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Software engineer

Software engineer

Tell me about it
Software engineers, also known as computer programmers or software developers, design, install, test and maintain the software used by organisations in their IT systems.

The work often involves close liaison with senior programmers and business analysts, devising technical plans to meet the needs of the client. A typical project would include: programming a test version of a piece of software; testing installation and compatibility issues; checking test results and fixing technical problems; installing a full version and carrying out final checks before going ‘live’; and maintaining and supporting systems once they are up and running.

The software engineer might write bespoke programs from scratch, or amend existing programs to meet the needs of the project.

Whether installing a new system or updating an existing one, the software engineer must gain a thorough understanding of the client’s business and information needs, examine any existing system, decide on recommendations and present a fully-costed proposal to the client. 

Entry level
The usual qualification is a degree, foundation degree or HND/HNC, or substantial experience and proven ability in programming. You could choose from a variety of subjects, including: computer science/studies, information technology, software development, software engineering or business information systems.

A postgraduate IT conversion course can be useful if your initial qualification does not have significant IT content.

Several universities are now offering the Information Technology Management for Business (ITMB) degree. This has been developed by e-skills UK and employers to meet specific industry needs, for example project management skills and business awareness.

Alternatively, you might consider the ICT Higher Apprenticeship, a new approach to developing degree level skills. By following this self-earning route, you can gain a foundation degree from three years’ employment combined with part-time study, which can be converted into an Honours degree with a further year's commitment.

Making the grade
Many employers provide training that can lead to professional qualifications, for instance from the British Computer Society, the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, e-skills UK or the Institution of Analysts and Programmers.

You could also take training courses offered by software development companies. Examples include:

  • Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) and Certified Applications Developer (MCAD)
  • Sun Microsystems Java Certified Programmer (SCJP) and Developer (SCJD)
  • Oracle PL/SQL Developer (databases).

Promotion is normally to senior or principal software engineer and then to project manager. Experienced managers can also work in IT training and technical writing.

With approximately three years' experience, it is possible to work freelance, often through an agency, or as a self-employed contractor or consultant.

Personal qualities
You would need to be passionate about IT and up to date with developments in this rapidly changing field.  You should be strong at maths, with a logical and practical approach to problem solving.  In addition, you would have to listen to the requirements and ideas of others and to accommodate these in your plans.  With tight deadlines to meet, you would need the ability to prioritise effectively.

Looking ahead
Software engineers usually specialise in business, scientific, engineering or microcomputer applications. They work across commerce and industry, public services, utilities, defence and research. There are opportunities with computer and software manufacturers, IT and management consultancies, the Armed Forces and defence establishments, and other organisations that use computers.

Although there is a shortage of people with the appropriate skills, entry is fairly competitive. Organisations are increasingly contracting development work to firms of IT consultants.

Alternative suggestions
Other possibilities might include computer games developer, graphic designer, multimedia designer, systems analyst, systems architect or webmaster.

Take-home pay
Software engineers are usually well paid, with graduate starting salaries ranging from around £25,000 to £40,000 (Earnings at the higher end relate to work in the finance and telecoms sectors in London and the South East). This should rise as you gain experience to £50,000 to £80,000, if you are reliable and can produce useful results. The size of installation, location and the nature of the employer's business will affect salary levels. Computer manufacturers, software houses, as well as the finance centre of London, usually pay higher salaries.

Contracting and freelance work can be more highly paid due to specialist skills.

The normal working week is 37 to 40 hours, but overtime and weekend working may be needed to deal with deadlines and emergency problem solving. In sectors such as finance and consultancies, longer working hours may be required.

Sources of information
e-skills UK:
Skills Framework for the Information Age:
British Computer Society:
British Interactive Media Association:
Institute for the Management of Information Systems:
National Computing Centre:
Institution of Analysts and Programmers:
Oracle and Sun Microsystems:  
Microsoft UK:





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