By many measures, software developers have it made. They get to do pretty dynamic work that, when done well, impacts many people in a positive way. They're usually paid pretty well. And some people even manage to become software developers without having a college degree — something you can't say about most other high-paying career fields.
That said, not all software developers do the same types of work, and there are many ways to go about becoming a developer. Before deciding to pursue a career in software development or chart a strategy for doing so, it's important to understand the ins and outs of software developer roles, the pros and cons of working as a developer, and the best ways to get started in development.
This article provides guidance on all of those topics by explaining what a software developer is, why you might (or might not) want to become one, and how to pursue a career in software development no matter what your age, educational background, or career experience.
- What Does a Software Developer Do?
- How Do You Become a Software Developer?
- How to Apply for Software Development Jobs
- What Are the Best Ways to Get Started as a Software Developer?
What Does a Software Developer Do?
The simple way to explain what a software developer does is to say that developers create software.
But creating software is a complex, multi-stepped process, so saying that developers simply "create software" doesn't really do them justice. To understand fully what software developers do, you need to understand each stage of the development process:
- Design: Software development starts with designing and planning the software that developers want to write. They have to decide which programming language to use, which type of software architecture to leverage, and so on.
- Coding: Developers implement their plans by writing code. The amount of code developers have to produce to create a given piece of software varies widely depending on factors like how complex the software is, which programming language they are using, and whether they use AI-assisted or low-code development tools.
- Building: Most code must be built, or compiled, so that it can be run on a computer. The build process turns raw source code written by developers into a binary or executable file.
- Testing: After building code, software developers typically test it to make sure it behaves as required. Testing can involve manually interacting with the software to validate its operations, but to test efficiency and at scale, developers usually make use of automated testing frameworks.
- Deployment: If software passes tests, developers deploy it, which means moving it into an environment where it will be accessible to end users. After deployment, software is said to be in "production" because it's available for real-world use.
These are the main stages of software development, but a software developer's work doesn't always end with deployment. In some organizations, developers are also expected to help monitor and manage applications after they have been deployed. These expectations are part of the DevOps approach to software development and delivery, which emphasizes collaboration between developers (who create software) and IT operations teams (who manage software in production).
How Do You Become a Software Developer?
Unlike some professions — such as medicine, where getting a medical degree is a prerequisite in most cases, or law, where you need to pass a bar exam to practice as an attorney in most regions — software development is a field that you can enter in multiple ways.
There are three four main career paths for becoming a developer. Let's look at each one.
Getting a college degree in software development
The most common way to become a developer is to earn a college degree in computer science or a related field. If you go to college for programming, you'll take courses where you'll learn most of the skills necessary to work as a developer.
Going to college for software development is the most straightforward way to become a developer and land a job. However, it will also cost you some money and take several years.
Working in an adjacent field
Some people become developers by working in a field that is similar to, but distinct from, software development, then pivoting into a development career. For instance, if you currently work as an IT operations engineer, you could probably transition into software development by learning some additional skills and asking for responsibilities at work that would traditionally fall to developers. If you're successful, you'll eventually qualify for openings in software development.
Moving from an adjacent field into software development is a common tactic for people who already work in tech but find that they want to become software developers in order to earn more than they make in other roles or because they prefer programming to other types of work.
Attending a coding bootcamp
A third way to become a developer is to attend a coding bootcamp, which is a program designed to teach core software development skills to people with little or no background in tech relatively quickly. Most coding bootcamps take only a few months to complete, and if you graduate successfully from a reputable bootcamp program, you'll be taken seriously by many employers looking to fill software development roles. Thus, coding bootcamps are a fast way to get into software development.
Some coding bootcamps are also tuition-free — although in exchange for getting a free education, you may be required to pay the bootcamp a percentage of your earnings during your first years working as a developer.
The downside of bootcamps is that some employers may not take developers who learned their skills from a bootcamp seriously. Having a degree in programming or a related field will typically make you more competitive on the job market. But there are successful developers out there who only attended bootcamps.
Teaching yourself to program
A fourth option for becoming a developer is to learn to program entirely on your own, without any formal training in software development or technology. You could do this by following online tutorials or courses to learn a programming language, or by just playing around with code until you learn how to create software.
Self-taught programmers enjoy the advantage of not having to pay anything to obtain their programming skills, and they can learn to become developers at their own pace. On the other hand, developers who are entirely self-taught and lack any formal credentials related to programming will usually find it more difficult than others to land a job. But some employers — especially those who practice "degree-blind" hiring, which means they don't consider your educational background — may be willing to hire you as long as you can prove that you're a competent programmer during the interview process.
