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Software Developer vs Software Engineer: The Difference You Need to Know

software engineer vs software developer

When creating new apps and programs, or even building entirely new systems, software developers and engineers are at the center of the process. Both are integral to the continued evolution of technology that we find in every part of our lives, but the two positions are often confused. 

These positions are similar but are responsible for very different parts of software creation and while there is some overlap, they have different responsibilities, focuses, and skills.

At the core of the software developer vs software engineer discussion is scope. If the program being developed were a house, the engineer would be the architect, while the developer would be the carpenter. Both have highly specialized skill sets which are necessary for the construction of the house. The house could not be built without either, but they are concerned with different parts of the process. 

Engineers are concerned with the overall structure, developing a high-level view of the project and defining the specifics of how each piece fits together. 

Software developers, on the other hand, are focused on building individual portions or processes within a program and are responsible for making sure that they fit together. While both are necessary and have some requisite overlap, they are distinctly different. 

Where’s the Overlap?

One of the reasons that people confuse software engineers vs software developers is because their jobs can have considerable overlap. This comes from the necessary scope of understanding for software engineers and the fact that many software developers become engineers in the course of their careers. 

They share similar work environments, working both onsite and remotely, and by nature work for the same companies. 

As software developers build their skills in programming and development, they may find that they are more interested in the high-level planning portion of building software.

Because an engineer must be able to understand the individual components of a design and their functional connections, software developers are well-positioned to transition into an engineering focus. There are often additional education requirements, some of which can be found by expressing interest in career development within a current job, and others that require official certificates and training. 

Software engineers need to be able to understand the job of software developers to design software that can be built to specification. Without an understanding of the scope of developers’ abilities and software functionality, engineers wouldn’t be able to design and build the structures necessary for software development. Much in the way that architects must understand the nitty-gritty of support beams, supporting walls, and electrical systems before they can design a building, software engineers have to understand how a program is put together to design new ones. 

This sometimes leads to an overlap in job responsibilities. Developers will often be given a portion of a project to complete and will report to the engineer or a head developer who will interface with the engineer. In small companies and startups, however, smaller teams can mean that an engineer will also take on developer responsibilities and vice versa. 

Software Developer vs Software Engineer Key Differences

While there can be a lot of overlap and shared responsibilities depending on the size of the company, developers and engineers have extremely different positions.

The main difference is in the scope of their work and the level of responsibility that individual developers and engineers have. Besides who reports to who, engineers and developers have distinctly different skill sets, responsibilities, and processes. 

What’s the Main Job of a Software Engineer?

Software engineers are involved in the early stages of the software development life cycle (SDLC), where the purpose and scope of a project are defined.

They also build prototypes, define parameters, and determine the technical needs of the project they are working on. This may include determining how many developers are needed for a given project, setting budgets, and working with project managers to delegate workloads to different groups.

On the other side of this system, the software developers have a completely different set of responsibilities. 

What’s the Main Job of a Software Developer?

Where engineers are most heavily involved in the process closer to the beginning of the SDLC, software developers are in the thick of it, building, testing, and iterating the program.

Each individual has less responsibility than the project engineers, and in larger companies will work on a specific portion of the program. In video game development, for example, developers may be hired for a hyper-specific skillset such as character movement.

In the meantime, another team focuses on programming and building environments and character styles. These teams will still report to engineers and update progress, but their overall scope of responsibility and focus is much narrower. 

Why Do They Get Confused?

There are many reasons that these two positions often get confused. These positions can have extensive overlap, especially in smaller companies. They often have similar work environments, with many developers and engineers working remotely.

They both are also responsible for significant portions of the overall software development, and so many people think of them as being the same. 

Other times it’s because of the overlap in skills, or the necessity of both to complete a project. Both of these careers require an in-depth understanding of programming principles, methods, planning, time management, and communication.

Many even start in the same career paths, deviating later as preferred niches and passions are discovered later in their professional development. 

With similar starting points, potential overlap in skills, similar necessity, and involvement in the creation of new software, people outside of the tech industry can easily mistake one for the other. 

Ultimately, engineers and developers have distinctly different sets of skills, levels of responsibility, and scopes of focus. However, both are necessary for the continued advancement of technology.

With software as a service (SaaS) becoming key to succeeding in every industry from fleet management to small businesses, skilled developers and engineers are necessary for keeping up with demand. Like an architect and a carpenter, both are paramount to the construction of new, exciting futures. 

Which One to Hire: Software Developer vs Software Engineer

The organizational structure of any given company will vary, but in general, some elements can be counted on. 

Software developers may work on a team that falls under the umbrella of the engineering department or have their own separate department. Developers report to project managers and engineers as the progress of their work dictates when the product will be ready. In this way, software developers are the most important component in software creation. 

Engineers are a must for any type of software creation. Whether they are a developer who is expanding their skills and beginning to work at a higher level, or a dedicated engineer, without a person to lead the creation of purpose, design, and deliberation, there is no program to build. Engineers interface with project managers, software developers, managers, and marketing teams. They keep other departments updated on timelines, help delineate work, and communicate expectations. In this way, the software could not be created without engineers. 

Software engineers and developers hold different positions in the command structure, and the software could not be built without either one. Without engineers, developers would have no defined projects and designs to build. Without teams to implement their designs and structures, engineers would not be able to create new systems. 

There may be overlap in the responsibilities of each of these positions, but ultimately they are both necessary for building new and improved programs.

If you’re looking to fill one of these positions, whether it’s a software developer or a software engineer, you can count on us. At DistantJob, we’ve been helping companies find and hire the best remote developers and IT talent in a blink of an eye. 

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Jori Hamilton

Jori Hamilton

Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of subjects but takes a particular interest in covering topics related to remote team management, employee recruitment, and business productivity. To learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.