With an average salary of over $106,000, a career as a Software Engineer is an attractive option. In addition to the pay, software engineering is a valuable service that presents a stimulating challenge — and it can be a lot of fun. But can you become a Software Engineer without a degree? The answer is definitely yes.
Like many tech careers, your skills and professionalism have more weight than a piece of paper with a degree on it. If you can learn what you need to bring to the table and deliver, you can qualify for many Software Engineer jobs.
If you’re wondering whether being a Software Engineer is the job for you and what you need to succeed, read on. We’ll share what a Software Engineer does, the skills needed, how to write your resume, and what you can do to build your software engineer portfolio.
What does a Software Engineer do?
A Software Engineer develops software and systems for organizations. The range of solutions a Software Engineer designs is huge: from video games to operating systems to web applications and more.
In addition to writing the code and building solutions, a Software Engineer has to work with various people who have a vested interest in the success of the solution. These may include managers, executives, and other team members. A Software Engineer may also interact with end-users or focus groups that represent their needs.
At the end of the day, a Software Engineer’s job is all about designing software to solve problems. And the job market for Software Engineers promises to be strong for many years to come as the number of challenges that businesses face continues to grow. This is true regardless of the kind of Software Engineer you want to become.
For example, a Full-Stack Engineer designs everything needed for an application to work, including the entire front-end and back-end. But, you can choose to specialize in front-end or back-end development. Our Full-Stack, Front-End, and Back-End software development Career Paths are good places to begin your journey as a Software Engineer.
Xavier, a Software Engineer, outlines much of what’s involved in the video below:
He sums up software engineering this way: “At the end of the day, we’re all trying to solve different problems with code.”
What technical skills does a Software Engineer need?
A Software Engineer’s toolbox is built on specific technical skills to create solutions and address challenges the team and the organization face. A Software Engineer needs to have or develop the following skills:
- Programming language skills. The languages the engineer knows may vary based on the type of software engineering they do. But these are central to their success. You can explore various types of programming languages in our course catalog.
- Source control. Source control is used to help you manage and store your code. There are tools, like Git and Github, that make it easier to manage your code.
- Database creation and management. Databases store the data that applications use to serve end-users. Knowing how to make and program databases, using languages like SQL, will help a Software Engineer produce more complete solutions.
- Operating system management and control. While many Software Engineers will never have to build an operating system, it’s good to understand how different operating systems work. This knowledge will help you design solutions that use the operating system’s resources without inadvertently introducing vulnerabilities to the application, the computer, or the network it’s connected to.
- Microsoft Excel. Excel is a useful tool for tracking how a project is progressing and creating reports that outline the success or challenges of an application. It often plays a key role in reporting results to decision-makers and other stakeholders as well.
- Text editor. While it may seem more important to understand how to write code, text editor skills shouldn’t be overlooked. With many text editors, you can use keyboard shortcuts to make the entry and editing processes faster and more accurate. There are plenty of text editors you can familiarize yourself with, such as Notepad++, Atom, Visual Code, and others.
- Basic networking. In today’s cloud-heavy business environment, networks are essential in facilitating communication between people and systems and the deployment of software solutions. Many Software Engineers will have to understand how a client-server model works, which involves a server that hosts an application, making it available for multiple computers that are connected to its network.
What soft skills should a Software Engineer have?
Soft skills are those skills that, while not necessarily involved in coding, are still essential to the process of designing, producing, and presenting solutions. In many cases, soft skills involve interacting with others on your team or other stakeholders.
Xavier mentions several soft skills involved in the day-to-day lives of developers. He notes that although people often think a Software Engineer spends all day writing code, they have to do a lot more. For example, he says, “You are reviewing other peoples’ code, you’re meeting with other people to talk about how to do things… and you’re relying on other people a lot to do your job.” All of this requires a full set of soft skills.
Communicating — whether you’re absorbing the ideas of others or presenting your own — is pivotal to the success of a Software Engineer. A good communicator knows how to listen to the needs and ideas of others and incorporate what they learn into their solutions.
Communication also plays a central role in conveying the effectiveness of your solution to managers and executives. Whether presentations or chats across a table, these discussions need to take place to make it easy for the stakeholder to understand what’s going on. And a good Software Engineer needs to be able to get their ideas across in a way that makes sense to people who don’t have a technical background.
Despite processing times that can take only nanoseconds, the overall software development life cycle is often very time-consuming. Developing the soft skill of patience will help you:
- Get along with team members. They may take an hour to do something you could do in 30 minutes, but, with patience, you can focus on the value of their solution instead of how long it took to create it.
- Avoid putting too much pressure on yourself. It’s easy to forget the value of being patient with yourself as a Software Engineer, particularly because you may have worked hard to get faster at some elements of your craft. Still, realizing that some things simply cannot be rushed can significantly benefit the end result.
- Work with slower systems. Testing and rollout can often take a long time. You may have a super-fast set up at home or may be coming from a company with a system that’s far faster than what you find in front of you. With patience, you can adjust to different operating speeds without getting frustrated.
Empathizing involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s different from sympathy, which involves merely understanding how someone else feels. So, an empathetic person can feel the emotions of others and imagine how their challenges impact them on a personal level.
With empathy, you can understand why an executive feels pressure from stockholders to get a solution ready before the next fiscal year begins. You can also understand the feelings of someone else on the team who put in a lot of time and effort — only to have their solution fail, perhaps multiple times.