How to Apply for Software Development Jobs
No matter which path you take to gaining the skills necessary to work as a developer, you can't fully become one until you get a job as a developer. And in most cases, getting a job requires applying to jobs in software development.
There are no special tricks or shortcuts to landing a software development job. In most cases, you'll need to search postings on major job sites, then submit applications and hope the employer sees you as a good fit for an interview.
That said, there are some steps you can take to maximize your chances of applying successfully to software developer jobs:
- Look for jobs that align with your specific skills: Rather than applying for every development job you find, look for job descriptions that mention specific skills you have — such as knowledge of certain programming languages.
- Emphasize that you know more than just how to code: Since coding is only one stage in the software development process, you'll look more serious and experienced in the eyes of employers if you emphasize in your application that you can also design, build, test, and deploy software, not just write code.
- Show past work: If you have examples of software you've developed, include them in your application. For instance, if you have a GitHub repository that shows off some of your prior work, sharing that with the employer can help you stand apart from other applicants.
- Leverage personal connections: As with almost any career field, networking and building personal connections will significantly increase your chances of getting interviewed for jobs. If you know other people who work in development or related fields, reach out to them to ask if they have any leads on developer jobs or insider information about what employers are looking for when filling a particular position.
What Are the Best Ways to Get Started as a Software Developer?
Although there's no singular path that everyone takes to become a software developer, there are ways to accelerate your journey into a development role.
Take online courses
As you get started as a developer, taking online programming courses can be beneficial for expanding your skillset. For example, you could take a course to learn a second programming language or to learn more about automated testing. Even people who have formal computer science degrees can pick up valuable additional skills from online courses, many of which are available for free.
No matter your educational background, earning some certifications can be a useful way of proving that you have the skills necessary to work as a developer. Certifications are especially valuable if you earn ones that align with specific niches you want to work in. For instance, if you specialize in a certain language, obtaining a certification related to that language can help you land development jobs that require the language.
Learn the latest technologies
Although the ability to work with tried-and-true programming languages and tools is important for most work in software development, learning up-and-coming technologies as well can bolster your skillset and help you stand out from the crowd.
So, follow trends in software development and obtain skills that align with emerging technologies. For instance, AI-assisted coding is currently becoming an innovative practice for software developers, and learning how to use AI tools to accelerate development workflows may make you more attractive to some employers.
Work with open source
Contributing to open source projects is a great way to help get a software development career off the ground. It shows that you're passionate about helping the open source community develop software that many people can use. Plus, if you write code for a large open source codebase that has many contributors, open source development helps you gain experience interacting with other developers — a skill that employers will value.
Create a portfolio of your work
If the code that you write as you are getting started as a developer isn't available in a centralized public place (like a GitHub repository) already, consider creating a portfolio that showcases your work by linking to projects you've contributed to. A portfolio is a great resource for demonstrating to employers and colleagues what you're capable of.
What is a software developer?
A software developer is someone who creates software. In most cases, the main tasks of software developers include designing, writing, building, testing, and deploying code.
How do you become a software developer?
There are many ways to become a software developer. Getting a college degree in computer science is the most straightforward path, but some people become developers by teaching themselves to code or attending a coding bootcamp.
What skills do you need to become a software developer?
The skills required for software development vary depending on which type of projects and industries you work with. But in general, most developers need to know how to write code, how to compile code into binaries, how to test code using automated testing frameworks, and how to deploy code into production environments.
What certifications do you need to become a software developer?
There are no certifications that all software developers need to have. However, earning certifications related to technologies that are in demand among employers can help developers get jobs.
What are the benefits of becoming a software developer?
The benefits of working as a developer include being able to contribute to dynamic projects that require creativity and original thought. Developers also enjoy strong demand for their skills on the job market, relatively high pay, and the ability to work from home in some cases.
What is the job outlook for software developers?
Although the emergence of AI tools that can write code has led to some predictions of a reduction in job openings for software developers in coming years, most analysts believe that demand for skilled developers will remain steady. Even if more code is written by AI, developers will still be needed to design applications, optimize AI-generated code, and handle similar tasks that AI can't manage on its own.
What is the salary range for software developers?
Software developer salaries vary widely depending on job location, developer skill level, and the specific skills required. On average, however, most developers earn between about $75,000 and $115,000 per year. Experienced developers with specialized skills can earn several hundred thousands of dollars per year.
What kind of job opportunities are available in software development?
Creating software is the most common job for software developers. However, developers who learn some additional skills enjoy the opportunity to pursue jobs in a wide variety of other areas, such as network administration, cybersecurity, and DevOps.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.