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Key differences between software developers, software engineers and programmers

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

Kathryn Uhles, Dean, College of Business and IT

This article has been reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

This article was updated on January 24, 2024.
 

As digital tools evolve and integrate into almost every aspect of modern life, the need for IT professionals continues to grow. The demand for computer and IT specialists is projected to be 377,500 job openings every year between 2022 and 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).*

BLS also projects the demand for software developers will grow by 25% from 2022 to 2032, while the rate of growth in open positions for computer programmers is expected to decline by 11% during the same period, due in part to tools that automate coding.

These projections indicate promising growth in the field of IT despite the anticipated decline in computer programming roles. With so much projected growth, it can be tough to decide on a career path in IT. In fact, it may boil down to: software engineer vs. software developer vs. programmer.

While similar, the focus and scope of each role varies. Understanding the responsibilities and skills each job requires may help you decide which is right for you so you can choose your training accordingly. Here, with the help of J.L. Graff, associate dean in University of Phoenix’s College of Business and IT, we’ll delve into three branches of the IT tree: programming, software development and software engineering, with a particular focus on the first two.

*BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2022-2032 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.

Career-focused tech degrees aligned to the skills employers want.

 

What is a programmer?

Programmers write the computer code necessary to build functioning software, applications and systems. Following “blueprints” created by software developers, programmers use their technical skills and knowledge of computer languages to build programs or update existing ones. They use computer languages to create the functions and actions of a program. They might work with existing frameworks or tools that automate code rather than write code from scratch.

Other duties of programmers can include:

  • Testing — Once initial coding is complete, programmers usually have to test it. If something doesn’t work correctly, they find the source of the problem in the code and fix it.
  • Updating — 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 by adding to, simplifying or changing existing code.
  • Adapting programs for 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.
  • Creating script and code libraries — Programmers create sections of code that perform specific functions. The development team can then plug these into existing or new software to streamline the process of building new products.
  • Documenting — Programmers keep detailed records of coding and design to help with software modifications or maintenance in the future.
  • Maintaining version control — Programmers often track changes and updates in code to manage different versions of software.

Programmers work closely with software engineers and developers. Depending on the type of work arrangement and development philosophy, they might also take on additional responsibilities, such as project management or some design tasks.

Graff discusses additional opportunities programmers may have: “Programmers have an opportunity to pursue one or more programming certifications that can help them to pursue entry-level jobs or seek new opportunities within their current industries. Programmers can also pursue careers as support specialists, software engineers and network architects, just to name a few.”

Any industry in which software is created or modified needs programmers. While the majority of programmers work in technology (32%, according to the BLS*), other areas that employ a significant number include manufacturing, finance and insurance, and software publishing. Many programmers are self-employed and work on a freelance or contract basis. 

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What is computer programming?

What is a software engineer?

Software engineers typically focus on the computer engineering aspects of software development. They apply engineering principles to software development and complex system design.

The tasks of software engineers can vary depending on the organization and the type of project but generally include:

  • Concept and design — Software engineers work closely with project stakeholders to understand software requirements and goals. They then create designs based on user and system needs, technical requirements and other factors. They might work with software developers and programmers to assess the feasibility of their designs.
  • Planning — They often consider software life cycles, timing of updates and development methods with the overall goal of the software project in mind.
  • Updates and maintenance — Software engineers might be responsible for maintaining existing software systems, troubleshooting issues, and planning updates, security patches and other day-to-day improvements. They may also work on major software upgrades or expanded features.
  • Analysis — They analyze both user needs for new software projects and the performance of existing programs 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. When comparing the responsibilities of a software engineer vs. those of a programmer, you can see that the former takes a more conceptual approach while the latter homes in on the details.

 

What is a software developer?

Software developers take the lead role in translating the creative vision of a program into a digital reality. They focus on developing an approach to programming that meets the goals of the project and on managing its execution, combining technical and non-technical skills to do so.

Developers consider required features and functionality, as well as technical specifications and constraints (such as budget and other resources), to make sure a program runs smoothly and as planned. This can involve working on system architecture, user interface design and database management.

Software developers’ responsibilities can include:

  • Analysis and planning — Software developers incorporate user experience and design as well as technical requirements to plan the development process.
  • Coding and programming — They may choose the most appropriate programming language for the software project and oversee the development of the application or system. At smaller companies or when working on their own, software developers may handle some or all coding themselves.
  • Collaboration — A large part of software development involves working closely with software engineers, programmers, project managers, clients and other stakeholders to ensure the look and function of the software meet expectations.

Software developers can specialize in one or more types of software, such as mobile and web apps, desktop software, databases, operating systems and more. They can work in a range of fields and organizations that develop software for the consumer or business-to-business (B2B) market or businesses that need customized solutions for internal use. 

Graff adds: “Software development enables businesses to display their brands through computers and smartphones, create platforms for customer feedback, communicate directly with customers, and make data-driven decisions. In today's competitive market, software developers are essential.”

Software developer vs. programmer

When comparing a computer programmer vs. a software developer, the main difference is that the scope of the developer role is much broader. But there is some overlap.

Software developer:

  • Designs each aspect of an application or system and how they will work together
  • Manages software development
  • Collaborates with project team members and stakeholders
  • Involved across the software development life cycle, including updates and improvements

Programmer:

  • Writes code according to specifications
  • Carries out programming tasks related to the software development process
  • Collaborates mainly with other programmers and development team members
  • Involved mainly in programming, testing and debugging

Both software developers and programmers write, debug and test code. However, developers are more involved across the entire software development life cycle. They focus on what the software should do, what it should look like and how users interact with it. Once they envision a design for the software system or application, they decide on the technical specifications, oversee programming and assess the functionality. They also manage maintenance or updates and the addition of new features, functions and versions.

