Engineering software from concept to application

Software engineering is the process of producing a piece of software that offers functionality from a set of requirements. Essentially, it involves creating and putting a number of building blocks together to create a working application.

These careers can be very rewarding, especially when the code you’ve helped to design, write and test is being used ‘in the wild’. Today, though, being a software engineer isn’t just about writing code!

What technical skills do I need to be a successful software engineer?

The aim of a software engineer is to design and develop a software system that meets a set of identified requirements. Often, these guys might use various tools to achieve their objectives in a more efficient manner.

These tools might include: integrated development environments (IDE’s) that offer assistance with code writing and have functions such as highlighting possible errors in real time; automated test tools that remove the need for repeated manual testing; and open source libraries that can be plugged into your application and offer functionality to prevent you from having to ‘reinvent the wheel’.

A software-related degree (e.g. computer science or software engineering) is becoming more important in securing a role. A good understanding of mathematics is required due to the complexity and architecture of some software systems. This is especially important if you wish to become a games developer.

There are many different programming languages and many different technologies, which are used in software engineering, so having a good grasp of all the major areas is an advantage. New languages and tools are appearing at a rapid rate and it can often be difficult to keep up, but employers will be looking for candidates with a good understanding of current trends in the industry.

Being able to present your own projects will help you to have an edge over others. This isn’t just about demonstrating a piece of working software, but being able to talk about the code and discuss why things were done a certain way, why certain patterns and open source libraries were used, and how the code could be improved or extended.

An employer isn’t just looking for working code; they are looking for an understanding of how the code works, code that is easily maintainable, and a software engineer that has the ability to take unfamiliar code and fix bugs quickly.

You will need a good understanding of computers in general, such as how operating systems work and how hardware interacts. Furthermore, an understanding of target platforms is needed when developing a software system to identify any potential issues, especially if your software will be running on many different platforms.

How is software created?

Today, the role of a software engineer covers many aspects of the software lifecycle. These guys are jacks of all trades. Firstly, they get involved with the requirements capture process, i.e. finding out the objectives of the proposed software solution.

Then it’s all about system design. They design how different parts of the system will interact, choose which software language is going to be used, identify target and decide what the use cases are for the application.

Then it comes down to the development stage. Here, the software engineer gets stuck into the actual coding of the software system. This stage also involves doing a bit of unit testing (i.e. low level testing of small parts of the system) and getting the code reviewed by peers. Development takes up the majority of a software engineer’s time.

After the development process is complete, it’s all about testing. This process involves conducting system testing to ensure correct operation, and integration testing to ensure the system integrates correctly with other required systems, such as databases.

What do software engineers do besides creating software?

A software engineer’s job might also involve some database administration. A lot of today’s software systems interact with databases for storing and searching vast amounts of information. Software engineers need to be able to administer databases and also understand and write complex SQL queries from within the code that they are writing.

Furthermore, software engineers have maintenance responsibilities, which involve fixing bugs that are identified during testing and by the end user of the system. Finally, they dabble in a bit of documentation writing too. This part of the job may encompass the writing of design documents and assisting in the writing of user guides.

What personal qualities should a software engineer possess?

Software engineers need to be able to work as part of a team, as many systems are large and complex and will be developed by a number of engineers. The ability to quickly understand code written by others is essential. In theory, all code is well structured and documented; in practice, this is not always the case!

Communication is also a big part of being a software engineer, as everyone in the team needs to be able to work together effectively.

The ability to work under pressure and meet tight deadlines is also important, as the development of code, no matter how well planned, will always result in unexpected issues.

A proactive approach can give you a head start. Software engineering is a very fast moving industry, with languages, methodologies and technologies evolving at an extremely rapid rate. Being able to react quickly to new trends will make you a more attractive software engineer (N.B. we mean attractive in terms of your employability; after all, nothing will sort out your dodgy haircut!).

As you progress, you may move into a team leader or manager role. However, this will limit the amount of time you spend actually writing code. Consequently, a lot of software engineers make sideways movements to progress in their career. This may be fuelled by a desire to face new challenges, rather than manage others.

Check out our jobs board to see if there are any software engineer roles that you’d like to apply for. After all, while all this talk of codes and platforms will merely bring to most peoples’ minds an image of secret agents in very tall shoes, for the few of you who really get what we’re talking about, a career in software engineering can only be a dream come true!

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