You can also use empathy to understand the daily concerns and struggles your end-users are facing. This helps you better design your solutions as you focus on solving problems that will make their lives easier. Xavier explains it well as he notes that, “When writing code, you’re actually solving real problems in the world.” Understanding the emotional motivators at the core of these problems requires empathy.
How to write a Software Engineer resume
Your Software Engineer resume, especially if you’re just getting started, doesn’t have to list a long history of jobs, and it certainly doesn’t have to have a computer science degree at the top. The purpose of your resume is to clearly present the qualities and skills you have that will bring value to the organization you’re applying to.
So, it’s important to use verbs that convey the essential things you’ve done — either while working for another company or on personal projects. Some of the verbs to consider using include:
These kinds of verbs should begin the descriptions of what you have done in the past.
Further, you will want to ensure the following elements are included in your technical resume:
- Technical skills
- Certificates you’ve earned
- Courses and training you’ve completed
- Awards you’ve received
- Any volunteer experience you have, particularly if it incorporates technology or teaching others technical skills
- Personal projects you’ve done or are currently working on that exemplify skills your employer may be interested in
- Languages you can speak and/or write
How to interview for a Software Engineer position
The process of interviewing for a Software Engineer position will invariably involve answering questions about what you will bring to the company and those designed to test your technical skills. In many cases, you may have multiple interviews, and one may be primarily focused on observing how you solve a problem presented by the interviewer. This is referred to as a whiteboard interview, and during your presentation, you write out your solution on a whiteboard — live, in front of your audience. Here are some things to keep in mind during the various phases of the Software Engineer interview process.
Prepare to answer questions about what drives you
You may be asked why you enjoy being a Software Engineer. It would be best to answer this honestly, but be sure to highlight intrinsic motivations, such as the thrill of solving problems or helping people and organizations. You don’t want only to mention things such as salary, other opportunities it may make available (such as becoming a CIO), or being able to create your own schedule at times if you work from home. While these are all understandable reasons, they can change, depending on circumstances, and may come across as self-serving.
You may also be asked questions about what drives you to work for that particular company. You can highlight things such as:
- How your specific skill set can be useful for addressing a challenge the company is facing
- How you were inspired by a product, service, or innovation the company produced in the past
- How an element of the company’s culture, philosophy, or driving principles align with your sensibilities
Answering these questions correctly will require a good amount of research. You can often find most, if not all, of what you need on the company’s website and other resources online.
Practice and prepare for any presentations or whiteboard interviews
Presenting your work in front of people assigned to judge it can be nerve-wracking. The best way to shed some nerves and deliver a compelling presentation is to get lots of practice ahead of time.
In the case of a whiteboard interview, it’s unlikely that you’ll know the question ahead of time. So, when you practice for this type of interview, it’s helpful to set up your presentation environment by testing out the technology and getting the right lighting.
Also, during the whiteboard interview, remember to:
- Ask plenty of questions to clarify the requirements or to buy yourself some time to think and calm down.
- Write down all elements of your solutions and talk through them as you proceed, so your audience can fully understand.
- If you forget an element of syntax, write something in its place.
- Try not to say, “I don’t know.” Instead, you can say you don’t recall or that you would be happy to research the answer and report back.
In some interviews, you may get the chance to present work you’ve done in the past or specific elements of your portfolio. While practicing for this, remember to:
- Go through the presentation multiple times, specifically addressing areas that feel weak or thin.
- Use good lighting that prevents unnecessary shadowing on your face.
- Maintain interactive eye contact with the section of the screen where your audience’s faces will be; don’t bury your head in your notes.
- Use gestures as you speak. They convey enthusiasm and personal investment in what you’re talking about.
- Smile. It will relax both you and your audience.
We have courses specifically designed to help you perform your best during the interview process. As a Software Engineer, you can check out the following:
- Pass the Technical Interview with Java
- Pass the Technical Interview with Python
- Technical Interview Practice with Python
- Technical Interview Practice with Java
Building a Software Engineer portfolio
To build your Software Engineer portfolio, you’ll want to prioritize examples of your work that clearly convey your strengths that will be useful in the position you’re applying for. So, let’s say you’re applying to be a Front-End Engineer, you’ll want to position work you’ve done on user interface design higher in your portfolio than data analyst work. While your portfolio should still include some of the more tangential work you’ve done, you want someone skimming it to easily find what they’re looking for within a few moments.
Here are some other guidelines that will help your portfolio shine:
- Research the requirements of the role you’re applying to and cherry-pick samples that pertain to the job
- Make sure your portfolio is easy to read and navigate
- Use plenty of images and avoid long blocks of text
- Thoroughly explain charts and graphs. The reader shouldn’t have to scroll back up a few paragraphs to understand one of your visual elements.
- Invest in your own web URL, such as one that incorporates some or all of your name
- Ensure your contact information is right at the top. You can have a “Contact Me” page as well.
How long does it take to become a Software Engineer?
The time it takes to become a Software Engineer will vary depending on your circumstances. But, in general, you’ll learn the coding languages and technologies you need to engineer solutions. Then, you’ll start adding to your portfolio of work — even if that means taking on small or one-off jobs — just to build up your portfolio. The time it takes often depends on how much time you have in your schedule to learn the skills you’ll need and then build your portfolio.
With our courses, you can obtain the skills you need and develop your portfolio at the same time. As you interact with teachers and fellow students, you get real-life experience you can use while searching for your first software engineering job and for many years into the future. Start learning with us today for free.