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Programmer vs. software engineer: What’s the difference?

By  University of Phoenix

At a glance

  • Programmers’ primary role is to write computer code, but they also test codes, update codes and create script.
  • Software engineers are involved with all aspects of software creation, including concept, design and coding.
  • Explore information technology and computer science degree programs, as well as IT certificates, at University of Phoenix.

Companies are increasingly relying on digital tools for operation, and the market for IT professionals is growing accordingly. The demand for computer and IT specialists is projected to grow 15% from 2021 to 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is an anticipated 682,800 new jobs over the decade.

However, the demand for software developers is projected to grow at an even higher rate: 25% from 2021 to 2031. The open positions for computer programmers are expected to decline 10% from 2021 to 2031.

These projections indicate promising growth in the field of IT overall despite the predicted decline in computer programming roles. Here, we’ll delve into two branches of the IT tree: programming and software engineering.

BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2021-2031 is published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data reflects BLS’ projections of national (not local) conditions. These data points are not specific to University of Phoenix students or graduates.

Prepare for an IT career — and have the freedom to learn when you want online, 24/7/365.



Which IT career path to choose?

You might wonder which IT career path is best for you. An IT degree can lay the foundation for a computer-related career, preparing you to work with networks, databases, cloud platforms and other growing tech specialties.

Because of the rapid growth of computer and IT fields, many positions require specialized skills. This can make it tough to decide what to focus on during your training. The difference between a programmer and a software engineer is a prime example of this. Though these two positions have an overlapping skill set, they have different overall foci and require particular abilities.

Here’s what you need to know about the differences between careers in programming and software engineering.

What is a programmer?

Programmers write computer code necessary to build functioning software, applications and systems. They’re usually responsible for testing and debugging new and existing programs and handling updates, security patches and other fixes.

Entry-level positions typically require a technology degree, such as a bachelor’s in IT or computer science. It’s also possible to study a related subject, such as math or science, and learn programming languages independently or through a continuing education or certification program.

Programmers usually work as part of a development team. They handle coding and testing duties while software engineers or architects focus on the design and overall project management.

Responsibilities of a programmer

Programmers work on different types of software and applications, and they tend to focus on different coding languages, but their responsibilities are similar regardless of their specialization.

Here’s a look at programmers’ professional duties:

  • Coding — Programmers use computer languages, including C++, Java, Python, R and C#, to create the different functions and actions of a program. They might work with existing frameworks rather than writing each line of code from scratch.
  • Testing — Once initial coding is complete, a programmer usually has to test it. If something doesn’t work correctly, they find the source of the problem in the code and fix it.
  • Update — Programmers can also create new versions of previously developed software or applications. They can add new features or functions, add security, or improve efficiency, speed or memory usage. This duty involves adding to or changing existing code.
  • Change platforms — Some programmers re-code existing programs so that they work on different operating systems or platforms. For example, they might alter an iOS mobile application to work on Android devices.
  • Create script and code libraries — Programmers create sections of code that perform specific functions. The dev team can then plug these into existing or new software to streamline the process of building new products.

Programmers work closely with software engineers and developers. Depending on the type of work arrangement and development philosophy, they might also take on design or project management duties. 

Skills needed to be a programmer

Programmers need a variety of hard and soft skills to succeed. Here’s a look at what programming abilities to develop as you progress along this career path.

  • Analytical skills — Analysis is a constant part of a programming career. Programmers often need to find new ways to accomplish tasks using code to define and solve issues.
  • Attention to detail — Miniscule errors such as one wrong letter or number in a computer code can set back an entire development project. Programmers need to be able to avoid these errors when coding or find them when testing and debugging.
  • Coding skills — Programmers need to be intimately familiar with the computer languages they use. While no coding pro knows every language, most need to be familiar with several and have the ability to learn new ones quickly.
  • Development knowledge — Large software projects have dev ops specialists to oversee different aspects of development, but programmers need to be familiar with how to document their work and log changes so other team members are aware of them.
  • Communication skills — You might think programmers spend their days alone writing code at computer terminals. However, this career requires close communication and the ability to work as part of a team.

When studying, seek a program that allows you to develop hard skills and gain the hands-on experience necessary for strengthening soft skills like communication.

Types of jobs for programmers

Programmers work in a variety of settings. When looking at where to find careers in the IT sector for programmers, try searching for the following titles:

  • App developer — App developers create programs to run on mobile devices, embedded systems or computers. Like other programming jobs, this one involves writing, testing and updating code.
  • Web developer — Programmers who create and update sites are known as web developers. They focus on user-facing aspects of websites using JavaScript and HTML or back-end development using PHP, Java and Python. Full-stack developers have skills to handle both front- and back-end coding.
  • Systems analystSystems analysts use knowledge of software and programming to assess an organization’s IT needs and devise ways to improve operations and functionality. This job often involves customizing and configuring software and testing it alongside current systems and software.
  • Database administratorDatabase administrators use programming skills to ensure security and functionality of a database. Programmers with testing and problem-solving skills should excel in this career because it requires constant monitoring, security and efficiency improvements.

