has many ears, software developer and software engineer may look like interchangeable terms. In certain contexts and to a certain extent, they are. But there are also important differences between these two terms. Depending on your goals and priorities, calling yourself a software engineer rather than a developer (or vice versa) can make the difference.
Software Engineer vs Software Developer: A Brief History of Two Terms
To understand how we talk about software engineer versus software developer today, it helps to look at the surprising historical differences between the two terms.
from google Ngram Viewerwhich records the frequency of appearance of given terms in books published each year (in particular, books indexed by Google), shows that the term software engineer has been in use since the 1960s. Its popularity steadily increased until around the year 2000, when it declined somewhat. (The data here probably reflects the bursting of the dotcom bubble, which presumably reduced the total number of books dealing with programming in any way.)
In contrast, software developer did not enter service until around 1980, although its popularity grew rapidly by then. It peaked in the 1990s and then declined precipitously – more than software engineer did – around the time the dotcom bubble burst.
If you look closely enough, you will also see that software engineer is used about three times more often than software developer in books published in recent years today.
It’s far from perfect data, of course. It only represents appearances of terms in books indexed by Google, and it does not take into account the contexts in which authors might use the term. developer alone instead of software developer.
Yet we can draw the high-level conclusion that the term software engineer is significantly older–and, overall, probably more popular–than software developer.
For what it’s worth, Google Trends – another very imperfect but still useful measure of term popularity – affirms the idea that software engineer is the most popular term. Here is the relative trend of the two terms from 2004 to present:
Software engineer vs developer today
The data above are anecdotal examples of how people are currently discussing the differences between software engineering and software developer. In many cases, these discussions attribute the greatest prestige and value to software engineers.
For example, codegiant writes that software engineers are the “real business” and “watchdogs”, responsible for integrating code written by software developers.
Software engineer vs developer salary
The fact that software engineers are paid more than software developers is another indicator of a common misconception that software engineering is the most complex and valuable type of coding work.
If you are a coder, then the takeaway here should be clear: you are likely to earn more money and get more interesting work if you present yourself as a software engineer rather than a software developer.
Become a Software Engineer vs Software Developer
This lesson may seem quite simple. But things get complicated when you think about what it actually takes to become a software engineer, as opposed to a developer.
Preparation-wise, the two terms or job titles seem to be the same. Most colleges and universities that teach programming give their students degrees in “computer science” (which is another very confusing term, but I digress). Graduates with these degrees can call themselves either software developers or software engineers, depending on their wishes. In other words, it’s not like you need a degree in software engineering specifically to be a software engineer.
There is also no obvious difference between the skills you actually need to be a software engineer and a developer. A programmer working under either title will need in-depth knowledge of programming languages, application architectures, DevOps concepts etc
This means that, to a large extent, coders can call themselves whatever they want, regardless of their specific background or skill set. So if you want to be a software engineer because it can improve your career trajectory, start describing yourself as such.
And if you’re already in a software developer role but want to upgrade to a software engineer, there’s nothing stopping you from doing that either, other than having to explain in a job interview how your experience in as a developer prepares you to be an engineer. But that shouldn’t be too difficult: if you focus on your experience with software architectures and more general programming tasks, you’ll look like an engineer quite easily.
Software Engineer vs Software Developer: A Difference That Only Matters If You Allow It
In short, there is a clear difference in the popular mind between software development and software engineering. The latter is held in somewhat higher esteem.
But the good news is that, when it comes to the actual skills and work associated with each role, there arguably isn’t much of a significant difference. If you want to be a software engineer, go ahead and be a software engineer.