Software Engineer vs. Developer: What’s The Difference?
The difference between software engineers and developers is hotly contested; there’s little consensus and the terms are often used interchangeably. However, to software experts, there’s a clear distinction in responsibilities, expertise and approach to the development life cycle.
Still, the distinction is slight and often conflated by the fact that software engineers are in high demand and most tech professionals work beyond their job description to keep up with the pace of the industry. In the end it’s your job as a tech recruiter to ensure A) you understand who the hiring manager is looking for and B) the candidate understands what the role is.
This article will prime you to have informed conversations with key stakeholders and effectively evaluate candidates. Read on to understand the fundamental difference between a software engineer and developer so you can recruit smarter.
Table of Contents
- The Basics: Software Engineer vs. Developer
- What Does a Software Engineer Do?
- What Does a Software Developer Do?
- How to Effectively Evaluate Software Engineers vs. Developers
- TLDR: Software Engineer vs. Developer
The Basics: Software Engineer vs. Developer
Again, generally speaking, the titles are used interchangeably. However, to IT professionals, there is a distinct difference between role responsibilities. The team at Fullstack Academy says it best: software engineers are the architects; software developers are the carpenters. Software engineers are involved in the development life cycle, but not all developers are engineers.
Software engineers apply engineering concepts to design software that addresses the user’s specific needs and requirements. These tech professionals approach problems logically and develop systematic solutions.
Conversely, developers have the ability to be more creative in their role, determining how to best build software. Rather than considering the whole system, software developers have a smaller scope of work, addressing one project or stage of the development process at a time.
What Does a Software Engineer Do?
The general definition of a software engineer is a professional who applies engineering principles to the “design, development, maintenance, testing, and evaluation of the software that make computers or other devices containing software work.”
Software Engineer Education
The title “engineer” often refers to the individual’s formal education and training which allows them to employ the scientific method when designing software solutions. They’re well-versed in multiple programming languages and because of their training, engineers are typically compensated more than developers.
Software Engineer Job Function
Software engineers are concerned with the structure and stability of an entire system. Their primary function is to ensure that the software does what it’s intended to and that all components — applications, networks, servers, etc. — work together.
Often, engineers will outsource the development tasks to software developers and instead focus on the construction of the system as a whole. Engineers are involved in the entire development life cycle but possess the skills and knowledge to work on specific development tasks.
When software bugs pop up, engineers address the problem within the context of the system — what are the implications of this problem and how will it impact other elements within the framework? Their goal is to find a long-term solution that minimizes repercussions across other parts of the system.
Because they need to think about how applications interact with each other, software engineers should have knowledge of and experience with a wide array of languages and tools. They tend to work in teams, making their role more collaborative.
Software Engineer Job Descriptions
If you’re hiring for engineering roles, check out the following job description examples:
What Does a Software Developer Do?
With a smaller scope of work than software engineers, software developers have a more creative role. They're responsible for executing development plans and programming software into existence.
Software Developer Education
Software developers are often self-taught — 73.7% of developers attribute their skills to at least some self-teaching. Though formal training is typically expected to hold the title of a software engineer — and required in some countries — software developers can become engineers by gaining experience working on and managing additional aspects of the development life cycle.
Software Developer Job Function
A software developer focuses on building one part of the system at a time. Developers are more concerned with implementation and often work independently. However, they are more aware of the structure and intention of the software than a programmer, who is tasked with writing and correcting code.
Often, developers are specialized in front end or back end development, or within a specific language. This narrows their scope of work, but allows them to be more creative in how they build software and address problems.
Software developer roles are often designated as junior, mid-level, senior or lead. Junior developers are most similar to programmers, working with fundamental web technologies like HTML and CSS.
At the other end of the spectrum, lead software developers resemble software engineers, overseeing the entire process, focusing on development strategy and working in multiple heavier languages.
Software Developer Job Descriptions
If you’re hiring for developer roles, check out the following job description examples:
- DevOps Job Description
- Java Developer Job Description
- iOS Developer Job Description
- PHP Developer Job Description
- Front End Developer Job Description
- Salesforce Developer Job Description
How to Effectively Evaluate Software Engineers vs. Developers
Because of the difference in role responsibilities, desirable qualities for engineers will vary from those of developers. Assessing skills for engineering and developer roles is quite simple.
Since both professionals will be working with the same systems and applications, skill evaluations can be the same. The difference lies in how each individual approaches a problem and offers their solution.
Essential Software Engineer Qualities
Engineers must be great communicators to clearly give direction to their fellow engineers, developers and programmers. Additionally, software engineers should possess strong analytical thinking skills and high-level math prowess.
These are professionals who seek not only to solve a problem but to understand its origin, potential implications and possible impact. Engineers are averse to ambiguity and must consider how their actions could affect other parts of the system.
Essential Software Developer Qualities
As the “carpenter,” a software developer implements the architect’s (engineer’s) plans, bringing the blueprint to life. For that reason, developers can focus on one task at a time to determine an immediate solution, which allows them to be innovative in their approach. Pay attention to their ability to solve problems — can they quickly think of multiple viable solutions while using all the tools at their disposal?
The team at Hackernoon gives the following equation as an example: 6÷2(1+2)=x. A software developer should offer 1 and 9 as answers — both of which are correct depending on how the order of operations is carried out:
Solution 1: 6÷2(1+2)=1
- (1+2)= 3
Solution 2: 6÷2(1+2)=9
A software engineer, on the other hand, should suggest that the equation is unsolvable since the order of operations is unclear — there is a pair of parentheses missing, either around (6÷2) or (2(1+2)). They know that the equation is ambiguous and solving it requires assuming the formula’s intention. In engineering, there’s no room for ambiguity.
TLDR: Software Engineer vs. Developer
Let's review the main topics we've covered above:
Education: Formal training and/or university degree
Focus: Software system and stability; entire development life cycle
Purpose: Ensure all software elements work properly and cohesively
Key Skills: Knowledge of multiple programming languages; high-level mathematics; analytics
Education: Informal training and/or self-teaching
Focus: Single project or stage in development life cycle
Purpose: Program software and development plans
Key Skills: Proficiency in single or few programming languages; innovative problem-solving; creative approach to software development
The Debate: Software Engineer vs. Developer
Despite the differences laid out above, the software engineer vs. developer debate remains largely unresolved. That’s due in part to the explosion of the tech industry — the bigger the space, the more responsibilities there are and the more roles that develop.
The segmentation of development and engineering departments is more common in larger organizations (think programmers, developers, engineers, IT managers and CTOs). However, in startup cultures where employees often take on responsibilities outside of their job requirements, titles are more flexible and less defined.
For this reason, job titles are largely left to the company’s discretion. Whether an employee is described as a software engineer or developer depends predominantly on individual skill sets and company preference.
As a tech recruiter, speak with the CTO and hiring manager directly to understand the role you need to fill before writing a job description. Use this guide to inform your conversation — if they say they’re looking for a software developer, but a degree in engineering is a must-have, you can more accurately title the role as a software engineer.
Once you’re clear on which software expert your team needs, hone in on your employer branding efforts to better attract top candidates. Go a step further and learn what software engineers look for in a job opportunity so you can create the most compelling offer possible.