In all these positions, programmers work alongside other IT specialists, including software engineers.


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What is a software engineer?

Software engineers are involved in all aspects of software creation and typically take a broader role in development projects. They may create overall designs and concepts for software or applications and figure out ways to use programs to solve specific problems.

They’re also involved in the actual coding and development stages and might oversee testing to ensure the programs meet their goals. Engineers typically understand computer languages, such as Python, C++ and Java. Coding might be part of some engineering job descriptions, while other roles may not demand the nuanced computer language skills of programmers.

Because of the broader focus, software engineers need a strong knowledge base, which they can get through a bachelor’s in computer science program


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Responsibilities of a software engineer

Here are some of the duties a software engineer would likely encounter:

  • Concept and design — Software engineers come up with designs for software based on specific needs, system requirements and other factors. They might work with software architects and programmers to assess the feasibility of their designs.
  • Planning — Software engineers often consider software lifestyles, timing of updates and development methods with the overall goal of the software project in mind.
  • Updates and maintenance — Software engineers might also be responsible for maintaining existing software systems, troubleshooting when issues arise and planning updates, security patches and other day-to-day improvements.
  • Coding and testing — Engineers may be involved in coding or testing the software in some cases. Though programmers may handle these duties, engineers often oversee and monitor the process and ensure the software meets goals and follows the design and concept.
  • Analysis — Software engineers analyze both user needs for new software projects and the performance of existing programs to find opportunities for updates or improvements.

Depending on the needs of an employer or client, a software engineer can act as a kind of project manager responsible for ensuring the final product is delivered according to the design and specifications.

Skills you need to be a software engineer

You’ll need to develop specific skills and a strong knowledge base to embark on a software engineer or software developer career path.

  • Critical thinking and analytical skills — Software engineers are critical thinkers who can define issues, seek solutions and make realistic plans and goals. These abilities are essential because of the planning and problem-solving requirements of most software engineering positions.
  • Understanding of computer science concepts — Engineers use programming and systems knowledge to come up with solutions, so a solid understanding of computer science concepts, development frameworks and software life cycles is essential.
  • Coding and development knowledge — Even though they don’t always need to handle day-to-day coding duties, software engineers need knowledge of relevant computer languages and common frameworks.
  • Data structures — In today’s data-intensive environment, engineers must know how to structure data and deploy algorithms in their programs. This knowledge might not be a requirement in all positions, but it helps with career enhancement.
  • Communication skills — Like programmers, software engineers need to communicate with other team members. If you’re in a senior role, this can include conveying plans and delegating tasks.

Like programmers, software engineers can flourish in a variety of roles if they have a diverse set of hard and soft skills.

Types of jobs for software engineers

Like their programming counterparts, software engineers work in a variety of positions:

  • Software developer — Software developers come up with programs or update existing software to provide solutions or meet specific needs. In addition to the initial design and concepts, they oversee the building and testing phases and ensure the final product meets the original goals.
  • Database architect — Database architects design and build systems to store, organize and transform data. This career can include ensuring the data is secure and properly structured and creating applications for accessing or visualizing the information.
  • Systems engineer — Systems engineers use software and hardware to create a computer or network system that meets the needs of their employer. This job includes coming up with applications and security features to ensure safe usage and efficient connections. Systems engineers can specialize in certain areas, such as cloud computing or embedded systems.

Computer science and IT programs at University of Phoenix

If you’re interested in pursuing a job in information technology or learning more about computer science, University of Phoenix offers online degrees and certificates in the following fields of study. 

  • Advanced Software Developer Certificate — Learn to design and implement software solutions in relation to project scope and stakeholder needs. Study multiple programming languages and software architecture principles while earning this certificate.
  • Associate of Arts in Information Technology — This program introduces you to information technology concepts and principles in programming, data analytics, cybersecurity and networking. Learn the essential foundation of technical skills for the IT field.
  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Science — This degree program teaches you how to apply information technology theory and principles to real-world business challenges. Advanced concepts in math, programming and computer architecture are covered.
  • Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity — This program teaches top skills such as security policies, network security, information systems security and cybersecurity.
  • Bachelor of Science in Data Science — Gain fundamental skills and knowledge to analyze, manipulate and process data sets using statistical software. Learn ETL (extract, transform, load) processes for integrating data sets for business intelligence and more.
  • Bachelor of Science in Information Technology — This program is designed to teach top skills such as business process, cybersecurity, information systems, operations and systems analysis.
  • Master of Information Systems — Go beyond building computers and managing your queues with an MIS. Learn technical and leadership skills necessary for developing and managing information systems.


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