The Difference Between a Software Engineer vs. Software Developer

The Difference Between a Software Engineer vs Software Developer

If you’re into coding, thinking about getting your degree in computer science, or considering pursuing a developer job, it’s completely natural to wonder about the true difference between a software developer and a software engineer. In today’s rapidly evolving professional tech landscape, the two terms are often used side-by-side or even as alternates for one another—and the difference isn’t often pointed out in context.

In practice there tends to be a lot of overlap when it comes to skill set, function, and common tasks between someone in an engineer role and someone in a developer role. But just because the two terms are often used interchangeably doesn’t mean the roles are actually identical—and indeed they’re not.

So where do the overlaps end? And what exactly separates a software engineering job from a software developer job? We’ll answer all your questions right here in this article.

Table of Contents

What Exactly is a Software Developer?

It’s not much help that if you do a web search to find the core definitions of the terms, “software development” and “software engineering”, you’ll either find one or the other missing entirely or the same exact definition applied to both terms. Cambridge Dictionary defines both as, “the activity of creating computer programs”.

Technically they’re not wrong, but the two terms aren’t synonyms, either.

Software Developers typically take responsibility for a complete view of a given software project—often planning and overseeing the entire development process. This includes interacting with customers and end users to understand the core purpose and success metrics before they move on to actually develop software.

Software developers participate in every stage of the development life cycle, and employ plenty of specialized skills to actually build the software.

Skills You Need to Be a Software Developer

Software developers are, in a sense, generalists. They need to curate a broad and diverse skill set that includes numerous coding languages in addition to design, planning, project management, and great communication.

Developers are responsible for delivering on the vision for the finished product or solution, so they need to have a strong understanding of what is going to work for users as well as what’s technologically possible from an engineering standpoint.

Here’s a sample of some of the languages any good software developer will want in their toolkit:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript
  • Java
  • Ruby
  • Python
  • PHP
  • C#
  • C++

What Exactly is a Software Engineer?

A large computer display with multiple coding applications open

On the other hand, software engineers typically work on solving advanced technical challenges inherent to creating a software system or product. They make use of a wide range of engineering principles in order to make sure that core underlying functionality is going to work—and work well.

They pull from a similar basket of skills, and focus on the technical aspects of many software solutions that users never see—such as the architecture, frameworks and dependencies, databases and data handling, and more.

Skills You Need to Be a Software Engineer

Software engineers work in many of the same languages that a software developer might rely on when it comes to coding. In addition, a software professional on the engineering side will need to be well-versed in databases and coding frameworks, as well as how to integrate third party services via APIs.

What Are The Biggest Differences Between Software Developers and Software Engineers?

Software developers and engineers work closely together to create software applications that are appealing, easy to use, functional and effective. In that regard the difference between software engineer and software developer is all in the details. So what’s the difference between a software engineer or developer? It mainly comes down to focus.

While a developer will be concerned with the entire software development life cycle, software engineers are responsible for the challenging “under the hood” aspects of a given project. The software developer can sometimes be thought of as a front-end developer while the engineer is more of a back-end developer.

In fact, software engineers are in many ways highly specialized versions of software developers. Many software engineers start out in software developer roles before tightening their focus and specialization into software engineering.

Here’s a handy table for comparing the difference between these two roles. Note that this won’t always be true in all cases. Many software engineers still participate in the design process, for example.

Responsibility / Function Software Developer Software Engineer
Concept Design
Coding
Architecture & Database Development
Integrations
Debugging & Testing

Do Software Engineers and Developers Work Together?

A software developer and engineer collaborate on a coding problem

Absolutely! While the developer can be thought of as the software architect, planning out and designing the big picture and what end users ultimately see and interact with, the software engineer works right alongside them to create the sub-systems and critical infrastructure that ensures the overall computer software functions as the software design intends for it to.

Software Developers and Engineers as Builders

Software developers are like the architects and general contractors on a building construction project. They work with the clients to sketch out the overall vision for the structure, both in terms of how it will look on the outside and the activities and capacity it will support within. They oversee all the different inputs of construction, ensuring everything keeps to the approved plans, and even build certain components themselves.

