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Software engineering is the process of analyzing user needs and designing, constructing, and testing end-user applications that will satisfy these needs through the use of software programming languages. It is the application of engineering principles to software development.
In contrast to simple programming, software engineering is used for larger and more complex software systems, which are used as critical systems for businesses and organizations.
A software engineer develops or designs new applications with the software needs of end-users in mind. Software engineering may also involve the process of analyzing existing software, and modifying it to meet current application needs.
For example, in modern consumer electronics, devices in direct competition often have similar hardware and processing power, but the user experience will vary greatly depending on the software being used. A software engineer may then be working on a set of goals according to the needs of the consumer and by proxy, the need for the company to compete with others to offer the best user experience.
One key distinction that helps us to understand software engineering is to contrast it with a very similar role – software development.
Are software engineering and software development the same? Some people would say they're very similar, and deal with most of the same key concepts and processes. Others, though, would highlight some differences.
As mentioned above, while software development refers to the entire across-the-board development process, software engineering is much more about taking a given set of objectives and applying engineering concepts to drive production.
Those describing software engineering talk about using a client's needs to drive application development, which is a major value proposition in what software engineers do for a company. By contrast, software developers are likely to be much closer to those core processes involved in the software development life cycle.
However, both software engineers and software developers might have similar workflows and processes for a given project.
For example, agile software development and the DevOps philosophy can absolutely be applied to the software engineer role, as well as to development in general.
A few years ago, the DevOps model started to emerge and become popular, replacing traditionally staged models for software development.
By contrast, the more traditional models included a waterfall model, where each stage of development was done discreetly and separately from the others. All of the design would be implemented before the testing, and all of the testing would be implemented before the process of going live, etc.
Today, many companies are exploring new DevOps alternatives so the software engineer will apply those same innovations to software engineering. A DevOps software engineer may experiment with how to streamline software application and systems engineering and development cycles by bringing together operations from different departments, or innovating the process for getting teams working together.
Other types of software engineering include front end software engineering and back end software engineering.
Front end software engineering involves engineering the parts of a software application or system that are end-user-facing – the visual ends of the applications that are visible to the end-user in an actual production environment.
Back end software development and engineering, on the other hand, engineers the parts of applications and systems that are used behind the scenes by administrators and clients. For example, software calculation tools that control tax policy on payroll operations would be an example of back-office engineering.
Another type of software engineering is called “full stack engineering.” What that means is that the software engineer will work with the full technology stack, all of the technologies, platforms and resources involved in an application or system from the front end all of the way to the back end of systems. Full stack engineers are very much in demand in today's software industry because they can work across the entire company architecture.