Software developer vs. software engineer: Seemingly so similar career tracks—but with some distinct differences

Connie Queline

Software developer vs. software engineer: Seemingly so similar career tracks—but with some distinct differences

Today’s society could not function without software. From cell phones and televisions to traffic lights and digital billboards, its uses are endless. 

As the world becomes more and more digitized, the demand for those creating software that powers everything we do is only increasingly—and fast.


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In fact, over the next decade, demand for software developers and engineers is expected to grow at a rate of 180%, according to CompTIA’s 2023 State of the Tech Workforce report.

Those two titles—software developers and software engineers—are oftentimes used interchangeably, especially for those outside the world of tech. While it is true that they are very similar and do work closely together, you’ll find that the day-to-day responsibilities of each of them differ just ever-so-slightly (you may even find a job posting for an even more confusing software development engineer position).

So, then, what exactly are the differences? Fortune has you covered.

What is a software developer?

As the name implies, a software developer develops software, which involves coding and programming to help build specific features and components. Software developers are very focused on the execution and are very heads-down into their latest project. 

“Software developers are very focused on execution,” explains Shadi Rostami, executive VP of engineering at Amplitude. “They’re given a spec, and they go build software that meets it. In that context, their day-to-day is spent primarily building and coding.”

They could be working in the development of web, app, fullstack, video games, and other programs. 

What is a software engineer?

A software engineer is a strategic builder, as noted by Rostami. While also working with coding and development, engineers focus much more on the big picture strategy of projects.

“Software engineers not only do software development, but they also use engineering principles to go through the entire lifecycle of software. So not only development, but maintaining it, testing it, making sure it works with the rest of the company, is this more comprehensive,” says Vipin Chaudhary, chair of the computer and data sciences department at Case Western Reserve University.

The profession resultantly leans heavily on soft skills like problem solving, communication, and leadership.

“They’re focused on understanding their customers and end-users so they can identify what problem needs solving and how to best solve it,” says Rostami—adding that the role also emphasizes principles like scalability, maintainability, reliability, and robustness.

Software engineers also can be found across a variety of settings, including web, apps, data, full stack, video games, cybersecurity, cloud, and beyond.

How do software engineers and software developers compare?

One way to think of the main difference between software engineers and developers is the scope of their work. Software engineers tend to focus more on the larger picture of a project—working more closely with the infrastructure, security, and quality. Software developers, on the other hand, are more laser-focused on a specific coding task.

In other words, software developers focus on ensuring software functionality whereas engineers ensure the software aligns with customer requirements, says Rostami.

“One way to think about it: If you double your software developer team, you’ll double your code. But if you double your software engineering team, you’ll double the customer impact,” she tells Fortune.

But it is also important to note that because of how often each title is used interchangeably, the exact differences between a software engineer and software developer role may differ slightly from company to company.  

Engineers may also have a greater grasp of the broader computer system ecosystems as well as have greater soft skills.

Software developer Software engineer
Day-to-day responsibilities Coding and programming; focused on specific tasks Some coding and programming; focused on the larger infrastructure, security, goals
Soft skills Communication, teamwork, attention to detail, time management Communication, team-building, problem-solving, leadership, organization
Educational focus Computer science Computer science, engineering

Who is hiring software engineers and developers?

The short answer is that software experts are needed all around. Despite layoffs at some of the biggest tech firms, tech employees looking for a job are largely able to find one. According to CompTIA, the tech unemployment rate sits at around 2.3%.

“I would be hard pressed to find an organization or company that is not hiring engineers and developers. While that might be something of an exaggeration, we do live in a digital-first world,” says Sara Faatz, director of technology community relations at Progress.

Businesses of all kinds—the likes of retail, education, nonprofits, and enterprises need software developers and engineers, she adds.

For those looking to get into the space, there are a variety of ways to learn in-demand skills. Students can take a traditional degree route or explore a bootcamp, certification, or self-teaching.

“Regardless of the path, it is vital that in either role the person focuses on continued learning. The technology landscape changes so fast. Making sure your skillset is current is critical whether you are an engineer or a developer,” Faatz says.

How do salaries of software engineers and software developers compare?

Based on compensation data estimates from Glassdoor, while software engineers and developers do both make hefty six-figure salaries, software engineers do hold a slight edge. When it comes to total pay, engineers bring home nearly $30,000 on average more, which could, in part, be due to project completion bonuses or other circumstances.

Above all, it is important to remember that a variety of factors are at play when it comes to salary, including experience, education, company, industry, and location. According to Dice’s annual Tech Salary Trends report, tech salaries did decrease slightly in 2023, the industry as a whole remains strong. Becoming either a software developer or software engineer is likely to translate into a lifelong career.


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