How to Become a Software Engineer: Novice to Pro
Software engineers are basically the fairy godmothers of the tech world.
They turn pumpkins and mice into horse-drawn carriages—they transform wires, plastic, and metal into brilliant apps and software that improve our everyday lives. On top of the magic of transformation and creativity, software engineering, also known as software development, offers aspiring coders a comfortable life combined with job security and an excellent starting salary. Although, this is not without difficulty in the beginning. For some, coding, for beginners, can be one of the technical skills that prove to be unexpectedly difficult and deter individuals from progressing their knowledge.
If you are curious about how to become a software engineer, this guide will help you understand and find out more!
Benefits of Software Engineering
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software engineering boasts a job outlook of 22% in the next decade, with a median pay of $107,510. While these numbers are attractive, what really sets apart this career path is its engaging mix of creativity and technical knowledge.
In other words, the software development industry does not only provide the highest paying coding jobs, it’s an exciting field too!
Though it might not be as simple as waving a magic wand to become a computer software engineer, you can turn your basic coding skills into the glass slippers of coding royalty with a little hard work and dedication. Taking this step will solidify you on your path to becoming a professional engineer.
What Does it Take to Become a Software Engineer?
To blaze your own path in software engineering, you’ll need to hone your existing talents and harness new skills along the way. The best software engineers never stop learning.
As a novice, you’ll want to keep your creativity alive, continuously apply new skills, and develop a coder’s attitude.
Thinking Like a Coder
While no software engineer is quite the same, you will want to capture some key traits in your everyday thinking. Coders think in terms of optimization, efficiency, and speed. How do we make this process easier? How do we make this piece of code more concise? In many ways, software engineers are the most efficient people around!
To join the ranks of software engineers in the industry, try to embrace these traits:
- Tenacity will be your best friend when faced with the complex process of debugging and testing your code. One thing you’ll learn when you start coding is that your program will probably never run the very first time (and that’s okay). For example, like how drawing is as much about drafting as it is about creating, coding is as much about troubleshooting as it is about scripting. And that’s what makes it fun!
- Curiosity is a cornerstone of coding. If you’re not interested in the behind-the-scenes of your phone, computer, or favorite program, this might not be the job for you. The desire to look behind the curtain will drive you to discover unique solutions and uncover brand-new concepts that you won’t learn in school. Curiosity might kill the coder cat, but satisfaction brings it back!
- Resourcefulness is vital for all aspiring software engineers. While you always want to learn the how and why of a problem, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Good coding is efficient coding. You’ll need to learn how to use search engines, forums, existing APIs, open-source code, and libraries to your advantage.
- Creativity. Don’t let the STEM label fool you—coding is an art as much as it is a science. All that computer programming is, at its core, creating things from scratch. There’s an aesthetic to beautifully formatted code; an elegance to efficient scripts. If you appreciate the intentional composition and color choices of a famous painting, you just might love coding too.
Preparing Your Coding Toolkit
Developing the coder’s mindset is your first step in the path towards software engineering success. However, the right attitude is nothing without the stellar skills to match. It may come as a surprise that writing programs is by no means the only technical skill you need to learn to become a software engineer.
You’ll want to add these technical skills to your toolkit:
- Logical reasoning
- Linear algebra
- Data science
And don’t forget the soft skills that will help you thrive in the workplace, like:
- Active Listening
- Creative Problem Solving
Your Roadmap to Software Engineering
Becoming a software engineer is a process. It takes years of practice and buckets of dedication. To make the path seem a bit clearer, here’s a simple roadmap to take you from novice to pro:
- Understand why you want to code.
- Select your first programming language based on your interests and goals.
- Create your coding setup and gather the right tools.
- Learn how to code by studying theory and doing hands-on projects.
Once you’ve taken these steps, you’ll have the confidence and skills needed to apply to your dream job or even start your own company.
Step 1: Understand Why You Want to Code
Software engineering is an immensely versatile career, spanning almost every industry you can imagine. That’s why you can’t just stop at “software engineer” when deciding what you want to be.
You have to get specific.
Based on your interests, you may want to specialize in one of these common software engineering jobs:
Step 2: Select Your First Language
Are you starting to get a clearer picture of your dream software engineering job? If so, great! Now, you have to choose your first programming language to get started. While it benefits coders to know several languages, you only really have to master one to break into the industry. From there, learning additional languages and broadening your skill set only creates more opportunities.
Here’s a rule of thumb to get you started:
- Mobile Developers – Swift for iOS or Kotlin for Android
- Game Designers and Animators – C++, Java, or Processing
- Computer Systems Analyst – C, C++, Python, or Java
- Robotics and Mechatronics – Python, Java, or C++
Step 3: Build Your Coding Setup
To become a software engineer, you need to gather the right digital and physical tools. As far as electronics goes, make sure you have these items at your disposal:
- A comfortable keyboard
- An ergonomic mouse
- A powerful laptop
- An external storage device
- A second or third monitor
- An internet connection
However, the most important elements of your coding setup are found inside your computer. These include:
- Your desired integrated development environment (IDE), like PyCharm, Spider, or BlueJ
- Access to cloud-based storage software so you never lose access to your files
- A command line tool, or version-control system like Git
- An account on an open-source coding site like GitHub to show your portfolio and exchange ideas with fellow coders
- A web service stack specific to your OS, featuring Apache, MySQL, and PHP, to grant you a local server environment
Step 4: Learn to Code Through Education and Experience
The key to becoming an excellent software engineer is melding theory with practice. If you only know how things work but have never written a line of code in your life, sadly, no one will hire you. If you only code using step-by-step tutorials and don’t take the time to learn the theory behind it, you won’t be able to adapt to new projects.
That’s why you’ll want to develop coding skills through both a theoretical lens and hands-on application.
The three main ways people can gain a coding education is by participating in either one of the following:
- Coding bootcamp
- Traditional college bachelor's degree program or equivalent
- Online coding course
Once you’ve developed a strong theoretical foundation, you can apply your new skills to hands-on projects. You can find these by pursuing experience in paid or volunteer positions like:
- Freelance software engineering
- Part-time or full-time work at a startup or tech company
- Shadow a professional software engineer
- Get a programming internship or summer job
- Pursue personal projects or help out friends, family, or the local community
- Participate in hackathons
- Recreate your favorite website, game, or app to apply new skills
Which Coding Education is Right for You?
A common misconception of software engineering is that you need a computer science degree to make it in the industry. Not only is this untrue, but a traditional college education isn’t always the best way to learn.
University programs and boot camps can be expensive, complicated, and too fast-paced for your learning style. That means you might spend precious money and time on an education that didn’t, well, educate you.
Online coding courses offer you the flexibility and pacing you need to immerse yourself in coding without getting lost in the fold. However, not all online courses are created equal. Many of them are overly convoluted, inefficient, or far too boring to stick with.
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Bureau of Labor Statistics. Software Developers. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm
Learn How to Become. SOFTWARE ENGINEERING DEGREES & CAREERS. https://www.learnhowtobecome.org/computer-careers/software-engineering/