Software Engineering vs Computer Science: The Differences You Need To Know
By Indeed Editorial Team
Updated 9 September 2022
Published 29 September 2021
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.
Computer science and software engineering are two fields that focus on computing and its various technological advancements. Though they are similar, computer science and software engineering also have key differences from the key principles that underpin each subject. Understanding the differences between software engineering and computer science can help you establish which field you would like to pursue academically or as a career. In this article, we discuss what computer science and software engineering are and outlines their differences.
Related: 6 essential software engineer skills
Software engineering vs computer science
If you're considering software engineering vs computer science, it's important to get to know the definitions of software engineering and computer science themselves before comparing their similarities and differences:
What is computer science?
Computer science is the academic study of computing, which includes computers and computational systems. This area of study, research, design and innovation spans the complex theory, algorithms and principles that underpin computing. This knowledge is then applied to the design and engineering of hardware, software and computer networks.
Learning and working with software applications forms part of computer science. It has an emphasis on the fundamental scientific disciplines and areas that comprise computing, including mathematics, programming languages and databases.
What is software engineering?
Software engineering is concerned with the design, development, testing and maintenance of software used in computing. This more focused area of knowledge approaches software using the principles of engineering for a methodical and well-structured approach to building a variety of applications that are used in contemporary computers and networks.
Software engineering may also be known as computer programming or software development and uses theories, and academic knowledge found within computer science to design and build software. It's a far more practical subject as software engineers are most concerned about the programming and proper operation of software solutions.
What are the differences between software engineering and computer science?
The differences between software engineering and computer science are due to computer science being more concerned with theory and software engineering with the practical application of knowledge to build software. Computer scientists work with mathematical theorems, statistics and modelling to develop novel computing concepts and principles, which software developers can then harness in creating practical and commercially viable applications. Here are other ways in which these two fields are different:
Education and training
Academic studies in computer science and software engineering share several areas of study. Computer science takes an investigative approach to computing, with undergraduate study concerned with learning the foundational principles of computing.
Experts in computer science often teach software engineering degree programmes, but the emphasis is on applying taught concepts in building software solutions.
Computer science and software engineering vary in career path. A computer science degree can be used to enter a wider range of technology-based graduate careers as it touches on the knowledge that is used in them. Computer science graduates can pursue careers in IT, cybersecurity, game development or software engineering.
As software engineering is more focused, career options are narrowed to roles requiring software development and maintenance skills in both the public and private sectors. There is a consistently high demand for software engineering and the required digital skills as businesses, organisations and institutions need software engineers to build the custom applications used in their day-to-day operations.
Interaction with hardware
Computer hardware design, function and its interaction with software is the concern of a computer scientist. Computer science graduates who work in IT often build and maintain computer networks for companies. They are responsible for selecting both hardware and software solutions that deliver the performance required by their employer. The work of a software engineer prioritises software.
Companies of all sizes hire software engineers to design, develop and maintain the software applications they use. Software engineers spend a significant amount of time debugging or enhancing existing software and improving the cybersecurity of software applications.
Computer scientists work in roles that include testing, monitoring or analysis of both novel and established computer systems. They investigate both hardware and software functions and the development of systems and networks that provide the performance required by an employer or commercial client.
Approach to designing software
Both computer scientists and software engineers can design software and use programming languages in their work, but their approaches differ. A computer scientist focuses on the development of software by using underpinning mathematics and developing algorithms to establish how the software can be made to perform optimally. Both software engineers and computer programmers can author code that works as a set of instructions for the desired functioning of the software.
Emphasis on engineering
Software engineering focuses on how computer programs are structured, applying the principles and concepts found in engineering to develop software that performs well. Computer science has a less structured approach, as computer scientists can draw from a wider knowledge base to do more than building software.
Emphasis on science
Computer scientists are primarily scientists and retain scientific discipline and an investigative approach to tasks. They draw on the scientific theories that underpin the functioning of computer systems to develop and test new ideas and extend the body of knowledge in computing. Software engineers have a more focused knowledge base, including programming languages, information architecture and practical experience to build computer programs according to the methods they have learned.
Design, development and maintenance of software and hardware
Software engineers have a structured, linear approach to developing and ongoing maintenance of software programs they work on. They have been trained to have a routinised approach with testing to ensure that the software performs optimally at all times. Computer scientists differ in being able to work in a more abstract way due to the broader knowledge base they have acquired. As scientists, they harness the existing body of knowledge in their field to test their ideas with in-depth analysis.
The knowledge and application of programming languages are a key part of training to become a software engineer. Software engineers routinely write software using code that determines how their software applications function. As software engineers progress in their careers, they increase the number of programming languages they are proficient in and their expertise in using them.
Computer scientists understand the core computing principles that underlie how programming languages work and may develop novel languages or compatibility between programming languages to achieve their goals.
How to choose software engineering or computer science
If you want to undertake studies and training to obtain valuable digital skills, you need to decide whether computer science or a more specific field like software engineering is suitable for you. Here are some additional considerations to help you choose the programme of study that best suits your abilities and interests:
1. Consider your abilities
Choose a course that can complement your academic strengths and skills. Computer science degrees require mathematical interest and ability, which may be of less interest to people who would be well-suited to software engineering, which is more language and application-based.
2. Think about what interests you
If you're keen to start coding and working with software, the theoretical weighting of computer science may be of less interest to you. However, if you're deeply interested in what exactly makes computers run and how hardware and software interact, computer science may be the ideal course for you. Computer science is also a good fit for people with an interest in mathematics who want to apply their skills in a specific area of learning.
3. Decide if you want to work with hardware and software
Computer science is essential for working with computer hardware such as servers or microprocessors. A software engineering degree may cover how hardware is used but not how hardware works. Many computer engineers are computer science graduates who work with hardware and software to develop new computing solutions.
4. Consider your career goals
If you're interested in an academic career which involves a lot of research and publishing, computer science might be the best choice for you. However, if your goal is to become a skilled and experienced professional with a higher earning potential, software engineering might offer better opportunities. Consider the career paths of professionals in both fields.
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