If you are interested in learning how to become a software engineer or developer then get excited because this career is one of the few highly-skilled, highly-paid and very much in-demand professions that you can enter without a degree and even without having to go to school. In this guide, we dive deep into 3 different paths you can take explaining how to become a software developer. It is possible to go from knowing nothing to becoming a professional in less than a year. So, if this sounds enticing, read on to learn the different options that will show you how to get into software development with or without a degree, what a software engineer does, how long does it take to become a software engineer, salary prospects and more.
What Does a Software Engineer Do?
First off, we should address the fact that you will often see three different terms for this profession: programmer, software developer and software engineer. While there are no official definitions and perceptions of these vary, in general they can be thought of in a hierarchical structure. A programmer is generally someone who knows how to write code. A software developer also knows how to code, but also has some ability do design and technical architecture. A software engineer is able to do all of the above but can design entire systems and can comprehend the big picture. However, you do not necessarily need to start your career as a programmer and work your way up. Where you land ultimately will depend on your knowledge and ability. In this article we will use these terms interchangeably.
Software engineers and software developers design comprehensive, self-contained programs that determine how computers operate and interact with other machines and users. Mixing impressive technical skills with an imaginative flair, they guide, supervise and are a part of the expert teams that create innovative and functional software programs, which are comprised of an integrated set of codes, instructions, procedures, and routines that collect and process data while performing specific user-friendly tasks. Software developers also manage and monitor testing procedures to make sure their programs are running as intended, and then help develop effective solutions when problems arise. Now more than ever the world runs on the software created and maintained by software developers.
Some software developers work on programs and applications that are designed to meet the needs of individual consumers. Others design complex, multilevel programs that can handle the large-scale information collection and processing needs of clients in the industrial, military, corporate, financial, scientific, medical, and communications sectors. The extraordinarily long and ever-expanding list of software development specialties offers aspiring developers a vast array of career choices, which is one of the main reasons why software development has become such a popular occupation among computer enthusiasts.
As a software engineer you could be in microservices, meaning that you constantly are creating new websites and applications. Or you could be part of a team maintaining and fixing bugs on a hugely important website with millions of visitors every month. You could also be writing programs that will interact with smart electronics or solve complex problems. The possibilities truly are endless in software development. The profession is one of the great creative industries of the modern age.
You should definitely also consider learning about how to become a web developer, one of the most interesting and in-demand types of software engineer.
How Much Does a Software Engineer or Software Developer Make?
Software development is a lucrative profession. In 2019, the annual mean wage for software engineers was $107,510, which is approximately double the wage rate ($53,490) for U.S. occupations as a whole. In the two highest paying states—California and Washington—the annual mean salary surpassed the $130,000 mark.
The projected growth rate in the demand for software developers is among the highest for any occupation. Between 2019 and 2029, the number of available software development jobs is expected to increase by 22 percent, which is more than five times the average for all career categories combined.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Software Engineer?
How long it will take you to become a software engineer can actually vary significantly depending on which path you take. In general, there are three very different paths you could take to become a software developer. These are laid out below.
We know of software developers (including one of the authors of this article) who have gone from knowing nothing about the field to being employed within six months. Or if you take the traditional academic route, you could become a developer after completing your four year degree.
So, in general, the answer to the question of how long does it take to become a software developer is anywhere from 6 months to 4 years, depending on the path.
The 3 paths below lay out the steps to follow for each.
How to Become a Software Engineer: A Step-by-Step Guide
PATH 1: Follow a Post-Secondary Education Career Track – The Traditional But Slowest Path
Step 1: Seek a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering or Computer Science
A 2017 study found that 73 percent of professional software developers had one or more college degrees. This included 48 percent who had a bachelor’s degree and 25 percent who had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
Most aspiring developers seek their bachelor’s degree in either software engineering or computer science. There is significant overlap between the responsibilities of a software engineer and a software developer (with the former having more comprehensive responsibilities), which makes software engineering the preferred choice in most cases.
Potential employers won’t be as impressed with your academic credentials if they aren’t backed by real-world experience. Therefore, you should choose a degree program that offers opportunities to serve internships or externships with firms that have software development departments, or with individual developers who can train you in that discipline.
Step 2: Choose a Software Development Specialty
Software engineering is a broad job category that includes a constantly expanding list of specialties. By selecting a specialized area of concentration as the focus of your education and training, you’ll prepare yourself to fill a niche in the job marketplace that harmonizes with your personal interests and increases your employability.
Here’s a brief list of some of the most popular software developer categories, along with a short description of their associated responsibilities:
- Web Developer. Creates information rich, user-friendly webpages and websites.
