Programmer vs. Software Engineer: What’s the Difference?

programming and software engineer

With so much overlap between the many exciting roles in the technology industry, it’s easy to confuse the characteristics that set certain roles apart — especially when it comes to programmers and software engineers. While individuals in each role frequently work together, it’s common for both programmers and software engineers to share certain skills. Getting a better understanding of each role and how they interact can help you determine your path in the industry.

As you explore the differences between the two, keep in mind that there will still be a fair amount of overlap when you browse job listings. While this article is intended to highlight their technical differences, employers may not be aware of the intricacies of each title, which can result in the two terms being used interchangeably. As an aspiring coder, you’ll be able to determine whether you’re a good fit for a particular job description once you gain an understanding of the specific skills used in each role.

What Is Programming?

Typically, programmers use code to perform their jobs, working closely with engineers, designers, and other programmers, who can provide further instructions and guidance on projects.

Keep in mind, coding is a general term that refers simply to writing code. As such, programmers tend to write code with an entire project in mind, while coders take a narrower approach, focusing on a particular part or feature in a larger project. However, some companies will still hire programmers for the sole purpose of having them write code in addition to other job responsibilities, such as creating programs from scratch, writing out instructions, or anything in between.

Skills

To be successful, programmers should have strong coding practices that include a solid understanding of the coding languages used most frequently, as well as the ability to read code, create code that is readable and clean, and debug software.

Education

A computer programming or computer science degree remains the most common route to becoming a programmer, however many programmers take their learning into their own hands and opt for a less formal education like a coding boot camp. Rather than covering the theory behind programming, these accelerated courses let learners gain the specific technical skills they need through hands-on practice. Regardless of the path you choose, analytical and math skills can be helpful in understanding coding concepts.

What Is a Software Engineer?

As the name suggests, a software engineer applies engineering principles to the various software and hardware systems that work in a given environment, including software development and other tasks related to it. In many cases, individuals in this role work closely with clients to ensure that the software they create fits the clients’ needs.

Skills

Much like programmers, software engineers must have a solid background in mathematics and general programming skills in order to understand the language featured in their software. However, unlike programmers, these professionals also bring a background in scientific method and have an understanding of engineering principles crucial to the role, along with good communication skills to relay information between teams and clients.

Education

In most cases, software engineering positions require an undergraduate degree in software or computer engineering, plus five years of relevant experience. For programmers hoping to leverage their professional experience to become a software engineer or individuals eager to join the field from another industry, completing a coding boot camp can, with hard work, help you supplement the educational requirements — however some experience will typically still be necessary.

What Type of Jobs Involve Programming?

Common Responsibilities

Programming jobs typically involve a relatively limited scope of responsibilities. For the most part, they focus on writing, editing, and evaluating code based on instructions from software developers, designers, or engineers. This requires the ability to debug code — including both identifying and fixing them — as well as understand algorithms.

Due to this limited scope, it’s common for programmers to work on just one stage in a project’s life cycle or on a single stage at a time. Contrasted with software engineers, who create the blueprints, plan ahead, and look at the bigger picture, programmers interpret the guidelines provided and turn them into code.

In most cases, programmers specialize in a handful of programming languages to allow for the in-depth knowledge required to successfully write and debug code. Since the role doesn’t usually require interaction with clients or large-scale planning, programmers tend to spend most of their time on individual work once they’ve received direction from someone on their team.

Overall, common responsibilities for programmers include:

  • Writing and testing code
  • Writing programs based on provided specifications
  • Executing code builds in production and test environments
  • Fixing bugs in code
  • Collaborating with design, marketing, and product teams for instruction
  • Maintaining documentation
  • Resolving problems submitted by users
  • Writing computer instructions

Common Types of Jobs

In addition to general programming roles, there are a variety of other jobs open to individuals with programming skills. As you browse the list below, note that many of the roles focus on programming in a particular type of situation or environment.

  • Back End Systems Developer: Focuses on programming the parts of apps and programs that are hidden from the view of users.
  • Computer Programmer: The classic role for programmers, this job involves writing and rewriting programs to ensure they do not contain errors.
  • Computer Systems Analyst: Merges a company’s IT and business initiatives by evaluating network systems and suggesting upgrades.
  • Computer Systems Engineer: Includes identifying solutions to the more complex problems related to networks, system administration, and applications. It also involves more collaboration with clients than many other programming jobs.
  • Database Administrator: Involves securing, troubleshooting, and organizing the storage of large quantities of data.
  • Full Stack Web Developer: Includes every aspect of developing systems, including the user experience and back end systems.
  • Network System Administrator: Involves maintaining computing environments within networks and backing up data to prevent problems.
  • Programmer Analyst: Combines computer programming with systems analytics. In addition to designing and creating the code, an analyst also works with others to oversee the actual writing of the code.
  • Software Application Developer: Involves creating and improving applications for mobile devices and is a good choice for those who like to collaborate.
  • Software Developer: Involves creating and designing software for computer systems, frequently requiring the use of a range of programming languages.
  • Software Quality Assurance (QA) Engineer: Focuses on the documenting and testing early in the software life cycle, and can appeal to programmers and software engineers alike.
  • UI/UX Developer: Focuses on programming for optimized user experiences or user interfaces.
  • Web Developer: Involves creating websites and web-based applications.

