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The Software Engineer’s Career Path: Everything you need to know

September 7, 2021 in Career Transitions

There are many entryways into a fulfilling and lasting career in software engineering and development. What’s inspiring is that no two software engineering (or development) career paths are the same. For us, that means this is the kind of career that’s open for exploration, continuous learning, and that can spell success for all kinds of people with different technical skill sets, personalities, and backgrounds. 

Depending on where you are in your career, you may be looking for different kinds of work experiences to advance your goals. You may be keen to join a smaller startup or engineering team so that you can get to work on a breadth of challenges and ideas, or you may be at a point where you want to join a larger enterprise so that you can manage big development teams working on an array of interconnected and complex problems. All of this informs your career path in software engineering. 

This guide will highlight some key differences between software engineering and software development, help you understand where you’re at in your career journey, and give you some ideas on what to explore next. 

What’s the difference between a software engineer vs. software developer?

There’s so much crossover between the two fields in terms of skills and background experience that nowadays the terms software engineer and software developer are used fairly interchangeably. 

At first, the term software engineer specified people who study fundamental engineering principles then apply that knowledge to become technical architects that build software. They’re responsible for the functional requirements necessary to deliver digital products and services securely. Meanwhile, software developers typically referred to people who focused mainly on designing and shipping functional software products for end users and customers, including: mobile development, web development, and the development of desktop applications.

The 3 software engineering and development career paths

Does this mean that someone who starts out as a software developer can’t pursue a career as a software engineer and vice versa? Not at all. There are many complementary and transferable skills across these disciplines, but it’s also good to bear in mind that each one has specific requirements in terms of skills and specializations. 

Another important thing to keep in mind in terms of career paths is that there are generally three tracks that software engineers and developers can pursue:

  1. Independent Contributor (IC): Independent contributors focus on deepening their skill sets and acquiring a wealth of knowledge over the course of their careers, sometimes in multiple subject areas. Independent contributors often value being makers and taking on more hands-on roles in projects. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this role doesn’t require leadership, though; highly skilled independent contributors are often relied on to champion and mentor their peers as well as set a good example of work ethic and execution. 
  1. Team leader or Manager: The other option to the IC track is the traditional management track. While ICs deepen their technical skills and subject matter expertise, leaders and managers must also flex their relational (what’s typically known referred to as “soft skills”) as well as their organizational skills. This means understanding how to put together and lead successful teams while simultaneously assigning and managing complex work. Engineering managers are often called upon to be highly visible both within the organization, in terms of collaborating with and managing cross-functional stakeholders and team members, and externally in terms of representing the company to current and prospective customers. 
  1. Freelance/ Contractor/ Advisor: Once they’ve amassed a certain amount of experience and skills, many software engineers decide to fly solo. Think of it as the ultimate independent contributor track. If you’re self-motivated and enjoy working on a variety of projects, gig work can allow you to have greater flexibility in terms of your work hours and level of contribution. 
  1. Startup Engineer: We believe there’s a fourth career path that’s worth exploring, one that gives you the benefits of a team and community, alongside the freedom to explore interesting challenges and work. While the freedom that comes with freelancing can seem appealing, you suddenly have two jobs: engineering and business development. You have to manage yourself as a business, not just the work that you do. That kind of administrative overhead can be daunting, not to mention lonely. 

Traditionally, there are two standard career tracks for engineers—either specialization or climbing the career ladder through management—but as we said in a previous post, both paths can be great, but Startup Engineers are usually unsatisfied or bored with either option. 

Many senior software engineers can feel hemmed in by traditional career tracks, hence why we’re working hard to create a different kind of software engineering experience. 

Navigating careers in software engineering and development

Most engineers and developers we know identify as life-long learners. They find themselves contributing to open source projects and hanging around engineering channels and chats so they can pick up some skills. That’s the perfect mindset to adopt throughout your career. Following your curiosity will often tell you what next step or direction you want to take. 

Remember that, while there is a generally recommended career path to follow as you get started, at a certain point, success is relative. You get to define what success looks like for yourself. For some, it’s climbing the management ladder up towards executive-level roles. Meanwhile, practitioners may enjoy continuously amassing and leveraging their expertise and knowledge towards new and different challenges. The good news is that there’s no real wrong path to take, as long as you’re taking stock of the lessons you’re learning along the way. 

Software Programs, Training, and Certifications

If you’re fortunate enough to earn your degree in engineering, computer science, or programming, you’ll be off to a great start. Another solid alternative—whether you’re looking to upskill your existing set of skills or transition into software development or engineering work for the first time—are reputable coding bootcamps that offer short, intensive and immersive courses on programming languages like Node.js, Python, and Ruby.

A number of organizations offer software certifications that provide you with an accreditation for learning the ins and outs of their program. There are a lot of them out there and most aren’t free, so it’s wise to consider how many certifications and what kind you really need. It’s also probably best to do these in the early days of your career as you build up your resume and show your ongoing dedication to learning. 5 certifications that we recommend are:

  1. AWS
  2. Scrum Master
  3. Kubernetes
  4. Microsoft Azure
  5. GCP

Software engineering internships and work placements are often part of formal training programs and are a great way to get some experience in actual work environments with teams and everything. But be wary of companies that ask you to do unpaid work and don’t offer formal credits towards your program or certification. When it comes to embarking on an internship, it’s OK for you to assess what’s in it for you. 

Stages of Software Engineering and Development Careers

Here’s a look at some general phases and stages you may encounter on your software engineering, or development, career path:

Junior Developer / Associate Engineer (0-5 years) Post-graduation, you’ll be focused on getting as much hands-on experience as you can get. In your first few years as a software engineer or developer, you’ll likely spend time sharpening your programming skills, learning how to contribute to your team, and developing solid work habits. 

Software Developer / Engineer to Senior Developer/ Engineer (5-10 years) Your mid- to senior-level years are where you’ll likely make some career moves. This is when you’ll decide which areas you want to specialize in as well as which path (independent contributor versus management) that you’d like to expand into. 

Executive-level Software Engineers and Developers (CTO, CIO, Chief Architect) When you get to the top of the organization, you’re likely doing a lot more strategy and management than day-to-day coding and project work. Executive-level roles also involve interfacing with a lot of people, including other executives and customers. 

Independent contributors with executive-level experience (in terms of technical expertise and years of experience) can parlay their tenure and skills into other careers like becoming advisors and board members at early-stage startups, becoming speakers, teachers and authors, or continuing to take high-level roles at interesting companies, whether for small startups or large enterprises. 

Software engineering and development careers aren’t linear

Successful careers in software engineering and development have many different stories and rarely follow a linear path. You may manage teams for 10 years and then decide to go your own way and freelance and advise. You may realize sooner than you expected that you have a real aptitude for leading and inspiring teams to do their best work and decide to hop on the management track. 

As long as a commitment to learning and improving is at the heart of your endeavours, you won’t be led too far astray. Not to mention that your constant quest for knowledge is always a great talking point to bring up during interviews (more on that soon).

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