- Mobile Developer. Invents and/or improves applications for mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones.
- Back-End Developer. Designs and implements software solutions that run on systems remote from the user.
- Front-End Developer. Creates visual programming that computer users interact with on web browsers.
- Middle-Tier Developer. Works on perfecting the software that establishes the connections between front-end and back-end systems.
- Full-Stack Developer. Designs and integrates front-end and back-end systems to create comprehensive and smoothly functional web applications.
- Graphics Developer. Works on creating attractive visual scenes and images and is often employed in gaming and video production.
- Data Scientist. Writes software programs that can dissect, process, and analyze large data sets, as with artificial intelligence and machine learning.
- CRM Developer. Makes software that collects and sorts data from consumers, users, and subscribers, for the benefit of customer service representatives, sales representatives, and account managers.
- Blockchain Developer. Builds decentralized web applications and optimizes the software associated with blockchain systems.
- Enterprise Applications Developer. Creates customized software solutions for businesses that can handle tasks like automated billing, email marketing, payments, and content management.
- Game Developer. Conceives and designs new games, overseeing and contributing to their step-by-step development.
- Cloud Developer. Specializes in software that powers decentralized, multi-user storage systems.
- Embedded Systems Developer. Works on the ”Internet of Things,” developing the remote software that is installed in home appliances and devices.
- Security Software Developer. Works to design or improve security software that can more effectively resist hacking and other unwanted intrusions.
You should select your specialization before your junior year, so you can take the appropriate upper-level elective courses.
Step 3: Find an Entry-Level Position in Software Development
Since the majority of software developers have bachelor’s degrees, your qualifications will compare quite favorably with others who’ve entered the industry. You certainly won’t be at a disadvantage compared to job candidates without an advanced college degree, and with many employers your bachelor’s degree will push you to the head of the line.
Your chances of finding employment in your chosen area of specialty will be enhanced if you completed relevant internships or worked in part-time jobs that relate directly to that specialty. If you’ve completed applicable side projects on your own time, that can boost your odds of getting a job as well.
Step 4: Seek Additional Certification and Supplemental Education
The competition for entry-level jobs in software development is intense. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume your bachelor’s degree will be sufficient to help you get the position you desire.
Fortunately, you can easily boost your credentials by seeking additional training. Online courses and continuing education classes that teach coding and languages are widely available through university extension departments, online training institutes, community colleges and technical schools, and companies involved in the high-tech industry.
Some of the private organizations that offer online training courses in software development and related topics include Codeacademy, Coursera, Udemy, and Devslopes. At the corporate level, Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, Puppet, and Red Hat all have certification programs for aspiring software developers and engineers. Educational institutions in every state have extension courses for adult learners, including those who are interested in learning more about software development and computer programming.
Depending on the course or certification requirements, it may take you one or two sessions, a few days, a few weeks, or up to six months to complete a particular program of study. You can choose programs that will teach you the most commonly used coding languages or help you build your credentials in your preferred area of specialty.
Step 5: Pursue a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering or Computer Science
Wondering how to become a senior software engineer? The main driver is experience but having a master’s degree will help.
Approximately one-quarter of all software developers have a master’s degree. Such a degree helps them qualify them for senior software development positions, or for jobs in management or education. This is also a good option for those who’d like to advance from software developer to software engineer, where project management responsibilities are greater and the compensation better.
PATH 2: Develop Your Skills at a Coding Bootcamp – A Faster Path
The traditional approach outlined above is the slowest and most expensive route. But there are other options, and the next two paths are great for someone who may want to change careers or didn’t get a bachelor’s degree or got one in an unrelated field. So read on to learn how to become a software engineer without a degree.
Step 1: Find and Enroll in a High-Quality Coding Bootcamp
While it will take you four years to enter the software development industry if you pursue a college degree, the coding bootcamp route can have you working in software development within a year. These programs offer an intensive, three-to-six month learning experience, teaching students how to program computers using the same languages that are used by experienced software developers.
Coding bootcamps are proliferating. However, quality control is often lacking in this industry, which means you’ll need to do some serious research (i.e., reading reviews and talking to others who’ve actually attended the camps you’re considering) to find top-quality coding bootcamps with an impressive record of success.
These immersive courses are highly challenging, both intellectually and from a time-management perspective. But students who remain focused and dedicated can learn vital skills and knowledge that will prepare them for employment as entry-level software developers (or possibly as interns, if their prospective employers believe they need more experience before assuming significant responsibilities).
In one survey, 84 percent of hiring managers at tech firms agreed that coding bootcamps are just as effective at preparing students for jobs as software developers as traditional four-year universities. Nevertheless, the recent multiplication of coding bootcamps—and coding bootcamp graduates—has made it somewhat more difficult to obtain employment with such a background than it was several years ago.