During the software development process, developers may meet regularly with software engineers, user experience experts and clients to understand functionality requirements, get an estimate for timelines and budget, ask for clarification or communicate challenges and provide progress reports.

In comparison, programmers don’t play a part in deciding what the software will do. They use diagrams and models provided by the software developer and translate them into code that meets those specifications. Like software developers, programmers may test and debug code to find and fix problems, but they typically don’t change the design.

Programmers may collaborate with other members of the technical team, such as the developer and other programmers. However, they don’t usually work closely with clients or non-technical team members.

One way to think of a computer programmer vs. a software developer is this: A programmer is a technician who specializes in code, while a developer is a designer who also codes.

Education differences for software developers and programmers

Education requirements for a computer programmer vs. software developer differ significantly. Both programming and software development require a strong foundation in computer science, which is why entry-level roles for both generally require a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology or a related field, such as mathematics or science.

Beyond teaching computer science principles, a bachelor’s degree can also provide software developers and programmers with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Programmers and software developers also need an in-depth understanding of programming languages. However, this is where their educational needs begin to differ.

A programmer’s educational requirements also include:

  • Mastering several programming languages as well as programming techniques and best practices
  • Specializing in certain programming languages
  • Taking continuing education courses to stay up to date with programming languages
  • Taking classes within a given industry (for example, programmers who work in healthcare may benefit from taking classes to better understand industry practices and processes)

As programming becomes more automated, programmers with more advanced expertise, knowledge of several languages, and skills earned through certificates or other continuing education may have an edge over other candidates in the job marketplace.

For software developers, their educational requirements include:

A master’s degree can provide in-depth knowledge and leadership skills that could potentially help software developers enhance their careers.

Graff shares about what UOPX offers: “Skills that our students learn: agile software development, security requirements analysis, vulnerability assessment, application security, scrum (software development) and software development life cycle (SDLC).

“Our students get an introduction to software development, learn software engineering and architecture concepts, and learn how databases and cloud programming are used in software development. There is also a focus on project management concepts within software development.”

Responsibilities and skills

Since programmers focus more on coding, their responsibilities and skills more narrowly focus on programming languages and problem-solving. Software developers must have design skills and the ability to handle a range of technical and non-technical responsibilities.

Here’s a general comparison of the primary skills required of software developers and programmers.

Skill Software developers Programmers
Understanding of basic programming languages, such as Java, Python and C++
Understanding of basic programming languages, such as Java, Python and C++
Understanding of basic programming languages, such as Java, Python and C++
X
Understanding of basic programming languages, such as Java, Python and C++
X
Advanced programming and coding expertise in languages such as Java, Python, JavaScript, C++, Ruby, Swift and C#
Advanced programming and coding expertise in languages such as Java, Python, JavaScript, C++, Ruby, Swift and C#
Advanced programming and coding expertise in languages such as Java, Python, JavaScript, C++, Ruby, Swift and C#
Advanced programming and coding expertise in languages such as Java, Python, JavaScript, C++, Ruby, Swift and C#
X
In-depth understanding of software architecture
In-depth understanding of software architecture
In-depth understanding of software architecture
X
In-depth understanding of software architecture
Knowledge of databases and data modeling
Knowledge of databases and data modeling
Knowledge of databases and data modeling
X
Knowledge of databases and data modeling
Familiarity with web design fundamentals and development concepts
Familiarity with web design fundamentals and development concepts
Familiarity with web design fundamentals and development concepts
X
Familiarity with web design fundamentals and development concepts
Knowledge of testing methodologies and tools
Knowledge of testing methodologies and tools
Knowledge of testing methodologies and tools
X
Knowledge of testing methodologies and tools
X
Ability to use development tools and environments
Ability to use development tools and environments
Ability to use development tools and environments
X
Ability to use development tools and environments
Knowledge of algorithms and data structures
Knowledge of algorithms and data structures
Knowledge of algorithms and data structures
X
Knowledge of algorithms and data structures
X
Expertise in software testing and troubleshooting
Expertise in software testing and troubleshooting
Expertise in software testing and troubleshooting
X
Expertise in software testing and troubleshooting
X

Beyond these hard skills, software developers should have a knack for finding creative approaches to designing software applications and systems. They also need interpersonal skills to work with other team members and clients and delegate tasks to programmers. Since software developers deal with complex information, the ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing is essential. 

Necessary computer programmer skills extend to being detail-oriented, since programmers have to write clean and efficient code and troubleshoot problems. They should also be able to adapt to the needs of different types of software projects.

 

Types of jobs

The term software developer can include a wide variety of positions, including application developer. As of 2022, the annual salary for this role ranged from $71,280 to $198,100, according to BLS. Overall employment of developers is projected to increase by 25% from 2022 to 2032. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum required education.

Other potential jobs for software developers can include:

  • Information technology analyst
  • Technical consultant
  • Computer consultant

While employment of computer programmers is projected to decline in the next 10 years, automation can help them be more efficient and focus on more complex tasks and challenges. Programmers need a bachelor’s degree, and the pay ranges from $54,310 to $157,690 per year.

In addition to focusing on programming for software development, programmers may work as quality assurance analysts and testers, which have the same education requirements and average salary ranges as software development jobs.

Computer science and IT programs at University of Phoenix

If you are interested in learning skills that can help you become a software developer, pursue a job in information technology or learn more about computer science, University of Phoenix offers a range of options to suit different learning requirements and career goals. From online certificates to undergraduate degrees and beyond, explore our offerings 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. While software developers typically require a bachelor’s degree, this program teaches relevant skills within the field.
  • Associate of Arts with a concentration 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. While software developers typically require a bachelor’s degree, this program teaches relevant skills within the 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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