What Type of Jobs Do Software Engineers Have?

Common Responsibilities

While programmers keep a relatively narrow focus when it comes to their daily responsibilities, software engineers tend to have a wider scope: they bear the bulk of the responsibility for converting a concept into functional software.

At the start of a project, it’s software engineers who ensure the use of engineering best practices to develop a stable system; once the system is completed, they then must maintain the software through regular testing and consider the implications of bugs.

Because they frequently work in teams and interact directly with individuals in other roles — like programmers and external clients — software engineers must be able to communicate clearly and confidently as they work toward the specifications for the product in question.

Whereas a programmer would focus on a single stage in the development cycle, a software engineer oversees the development process from start to finish. Some software engineers will advance into the role of software architect, creating the blueprints or guidelines for a software’s framework.

Overall, common responsibilities for software engineers include:

  • Designing and developing platforms
  • Testing methodologies for software development
  • Providing maintenance for software
  • Collaborating with business users, scientists, other engineers, and project managers
  • Working with other engineers
  • Working with clients
  • Communicating the status of projects
  • Monitoring system performance
  • Managing the software development life cycle
  • Applying engineering principles and best practices
  • Identifying opportunities for improvements in applications

Common Types of Jobs

Much like with programming roles, some job listings for software engineers will simply be titled “software engineer” and encompass a collection of the responsibilities listed above. Others may include:

  • Back End Engineer: Focuses on the performance, logic, and other aspects of the software that are not visible to users.
  • Front End Engineer: Focuses on developing the user interface including aesthetics, layouts, and cross-browser compatibility (in the case of web development).
  • Full Stack Engineer: Includes back and front end work that comprises a full application or website.
  • DevOps Engineer: Typically manages the infrastructure of applications and uses their knowledge of technologies to develop systems that build, integrate, deploy, and administer the software in the back end.
  • Security Engineer: Specializes in procedures, systems, and methods that test software’s security, including exploiting and fixing any security flaws.
  • Software Quality Assurance (QA) Engineer: Focuses on the aspect that checks for potential problems and functionality and can appeal to either programmers or software engineers, depending on the job description.

Coding Languages Used in Each Role & Key Differences in How They Think and Problem-Solve

Coding Languages

As we mentioned above, many software engineers get their start in programming thanks to a great deal of overlap in terms of the coding languages used in each role. However, the difference comes in how they use those languages; while programmers work directly with the language by writing and fixing code, the overarching role of a software engineer requires a general understanding of those languages.

The most common coding languages that either role should be familiar with include:

  • C
  • C++
  • C#
  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • LISP
  • MATLAB
  • Perl
  • PHP
  • Python
  • R
  • Ruby
  • SQL

Approaches to Problem-Solving

When it comes to their thought process, software engineers tend to think in ways that follow scientific or advanced mathematical processes. They usually stick to proven patterns and rules and pay the most attention to the code and technology.

In contrast, programmers have more flexibility in their role. Rather than following strict rules, these professionals have a tendency toward innovation with two goals: reducing the work while improving the functionality of the software.

Software Engineer vs. Programming Salary: How Much Do They Earn?

As you might imagine, the greater responsibilities for software engineers earns them a higher salary than that of their programming counterparts. However, as with any salary projections, the exact figures can vary greatly depending on the candidates’ experience as well as the source, company, and region.

Average estimates indicate that software engineers typically make $86,000 to $110,000, while programmers earn anywhere from $64,000 to $90,000 annually.

Final Thoughts

Let’s recap the main differences between programming and software engineering:

  • Programmers typically focus on one part of a project’s development cycle, while software engineers look at the project on a wider scale than programmers, considering the whole picture and dividing it into parts.
  • Programmers tend to work independently after receiving instruction, while software engineers tend to work in teams and communicate with clients.
  • Because of their increased responsibilities, software engineers earn higher salaries than programmers.
  • Software engineers use the scientific method and have advanced mechanical skills in addition to basic coding skills.
  • Programming typically requires earning a degree or completing a coding boot camp, while software engineering requires that plus several years of experience.

Remember, the differences between programmers and software engineers are easy to confuse, and employers do not always recognize them. While you should be aware of the differences between the two roles, you should also accept that some job listings may ask for a “programmer” but the descriptions convey that they actually require someone with skills more in line with a software engineer — or vice versa. However, the inconsistencies can help you broaden your skills and experience, as you may find yourself being hired for a job that you may not have applied for had you not delved deeper.

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