Step 2: Deepen Your Knowledge with Specialized Coursework or Classes
If you’re fortune is good and your interviews are impressive, you may be able to obtain entry-level employment as a software engineer based entirely on your experiences in a coding bootcamp.
However, your chances of breaking into software development will be enhanced if you continue your education and deepen your knowledge of coding, languages, and frameworks through specialized coursework that leads to certification. These interactive, practically-oriented classes are widely available and accessible, and are being taught online more and more frequently.
Carrying certifications in software development from prestigious organizations like Microsoft, Oracle, or Red Hat, or from university extension programs that feature academically rigorous coursework, will impress potential employers. Your pursuit of more knowledge and training will prove that your interest in a career in software development reflects a legitimate and deep-seated interest in the field.
Step 3: Find an Entry-Level Position as a Software Engineer/Developer
Building your skill and knowledge bases in a coding bootcamp will help you get your foot in the door with hiring managers at many tech companies. To actually secure an entry-level job, however, it may be your additional experiences in certification courses and continuing education programs that push you over the top. Entry-level work could involve more training before you’re assigned supervisory responsibilities, but you’ll still be under contract and receiving a regular salary as you learn.
Step 4: Enhance Your Resume with More Continuing Education Courses
Even after you’ve found a job in software development, you should continue to pursue your education by participating in online learning programs, taking in-person night classes, purchasing video courses, or otherwise seeking out opportunities to learn more about the latest technological developments in your profession.
This will demonstrate your dedication to current and potential future employers. Career success as a software developer requires a proactive approach to staying up-to-date and informed, regardless of the specific career path you’ve chosen.
PATH 3: Self-Study and Self-Directed Learning – A Fast Path Which Costs the Least Amount of Money
If you are motivated and self-disciplined, it is possible to teach yourself coding and put together a portfolio of applications, websites and projects in as little as 6 months. Keep in mind this would be committing yourself to full-time study and focus. This is one of the most amazing paths of any career because, if you really dig in, you can get into a very lucrative career with strong demand for your skills in less time than it takes for almost any other white-collar profession. Read on to learn how to become a software developer from scratch and without a degree.
Step 1: Teach Yourself the Basics
Step 2: Choose a Software Development Specialty
Your quest to develop superior qualifications in the software development field through self-guided learning will be more likely to succeed if you choose a special area of concentration. Your choice should be based largely on personal interest, but your future marketability to employers is an important concern as well.
By eschewing the conventional educational route, to some extent you’ll need to overcompensate by achieving a long list of certifications and completing more online or continuing education classes and producing a more robust portfolio. This will be far easier to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time (two years or less) if you choose a specialty and make it your primary focus, and avoid the temptation to spread yourself too thin when you’re still in the learning stage.
Some of the most common languages and specialties are:
- Java (common with enterprise applications)
- .NET (this is a framework which is most often used with the languages C# or VB.net)
- Python (often used in Artificial intelligence and data science)
- PHP (which powers WordPress website which comprise about thirty percent of the world’s websites)
There are many more programming languages, but the ones above are generally the most marketable. Some other languages that are not as common include Ruby, Haskell, R, Go, Rust, and COBOL.
Step 3: Select Coursework and Certification Programs Relevant to Your Specialty
As you explore your non-degree-granting educational options, you should take a respectable amount of time to focus on building up your knowledge and skillset. Without a college degree to show to possible employers, you must concentrate on creating a resume that is rich in certifications and hands-on experiential activities.
With so many educational options available for highly motivated, self-guided learners, it can be difficult to know which courses to take and which course providers to trust. Therefore, the safest path is to choose courses (with certification or not) and learning experiences offered by schools, companies, or institutes with established reputations in the industry. Coursera, EdX, CodeAcademy, Devslopes, Scrum, Salesforce, Microsoft, Oracle, Udemy and Pluralsight are some of the more dependable options, as are major universities with high-quality extension programs.
While the safe approach guarantees a sound and solid education, you may have to broaden your scope somewhat to find providers who offer instruction in the languages, frameworks, and specialty or specialties you’re most interested in studying. Charting a unique path has its advantages, but you may have a harder time finding the proper training if you narrow your educational options excessively.
Step 4: Launch Your Own Software Development Projects and Develop a Portfolio
Once you’ve gained a good base of understanding in coding, languages, frameworks, and basic software development principles, you should take your self-study program to the next level by planning and executing a series of independent projects and websites. You will use these projects to create a portfolio of your work, which will act as a substitute for the internships or work experience you never had the chance to secure.
