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.

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.

Why a Career As a Software Engineer is Not Sound

I believe the value (or pay) of a person in the market is defined by the following factors:
1) innate qualities
2) knowledge & experience
3) people skills & network

Innate qualities are born with, including appearance, intelligence, personality, etc. And educational background, academic performance, etc, are closely related with one’s innate qualities. But since it’s almost impossible to improve this aspect, it’s useless to say too much about it.

Knowledge & experience, people skills & network are the two aspects that differentiates people’s value (pay). However, a career in IT excels in neither fields on the long term.

The following are my reasons. Now and then, I will refer to the three factors mentioned above.

1 IT is a fast-changing industry by its nature, so in most domains of technology, knowledge is hard to accumulate steadily. A 20-year software engineer is likely the same as a 10-year software engineer in terms of knowledge (but inferior in terms of energy level).

1.1 Some might argue that a good software accumulates a set of knowledge (such as desgin patterns, algorithms, debugging experience) that survives the fast-changing industry, but the fact is that these account only for a very small portion of knowledge required for real projects.

1.2 Also, some might argue that there are domains of technology that changes slower, such as system-level programming (compiler, OS). This is true, and one might be lucky enough to accumulate a huge amount of expertise. But the risk of such a career is still high. Since one is very deep into one technology, once the technology is out-of-date the penalty is severe. This is the nature of technology, it will be out-of-date sooner than many other things such as people skills & network.

1.3 Well, going deep in one technology is risky, then what about going wide in many technologies as a generalist engineer? But rarely are there any projects need such kind of people instead of experts of each individual domain of technology.

2 In addition to the fast-changing nature of the IT industry, limited personal influence also contributes to the low ceiling of the career. A good engineer cannot directly make other people on the team better software engineers, while a good manager can directly make the whole team, divsion, or even the company succeed. With many other careers such as sales, surgeons, traders, the vital difference is that sales, surgeons, traders play a greater role as an individual, while a software project requires a team of 30 to 3000 people.

2.1 Moreover, sales, surgeons, traders also deal with people, that makes them potential people managers in future, while software engineers deal with technology which hardly leads them to people management roles. In fact, most senior managers in IT are not previous software engineers. The point is that software engineers accumulate little in terms of people skills & network.

3 The IT industry is also infamous for its locations. Since the nature of the career requires little interaction with customers, software engineers often have to work in remote locations with lower rent or undeveloped districts with lower pay. The suburban sci-tech parks in China and the outsourcing trend in the U.S. are respective evidence of such claim.

4 Software engineers are not very much respected. The reason could be comprehensive. I personally believe that it is closely related with the low pay growth.

When is a Software Engineer Not a Software Engineer?

The title of “software engineer” has got to be among the most highly abused in the corporate high-tech world. It’s also one of the most popular.

And why not? It sounds a lot better than “computer programmer,” and it looks much better on one’s business card. Unfortunately, it’s often inaccurate. Engineering is, after all, the application of sound technical principles to develop systems that are robust, efficient and elegant. I’ve found that a great many software engineers can develop working programs, but do little or no real engineering design.

Does this sound harsh? Perhaps, but I’ve also found it hard to deny. I’ve encountered very few software engineers, for example, who have clean, crisp and readable coding styles–an essential element of elegant software design. I’ve also encountered a preponderance of cryptically written functions, clumsy software abstractions and bizarre spaghetti code. To my dismay, I’ve discovered that even among computer science graduates, many reduce object-oriented programming to the mere use of private data, public functions and object instantiations. It’s enough to break a teacher’s heart.

Now, I won’t go so far as to say that most programmers write spaghetti code. That would not be fair. However, I do think that relatively few programmers have a deep appreciation for the artistry of software development. That’s not to say that they’re ignorant of such things; not at all. Rather, it’s more that the engineering aspects of elegant code design are all too often neglected.

I think this happens because modern programming tools have made proper code design seem like a nuisance. In the early years of computing, people were forced to write out their software designs, pondering many fine details before they ever sat down in front of the computer. Nowadays, with our fast compilers and interactive debugging systems, programmers often find it more convenient to simply sit down and start coding, with just a modicum of software design. Mind you, I do understand that this is sometimes more efficient–when the programming task is fairly routine, for example. However, when such design-as-you-go software development becomes standard practice, then you have the makings of utter chaos.

In part, this problem is also rooted in the malleable nature of computer software. No self-respecting civil engineer would design a bridge by slapping girders together until he has something that works; after all, if the bridge collapses, it could take months to rebuild it. Similarly, no sensible architect would want to build a house without blueprints and floor plans. Yet it is commonplace for programmers to develop software using poorly chosen functions and only the sketchiest of designs. After all, if the software doesn’t work, they can always find the bug and fix it–at least, in theory. In practice, these bugs are often difficult to detect, and fixing them can require extensive surgery. The consequences of an ill-designed software program can be disastrous indeed.

For this reason, I believe that high-tech companies need to give software engineering the respect that it deserves. They need to develop a true culture of systematic software design, instead of merely settling for “whatever works.” A company that’s looking toward the future must pay proper devotion to the principles of software maintainability, proper documentation and elegant, robust design. It must also inculcate a culture of true software engineering among its employees. The failure to do so may work in the short-term, but it is a recipe for long-term disaster.