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Software Engineer vs Programmer: What’s the Difference?

Ethan Scully - February 03, 2021


In short, programmers focus on creating functional code, while software engineers design software from an engineering perspective with consideration for end-users, clients, and business needs. Software engineers are also programmers themselves.


The tech field is relatively new. It’s newer than many businesses, and because of this, we’re still figuring out exactly what everyone should be doing. Creating teams in this field is a complex task, as the team often has a limited number of members, and each team is almost always specialized towards a goal or product.

Because of this, there are many loose job titles for tech professionals , and one title can mean different job descriptions across the industry. It’s a lot like saying you’re a lawyer—you could be a public interest lawyer, an entertainment lawyer, or even a toxic tort lawyer. The same is true for anyone in the software development field.

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In this article, we will break down two common titles in the tech field. We will find out what it means to be a programmer and a software engineer, what the differences are between them, and what each role entails.

Programmer

Computer programmers write code. They type the lines of code that comprise software, operating systems, and other computer programs. Some people use the terms, ‘coding’ and ‘programming’ interchangeably. Technically, coding is just the act of writing code—programming often focuses on the entire project, not just pieces of it.

The term ‘programming’ can be a general term or specific description. Generally speaking, all programmers are coders—they write code to create a functional software program. In most cases, coding is part of a programming job , but a lot more goes into it. Nonetheless, some companies hire programmers only for coding tasks, and vice-versa. Programmers working with large teams tend to specialize in certain tasks.

In a typical work environment, programmers take instructions from designers, engineers, or a lead programmer and turn those instructions into working code. Tasks can be as specific as writing out instructions, or as intricate as turning an entire concept into a complete program.

Programming is a good entry-level position when available. It’s also a good position to grow in, with multiple high paying computer science career paths behind it (like software engineering).

Job Requirements

The most important skills a programmer can have is a good understanding of their chosen coding languages , good coding practices, and the ability to produce clean and easy to read code. Programmers should also be able to debug software and read other people’s code.

The typical education requirement for programmers is a degree in computer science or computer programming. Strong math and analytical skills are also a big plus. Other programmers enter the industry through coding bootcamps.

Software Engineer

Software engineers apply engineering principles to software and software development. The job shares similarities to software development, but with additional consideration of engineering principles.

These engineering principles are a specific method of looking at a problem. Just like civil engineers consider the river bed before designing a bridge foundation, software engineers consider computer hardware and software systems to design software that will work well in that environment.

Software engineers also communicate with clients to design software that works well for them. Software engineering extends far beyond just programming software; it involves an entire design process to create programs that work efficiently and reliably in the conditions, on the hardware, and with the users that the company is targeting.

Venus, a software engineer at Rockbot

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Venus, Software Engineer at Rockbot

Often, software engineer positions can be the same as software development positions. Additionally, a job title called ‘programmer’ could require a software engineer. As it stands now, this job title is still poorly understood, and often just as flexible as the title ‘programmer.’ According to Glassdoor , software engineers make an average of $92,046 per year.

Job Requirements

Software engineers are the swiss army knives of the tech industry. Obvious requirements are an understanding of software and engineering principles. Also, software engineers need to be able to work on (and sometimes manage) a team and communicate with clients.

Programming skills are also a must because while not all software engineers will code their own software, a deep understanding of the language your software will be created in is essential.

Typically, software engineers need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer science or software engineering, along with five or more years of experience working with software and their programming language of choice. For some companies, a certificate from a coding bootcamp and suitable experience is sufficient.

Computer Programmer VS Software Engineer

In a broad sense, all software engineers are already programmers. They need coding experience to become software engineers, and programming is one of the many skills required to develop software.

Also, software engineers usually have a broad scope of job responsibilities. As software developers, it’s their job to turn an idea into a viable software product. On the opposite side, programmers typically have a limited scope. They usually receive instructions from a software engineer, developer, or designer, which they turn into code. Programmers rarely have to worry about clients, design considerations, or other broad scope concerns.

Hopefully, this guide provides you with a clear understanding of the roles that programmers and software engineers fill in the tech field. If you’re looking to start a new career in tech, we hope this article will help you decide which is right for you. Both are excellent jobs, and starting as a programmer can help you become a software engineer.

About us: Career Karma is a platform designed to help job seekers find, research, and connect with job training programs to advance their careers. Learn about the CK publication.

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Ethan Scully

About the author: Ethan Scully is a writer, editor, and game developer who manages Career Karma's content partnership initiatives and is currently based in Istanbul. His relationships with coding bootcamps give him particular insight into these new job training programs. Before joining the Career Karma team, Scully worked in IT support, graphic design, and as an editor for Cambodia's Khmer Times.

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