Software Engineer vs. Developer: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 6, 2022 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated July 6, 2022

Published February 25, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

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Sarah, a software engineer, shows you a day in the life of a remote software engineer including work hours, work environment and job duties.

The technology industry is rapidly changing, which can create confusion and crossover between different, related titles. In fact, some titles that are actually quite distinct are often used interchangeably within this field. This is the case with software engineers and software developers. In this article, we explain what a software engineer does versus what a software developer does, and explore the similarities and differences between the two roles.

Related: Job Search Guide: Product Management and Software Engineering

What does a software engineer do?

Generally speaking, software engineers apply software engineering principles throughout the process of designing, developing, maintaining, testing and evaluating software (or devices that contain software). This position holds a lot of responsibility and emphasizes skills in math and science rather than art and creativity. The technical expertise needed for this position is typically learned through a bachelor's program in an engineering discipline, such as computer science or through a coding boot camp.

Regardless of the specific area of expertise, engineers are taught to utilize their training, education and engineering principles to interpret and analyze a problem. They approach all problems methodically and utilize the scientific method to explore possible solutions.

Engineers then use these same methods to develop solutions that are both comprehensive and effective, taking into consideration all components of a project. This is especially true in regard to software, because engineers with this area of expertise are involved in and responsible for every aspect of the product development life cycle.

Here are some of the skills necessary to become a software engineer:

  • Proficiency in advanced mathematics

  • Knowledge and familiarity in computer science

  • Ability to effectively evaluate and solve problems

  • Experience with developing and maintaining databases and IT architectures

  • Working knowledge of several programming languages, such as C++

  • Experience working on multi-core central processors (CPUs)

  • Experience debugging software and systems

  • Background in pattern design and working within a cloud-based infrastructure

  • Proficient in automated testing

  • Familiarity with developing scalable domain-specific languages and pipelines

  • Ability to work alone as well collaborate within a team

  • Analytical skills that aid in reaching strategic objectives

  • Leadership and management abilities

  • Resource management

The culmination of these skills helps software engineers complete some of their basic responsibilities, such as:

  • Supporting the entire development life cycle for the product by working across teams to give technical guidance

  • Communicating and collaborating with the customer success and marketing teams that are involved in the product's development

  • Liaising with the QA team to develop test plans

  • Designing, developing, testing and maintaining the embedded networking software

Related: Learn About Being a Software Engineer

What does a software developer do?

Aside from providing the coding needed for software development, software developers document features, analyze concepts and, in some cases, design, test, debug and optimize the software to ensure that it is performing well in every possible area. Throughout a product's development, individuals in this position work closely with other professionals, such as graphic designers, product managers, customer representatives, senior managers and various other decision-makers.

Because of the nature of this comprehensive and ever-changing process, software developers need to be able to receive and interpret feedback from all of users and team members. They must also be able to communicate effectively with the various people involved.

Software developers are often responsible for performing a specific function or developing a particular aspect of a project as opposed to the entire system. Because of this, many developers choose to specialize in a specific development framework to fulfill that function.

The specialties that employers are looking for in a software developer can often be found in job posts where positions are advertised as "Front-End React Developer" or "Back-End Java Developer," for example. Here are some of the basic skills and qualifications typically needed to become a software developer:

  • Working knowledge of basic frameworks and programs related to web development, such as JavaScript, ReactJS, AngularJS and jQuery

  • Ability to write clean and easily maintainable code

  • Experience in creating responsive web designs

  • Familiarity with cross-browser compatibility

  • Experience in developing an application's front-end with various programs, tools and workflows

  • Ability to communicate and collaborate within a team

  • Familiarity with test-driven development and agile development practices

  • Ability to receive and analyze feedback

  • Detail-oriented

  • Creative thinking skills

Through the use of these skills, software developers can complete the various functions of their position, such as:

  • Maintaining a quality user experience (UX) by collaborating with front-end engineers, designers, QA engineers and product managers

  • Participating in frequent, rapid prototyping defined by the project's specific requirements

  • Developing tools and systems designed to improve productivity

  • Exploring new front-end technologies and using them to create features that are innovative and cutting-edge

  • Continually contributing to and making improvements to the user interface (UI) architecture

  • Conducting software runs to test the consistency and quality of a software

Related: Learn About Being a Software Developer

Software engineer vs. developer: Similarities and differences

While software engineers are commonly involved with software development, software developers are rarely engineers. Though their functions can overlap, there are some key distinctions between the roles of software engineer and software developer, including:

  • Software developers focus on creating functional programs through the use of art and creativity, while software engineers utilize scientific methods and engineering principles to create reliable solutions.

  • Software engineers can be compared to a project's architect, with a software developer being the carpenter. The engineers outline the specifics by designing, coordinating and overseeing the project. Developers then execute these plans and write the code that brings the project to fruition.

  • Software developers tend to approach problems creatively. Instead of relying on education and protocols like engineers, developers utilize practices and patterns that they likely learned through self-discovery and external sources, such as blogs and books.

  • Software engineers connect a client's needs to technological solutions by using systematic processes and engineering concepts to create software. Software developers, on the other hand, collaborate with the client to decide on a functional design. In other words, developers often act as the creative driving force behind software design and development.

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