer is not just responsible for the writing code, they must also review the current system, making ideas for improvements, including effort required to do so. A software developer will work closely with analysts, end users/marketing, and designers.

Software Developers must also ensure their code works by testing it, using controlled and real situations before you can go to live. They must have an eye for perfection in order to properly solve bugs and revisions of programs to increase operating efficiency. 

The best software developer is creative and has the technical expertise to come up with an innovative idea to solve  a customer problem and are experienced enough to see many problems before they arise.

A software developer typically following a development lifecycle methodology or delivery framework such as Scrum, XP, or Kanban.

Software developers must have:

  • Excellent analytical skills because they will be required to continually compare needs with software capabilities. 
  • They must be familiar with computer languages in order to effectively work with computer programs, such as Java, C#, C++, Python
  • Be experienced with using open source tools such as GitHub
  • Great feedback and communication skills, with a strong attention to detail, as minor errors could result in major problems
  • Being detail orientated will help them manage simultaneous projects at different development stages.
  • Understand the logic of code even in languages they unfamiliar with.

Software developers must continually monitor the changes they make, including resolving defects, to ensure high quality and consistency. Consequently, they must constantly shift between assigned work, managing deadlines, and schedules.
 

Summary

To summarise the main differences between the software developer and engineer: 
A developer executes. Their talents often focused on a single area. Without the need for the “big picture”. So the software developer is mainly focused on developing code that is a part of software development cycle. 

An engineer designs and plans applying the principles of engineering to software development. Always aware of the “big picture”, with talents in many areas. An engineer can assume the developer role, but an engineer’s core focus lies with architecture. 
In the end, the main difference between software engineering and software development is that the latter oversees the engineering while the former focuses on creating functional programs.

Anyone can be a software developer. If you know a small amount of programming concept then you have the foundation to become Software Developer. They write code without any performance and scalability analysis. More of this element is completed by the Software Engineer, making that role different from a Software Developer.

There is always something new to learn if you are a Software Developer or Engineer, with many people switching between the two roles depending on the project and client.

Have look on SheCanCode new Beta Job Board, which advertises roles from companies which take diversity seriously. You can assess the difference between current Software Developer and Software Engineer roles for yourself.

Do you agree with my summary or not? Let me know what you think via the comments box below


Project & Program Manager with over 15 years’ experience delivering IT infrastructure and application projects using traditional, agile and continuous delivery methods. Claire has a high tolerance for ambiguity and has worked within fast-paced and high-pressure environments, taking an entrepreneurial approach. Currently completing an Executive MBA at Surrey Business School.

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