Meanwhile the software engineer is responsible for designing the intricate mechanics of all of the building’s subsystems—everything from the plumbing and electrical to the climate control system and the elevators.

Different fields of software development are leveraged by each to ensure the computer applications, software products, or systems are built to the software developer’s original plan.

How Can I Become a Professional in Software Development?

There’s No One Path To Landing a Developer Job

Believe it or not, there aren’t actually any globally enforced standards for becoming a software developer. There’s no standardized test to pass or any one certification that’s required to gain the title of “Software Developer.” What matters most in terms of gaining a foothold as a professional in the field is your proven ability to do the job—and that means gaining work experience. 

The best way to become a software developer is to simply start developing!

Having said that, training and education are great ways to quickly build your skills and gain the credibility many companies look for in a developer. While it’s not a formal requirement, many developers first obtain at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. If you’re looking to get your feet wet and explore whether this could be the field for you, software developers often get started learning via sites like Codecademy, Udemy or Coursera.

How Can I Become a Software Engineer?

A software engineer maps out her plan for development

What’s The Most Common Software Engineering Path?

A software engineer is a professional software developer with an advanced specialization. So while there are certainly software engineering roles that will require an advanced degree or a certain level of job experience, prospective software engineers also have multiple potential paths they can take to ascend to their dream profession.

Again, proven working knowledge of a broad range of programming languages, frameworks, libraries and databases will be critical, as most job interview processes for software developer or engineer these days require a challenging practical exam called the Codility Test.

If you want to be a fit for a reputable company’s software engineering job description, you need to hone your development skills to the point where you can easily handle high-level software creation and ensure the software meets specific criteria.

In almost every case that means a necessary software education as well as lots of on-the-job training.

Which is Better: Software Engineer vs. Software Developer?

How to Choose Between Software Engineer or Developer

If you know you want to be someone who makes software professionally, and you’re determined to develop your knowledge of the software development trade to the point you can professionally create and maintain software, then it’s a great idea to understand whether you’ll be a better fit for software engineering or software development.

The first and most important factor to consider for this is your personal preference and strengths. Which calls to you more? Do you really enjoy diving into the nitty gritty to devise critical solutions that ensure software projects can ultimately succeed? Then an engineer role may be great for you.

Do you feel inspired when you talk to clients about their needs and can start visualizing the overall solution as a top-to-bottom project? Do you love the idea of being able to lead software development projects? Then you may be perfect for more generalized software development.

Software Developer or Software Engineer: The Numbers

A software engineer creates and displays a sign saying, "Code"

The other key thing to consider is, of course, your earnings potential. Both professions are highly skilled and highly in-demand, so the good news is when it comes to money there isn’t really a wrong decision to be made here. Having said that, there are some noteworthy differences in earnings potential for these roles.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which unfortunately doesn’t yet break out software engineers separately from software developers, you’ll earn at least $71,280 per year in this field or as much as $200,000 if you’re one of the best working for one of the highest-paying firms. Median earnings are around $127,260 as of mid 2022, so it’s a safe bet that they’re even a bit higher now.

Glassdoor gives us a slightly clearer picture of how the two roles stack up. According to their salary data as of December 2023, there’s a pretty big gap in earnings potential.

A software developer stands to earn $95,000 – $134,000 annually, whereas a software engineer may earn between $113,000 – $175,000 per year. Both are extremely lucrative salary ranges, but clearly if you have what it takes to excel in engineering that’s your path to the highest pay.

Closing Thoughts: Software Engineer or Software Developer — The Real Differences

With similar up-front requirements, skills, and even functions, it’s easy to see how these two professional roles get used interchangeably. Both set out to create software solutions, both code, both test and debug, and both need to be able to plan and communicate effectively throughout complex projects.

The core differentiator really comes down to focus: user-focused and front-end vs. functionality-driven and back-end. Design, UX & presentation vs. underlying architecture. At the end of the day, both roles are critical and both work seamlessly together. What matters is which is more relevant to the specific stage of or challenges that arise in any given project.

Alia Grant

Alia is an American-born writer and brand marketing expert living in Thailand. Known for her talents as a wordsmith, she began working with Iglu in 2022 and is a consistent contributor of informative articles, visual creative and strategic branding insights. To view more of her work or to contact Alia, visit her Talent profile