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Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: 10 Key Differences

September 9, 2020

Computer science and software engineering may share some overlapping commonalities, however, the principles behind each field of study can offer several differences. One is that computer science deals with the science behind the interaction between hardware and software systems and computational applications, whereas software engineering typically deals with the engineering principles of building, designing and testing software products. If you are considering both fields, you might look into each aspect of computer science and software engineering. In this article, we explain what computer science and software engineering are and the differences between them.

What is computer science?

Computer science encompasses the study of computers and computational systems. Computer scientists may generally theorize and calculate aspects of software and software systems in the design and development phases.

Additionally, computer scientists may study and work in areas of the field that focus on artificial and machine intelligence, computer networks, security networks and monitoring systems, database systems, user interaction, mathematical analysis, programming languages and theories regarding computing and processes. While computer scientists may also study principles of software engineering, this field of study is typically the only shared characteristic between computer science and software engineering.

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What is software engineering?

Software engineering applies the standards and principles of engineering to design, develop, maintain, test and evaluate computer software. A software engineer may also be referred to as a computer programmer, software designer or software developer as the nature of software engineering can require knowledge of programming languages, principles of software design and building.

Software engineers may also be the programmers who test and perform quality assurance checks on new and developing software to ensure its efficacy and efficiency in its real-world application. Software engineers may also be familiar with theories surrounding software use, however, working with theories typically may not fall under the job description, as computer scientists are the workers who construct and test theories about programming and operation.

Read more: Job Search Guide: Product Management and Software Engineering

10 key differences between computer science and software engineering

Even though there may be some shared qualities between computer science and software engineering, there are a variety of key differences that make these two career fields separate from one another. One of the biggest differences lies in the roles of these two positions. While software engineers might develop, build, test and evaluate software and its applications, computer scientists use computer languages, statistics and other mathematics to theorize on the most effective ways to develop, program and apply software. The following aspects are other ways that these two professions differ:

1. Core educational studies

Computer science and software engineering may share some overlapping core studies, however, when studying computer science students may typically complete courses that focus on the computing, analysis, storage and application of data and data systems of computer programs and software. Software engineering focuses on taking these principles and applying them to the product design, interplay, performance and other functional aspects of computer programs.

For instance, the key difference here is that computer science education program focuses on the science behind making computers work, while software engineering applies those scientific and mathematical principles to the building, designing and implementation of hardware and software programs.

2. Career paths

Another key difference between a computer science degree and a software engineering degree is the variety of options in career paths. Generally, computer science degrees may offer candidates a broad range of job options in the informational technology industry, from computer programming for website design and working in IT support roles to working as a game developer. Conversely, a degree in software engineering can narrow a candidate's career path to specialized roles in corporations, companies and even mid-sized businesses developing and building applications and software programs.

Related: Guide: How to Choose a Career

3. Common tasks in the job

Typically, a computer scientist may complete daily tasks that analyze and monitor the processes of new and developing computer applications, either working for a software firm or independently contracting with different companies. Computer scientists may be responsible for maintaining their company's security networks, data systems or other computing systems that the business relies on to operate. A software engineer might be an employee of a similar company, but they may work to develop and design the specific software programs their organization might need for its operations.

4. Hardware and software interaction

Computer science may deal with the interaction between software programs with computer hardware. For instance, a computer scientist might determine ways to create software programs that are compatible with computer hardware. A software engineer, however, deals only with software programs, specifically creating, maintaining, testing and producing software products.

5. Software design

Software design is another aspect where computer science and software engineering can differ. When approaching software design, a computer scientist may typically work with theories and algorithms for how a program works, how it may be best designed and how to apply programming languages to the application. When software engineers work with software design, they may use a computer scientist's information and analyses to design the framework to build a specific program.

Furthermore, a software engineer can be given specific program requirements to use when building a software design, whereas a computer scientist works with the computer languages and mathematical calculations to make decisions about how a program should be designed.

6. Programming and development

Another difference between computer science and software engineering is the application of software programming and development. Computer science will focus on computing and calculating the best ways to program software as well as finding calculations that allow engineers and developers to build software programs that meet product requirements. Software engineers essentially use the analysis and outlines from computer scientists to aid in the full development and construction of new frameworks and software programs.

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7. Engineering concepts

While computer science majors may study aspects of mathematical engineering as it applies to computers and computing systems, engineering principles and concepts are generally paired with software engineering studies. Computer science may require knowledge of engineering principles, such as building entirely new frameworks for applications to run off of, however, software engineering is where real-world engineering concepts are applied.

8. Scientific theories

Computer science is also different from software engineering because it focuses heavily on scientific theories behind computer operations, computing and data systems as well as how software is designed. Software engineering, however, can use these theories to aid in the design and processes of building frameworks, hardware and software programs and applications. So while computer science studies and develops theories behind computer operations, software engineering applies these theories to build real-world computer applications.

9. Product management

Computer science may typically focus on the complexity and algorithms of software programs as well as other analytics like the computational science of programming, structures of visuals and graphics and user interaction. The approach an engineer takes in product management includes the design process, application, evaluation, automation testing and quality assurance checks of a software product.

10. Computer coding

Computer science and software engineering may both focus on computer coding and languages, however, software engineering may focus more heavily on learning coding to use it when developing and building software. A computer scientist may focus on coding as it relates to computer languages, and they may also use various computer coding to calculate compatibility between hardware and software applications.

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Tips for choosing your focus

Since computer science and software engineering are so closely related, you might look into the following additional information to help you choose your career path:

  • Examine your interests. For instance, if you are more interested in the nature of computers and systems and how hardware and software work together to make a software program run, you might look into computer science further, whereas if you prefer a hands-on and real-world application approach to software development, software engineering can offer you opportunities to work with these elements.
  • Consider the hands-on nature of software engineering and if you are interested in working with the creation and assessment of software development. Software engineers typically work under specifications from their supervisors on what kinds of software to build, whereas computer science might offer strategies and effective ways to develop a software program.
  • Additionally, you might consider computer science as a way to enter the field of software engineering. Both career paths offer candidates opportunities to work with software development, however, computer science focuses on a broad range of sub-sectors while software engineering is a sub-sector focus itself.