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Software Engineer vs Software Developer

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When recruiting for technical roles, particulars matter. The difference between a software engineer vs software developer is subtle. Indeed, the line between the two can blur easily. So to better understand the distinction let's first examine the main focus of each role.

Software Engineer vs Software Developer - What’s the difference?

Software engineers are typically involved with at least some aspects of software development. In contrast, not all software developers are engineers.

Software developers work closely with clients to design and develop all the different components needed to make an application work. They are the creative force behind the end product. Software engineers focus on how to integrate these products into existing systems and architecture. They are primarily concerned with structural design and eliminating technical debt.

In a Hackernoon article, Brett Raven, CIO at Big Red Group, offered a helpful analogy which neatly frames the difference between the two. If we view software engineers as newspaper editors, then software developers are the journalists.“The latter are able to learn their broader skills on the job with years of experience and solid performance,” said Raven.  

The role of a software developer

All developers should be capable of building an application from start to finish.

The process typically starts by speaking to clients to establish precisely what it is they want the software to do. After writing up a list of essential criteria, they then get to work on building all the different components needed to make the app work.

Software developers must have excellent analytical skills as the must continually assess whether the capabilities of the software meet the needs of the client. Constant communication is required as clients often revise and update their requirements. The nature of the role means minor errors in communication could result in significant financial loss.

Software developers must also conduct experimental software runs to ensure quality and consistency. They must have an eye for perfection in order to properly direct repairs and revisions of programs designed to increase operating efficiency.

Developers work on a much more limited scale than engineers. This allows them a much greater degree of flexibility, coming up with creative solutions to problems as they arise. Engineers solve issues on a much larger scale, so there’s less room for creativity. They need to be more systematic in their thinking.

The role of a software engineer

Software engineers should be able to do everything a developer can, but with a more holistic design philosophy. Their focus tends to be on “getting the job done” while simultaneously minimising the trade-offs to other parts of the system and its architecture.

Software engineers should know how to create and maintain IT architecture, large scale data stores and cloud-based systems. They should also be familiar with how to build scalable data pipelines and scalable domain specific languages.

More senior engineers must oversee complex systems analysis as well as design and development programs. This means being able to manage resources, coordinate development tasks, and supervise technical project plans. To do this they collaborate with with IT, operations, and development staff through the software development life cycle.

Ultimately, their goal is to create and manage IT systems that help the company reach its strategic objectives.

Salary difference

In essence the difference between software engineer vs software developer comes down to seniority. It takes years of hands-on experience as a software developer to become a software engineer. This is reflected in the average salary listed on Payscale for each role.

software developer vs software developer

software engineer vs software developer

In summary

Aaron Sempf, CTO of Ion Systems, summarised the difference between software engineer vs software developer in this way:

A developer implements. Focusing their talents often on a single area, a specific task, or within a specific environment, without looking at the “bigger picture”.

An engineer architects, always looking at the “bigger picture”. An engineer can assume the developer role, but an engineer’s core focus lies within the architecture, designing and planning.