What is software engineering and what does it involve?

Updated 24 August 2023

If you're considering a career in software engineering, it's important to understand what software engineering is and why it's so essential to many employers. Software engineers design, build and test software applications with user requirements in mind. This requires strong analytical thinking skills and extensive technical knowledge. In this article, we explore the field of software engineering, answering questions like 'What is software engineering?' and 'What does a software engineer do?'.

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What is software engineering?

If you're wondering 'What is software engineering?', it's important to understand the definition of software engineering and what a career in software engineering looks like. Software engineering is the process of developing software for a particular purpose, with user requirements in mind. This process involves designing the system, coding it, testing it to make sure that it works properly, and then implementing it. Software engineers typically have excellent problem-solving skills and are able to communicate effectively with users of their systems.

Software engineering vs software development

Many people confuse software engineering with software development, though these are two slightly different careers. A software engineer is responsible for the design and development of complex applications that meet customer requirements, while a software developer is responsible for developing the code behind those applications. In this way, software engineering is a broader role than software development that sometimes requires a wider skill set.

Related: What is software development? A comprehensive guide

What does a software engineer do?

As a software engineer, you apply mathematical and scientific concepts to create software applications that meet the demands of users and customers within your field. You may work with other technical specialists including developers, systems analysts, and architects, and most of your work is office-based. Some of the most common duties of a software engineer include:

  • Designing software systems based on user requirements and technical specifications

  • Managing projects using a variety of methodologies, processes, and tools

  • Writing clear specifications that define the features to include in a system

  • Coding in a programming language such as C++ or Java

  • Testing software for issues before releasing it to customers

  • Implementing a system once you have tested it

  • Meeting deadlines that you have agreed with stakeholders

  • Collaborating with other technical professionals

Related: How to write a software engineer cover letter (with examples)

What is the purpose of software engineering?

Software engineering is a discipline created as a solution to a problem. In the 1960s, before the field of software engineering existed, software companies relied on software developers only to design, code, and implement computer programmes. This often led to inconsistent quality and missed budgets, particularly as the complexity of software and hardware increased throughout the 1970s. The solution was to restructure disorganised coding departments using new principles of software engineering. Today, software engineers work with developers and other technical specialists to manage and guide software development in an organised and efficient way.

What are the benefits of software engineering?

Software engineers bring many benefits to the companies that employ them. Their role is to guide the software development process to ensure it meets user requirements and industry best practices for development. Software engineers are particularly essential in larger software teams where development can easily become disorganised without proper structure. Below is a list of the major benefits that the discipline of software engineering brings to software development teams today.

Related: What is a software design engineer? (With responsibilities)


Software engineers, unlike software developers, think analytically and implement engineering principles in the software field. Software that engineers design is more likely to be deliberately scalable, which means that it's easier to recreate new software versions and improved editions quickly because of the way that they have built the software. This also means that software engineers are better equipped to manage the development of larger, more complex software that requires a scalable approach from the very beginning.

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Employing a software engineer can ultimately reduce the cost of creating high-quality software. Software engineers are responsible for managing the software development process to ensure that it's efficient, targeted, and effective. Under a software engineer, development teams choose features to code into programmes because they meet demands from users. In this way, software companies can keep their costs lower by investing in an engineering approach to software development from the beginning of the process.


Just as engineering principles make the software design process more scalable, they can also increase adaptability within a software development team. It's common for development teams to release patches, which offer free updates to existing software, that improve software functionality and address feedback from users. Creating software using software engineering principles often means it is easier to adapt and update the software at a later date.


Software engineers are usually more skilled in large-scale project management than developers and other software professionals. The analytical approach that software engineers take to development aids management processes because it creates structured and streamlined paths of development that guide projects towards solutions that meet customer demands. This often results in higher-quality software products and increased profitability after release.


The modern software market is dynamic and always changing. As software companies push themselves to innovate and stay ahead of the competition, this creates an environment that requires professionals to respond quickly to changing trends. The broad and definitive work that software engineers do means that development teams can react more quickly to changing user requirements and pre-empt some of these changing demands.

Related: What is computer engineering? (Plus industries and skills)

What challenges do software engineers face?

If you enter into a career as a software engineer, you may face some challenges at work. Software engineers face many difficulties every day which means that software engineering is not an easy career. Below are some of the biggest challenges that software engineers may face at work.

High-level responsibility

For software engineers working in critical fields such as aviation and medicine, the risks of creating software that is faulty are huge. If you are responsible for the success and accuracy of aviation software that helps air traffic controllers to guide aircraft safely, and your software malfunctions, this can cause fatal accidents. It's important that software engineers are aware of the responsibility they carry and take their work very seriously.

Market demand for faster turnaround time

As the software market becomes more competitive, customers demand and expect new software more often than ever before. This creates demand for a fast turnaround time between new software applications and updated versions of existing applications. For software engineers, this increases the pressure to work faster and more efficiently without compromising on quality to stay competitive alongside other software companies.

Contemporary software diversity

Another challenge that software engineers face at work today is the diversity of software applications and systems on the market. As a software engineer, your role involves creating software systems that are easy to use, which means that they integrate well with existing systems. The wide range of software systems available makes it increasingly difficult for engineers to design new systems that offer widespread compatibility with others.

Related: Software Engineering vs Computer Science: The Differences You Need To Know

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What skills does a good software engineer possess?

Now that you know what software engineering is, it's important to consider whether this career path suits your skills. As a software engineer, you use a range of both hard and soft skills at work every day. Below are some of the most important skills that successful software engineers usually possess.

Technical skills

Software engineers possess a wide range of technical skills both in computing and business. This includes knowledge of computer systems, coding languages, and technical IT competency. Most software engineers are university graduates from technical subjects in computing, physics, and engineering. These degrees can give you the foundation in engineering principles that you require to become a software engineer.

Related: 42 common Servlet interview questions (with example answers)

Communication skills

Software engineers communicate and liaise with coworkers, developers, managers, and other stakeholders every day. Part of your role as a software engineer is assessing feedback from users and making decisions relating to how this affects the design and build of your software. It's important that you can clearly and effectively communicate these decisions and the reasoning behind them to others to ensure that they understand both the problem and your solution.

Attention to detail

Software engineers require excellent attention to detail and a meticulous approach to their work. This enables them to spot small errors or issues within software design and optimise software for users. Software engineers with better attention to detail create software that is closer to user demands and therefore more profitable in the long term.

Commercial awareness

Software engineers possess commercial awareness which helps them to understand the needs of users. Your role as a software engineer involves designing and building software that fills gaps in the market and offers features that users want. This requires some business sense and commercial awareness to ensure that your software products sell.


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