Over time, as your experience and education progresses, you should be able to tackle more complex development projects. Potential employers evaluating you based on this type of work will want to see evidence of your advancement, which will show you have the dedication and motivation it takes to compete successfully in a highly competitive field.
Step 5: Seek Entry-Level Employment, or Pursue an Independent Course as a Freelancer
With a rich portfolio of intriguing personal projects, plus a substantial list of hard-earned certifications that testify to your exhaustive efforts to learn, you should be able to convince at least some hiring managers of your software development prowess. You might want to hone your communication skills by taking classes in public speaking or interview preparation before you start putting yourself out there, since you’ll have to be eloquent and persuasive if you expect to land a position without a college degree.
Since you’ve already done most of the hard work on your own, you could choose to stay on an independent path by becoming a freelance software developer. To launch a career as a freelancer, you would need to:
- Build an online portfolio and display it on social media sites, employment sites, or your own personal website
- Contribute articles or tutorials to sites that accept them
- Attend meet-up groups and software development or engineering conferences, and introduce yourself widely
- Contribute to open source development projects, or volunteer to build websites or perform other software development-related tasks for startups or non-profit or community organizations
- Search for clients on online platforms that cater to the freelance market
Regardless of your ultimate choice of career path, you’ll need to refresh your knowledge base constantly by taking online classes and adding new independent software development projects to your portfolio.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Software Engineer
Pros of Becoming a Software Engineer
The services of software engineers are in high demand. Once they’ve proven they can get the job done, they should have no shortage of suitors. Software developers enjoy impressive compensation packages, which frequently include added benefits beyond a high salary, such health and life insurance, paid vacations, access to profit-sharing plans, and the ability to work from home on a regular basis. Employed in an industry that prizes innovation, software developers generally enjoy a great degree of autonomy, and are actively encouraged to follow their creative instincts wherever they might lead. In addition to having the freedom to work from home, software developers can often customize their work schedules in any way they’d like, which makes it easier to balance work, personal, and life responsibilities. In addition, software engineering is a great choice for someone who would enjoy having the freedom to work from anywhere in the world, as their services are in demand all over the globe.
Cons of Becoming a Software Engineer
Because of the intense complexity of the work, software development can be a high-pressure career choice for some people. Software developers may be challenged by the rapid evolution of their industry, and unless they stay current through continuing education courses and/or self-education they may struggle to keep up with the latest trends and developments. While the salaries for software developers are impressive, a significant percentage of the best jobs are found in states or cities with high costs of living, which can offset some of the financial advantages developers enjoy. The work of a software developer can be lonely and isolating at times, with long hours spent in front of a computer attempting to solve difficult problems or finish detailed and exacting tasks. Sitting at a computer much of the day can be challenging on the neck, back, shoulders and wrists as well, although this is now a common situation among most white-collar professions.
Important Characteristics of a Successful Software Developer
The best software developers truly enjoy the collaborative, creative and restorative process. They gain a great sense of satisfaction from their contribution to a project’s success, but they are just as pleased to see others accomplish their goals and develop their potentials. Software development is inherently inclusive and the top developers are natural team players. Software developers enjoy fixing bugs and restoring the health of an application and coming up with new and creative ways to solve problems and design services.
Computer technology changes rapidly, and that can have a dramatic impact on software engineers who fail to keep up with the evolution of their profession. That’s why the top software developers are eager learners who enjoy the challenge of keeping up with all the changes. They see self-study and continuing education as exciting avenues for self-development and self-improvement. Successful software developers are naturally high-achievers.
Successful software engineers are big-picture thinkers with the advanced analytical skills required to implement their expansive creative visions. They are natural and highly effective problems solvers, both during the design stage and later when they need to make adjustments to fix thorny performance issues. No matter the challenges that confront them, after some time to reflect they will come up with innovative solutions that really work.
Even though they must work well with others, outstanding software develops will inevitably possess a strong independent streak. They aren’t afraid to pursue unique ideas or explore unproven concepts, since they trust their own instincts and are willing to follow their brainstorms wherever they might lead. While they acknowledge industry trends and respect the success of others, they aren’t overly deferential or afraid that charting an independent course will lead to failure. The software industry demands innovation, and the very best software developers welcome the challenge.
Software development is such an exciting profession! Not only are they well-paid, do fun and creative work and are highly in-demand, but it is one of the few professions where a person can make a career change and transition into the field so quickly. This guide on how to become a programmer or software engineer is designed to help you discover if this profession is right for you. We hope it has answered for you the question of how do you become a software engineer and helped you make a decision, one way or another, so that you may progress forward on your journey!
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