Software Developer Career Paths: Everything You Need to Know

There are countless ways to get into software development. Some people find their passion for coding in a middle school workshop or college club; others stumble into development midway through their career. 

But no matter how your introduction to software development comes to pass, all aspiring programmers eventually need to ask themselves the same question: How can I turn my passion for coding into a career? 

Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered. 

In this article, we’ll outline the software developer career path, prepare you for your professional journey, and show you how you can succeed as a software developer. 

Step 1: Think About What Kind of Work Appeals to You

First, let’s get something straight: working in software development doesn’t consign you to a single job description. While all developers do share a set of core responsibilities, the details of your assigned role and its responsibilities will vary widely depending on your employer, the industry you work in, and your career interests. 

As with any career, you can pursue a variety of avenues in web development — and when you do, you’ll need to tailor your education to your chosen sub-field. It is crucial to figure out your professional interests and map your preferred software developer career path well before entering the job market. Otherwise, you may find yourself needing to play catch-up before you can land your dream job.

Generally speaking, software development often falls into four broad categories: front end, back end, full stack, and mobile development. According to Stack Overflow’s 2020 Developer survey, 55.2 percent of surveyed professional developers identified as back end professionals, 54.9 percent as full stack, 37.1 percent as front end, and 19.2 percent as mobile developers.

What percentage of software developers identify as full stack, front end, back end, etc.

So, which specialty should you choose? The decision is up to you. Below, we’ll touch on these four fields and the coding skills you’ll need to know as a specialist in each. 

Front End Developer

Front end developers need to have a keen eye for design. These aesthetic-minded coders craft all aspects of a website or app that users can see and interact with. Think of it this way; if an entire site is a house, the front end would encompass its decor and furniture. 

Front end developers specialize in website design and functionality. Over the years, the role has grown increasingly complex as designers are tasked with optimizing websites for smartphones, tablets, and desktops alike.

Today, front end developers need to strike a delicate balance between designing for functionality, structure, and aesthetics. These professionals often collaborate with back end developers and user experience designers to cultivate a compelling application or site design. 

To accomplish this, front end developers use the “building block” languages of web development — HTML, CSS, and JavaScript — to determine the look, feel, and function of a site. While some diehard coders don’t rely on libraries to speed up their building process, most front end developers use predefined packages and software that make it easier to customize and maintain sites.

All that said, front end developers can’t get very far without the support of a talented team of back end developers.

Back End Developer

If front end developers construct the “look” of a house, back end developers are responsible for the internal wiring, insulation, and pipes. Back end developers create the underlying computation-based logic of a website, as well as any proprietary software that their employer might need. 

These professionals ensure that the data and resources requested by an end-user are delivered correctly and quickly. The back end consists of two components: the server and the database.

While the database stores permanent information — think user profiles or product listings — the server is responsible for fulfilling client requests. For example, a user attempting to sign into their profile would make a request to the server via a login portal, which would then pipe the user’s authentication information to the database and match it against a list of accounts.

Back end developers work directly with data, application integration, APIs, and other back end processes. The role requires extensive technical know-how and knowledge of several back end programming languages.

Full Stack Developer

As the name suggests, full stack developers do it all. These versatile professionals have extensive training in both front and back end programming, and so can shift effortlessly between the two disciplines. 

In the development world, the term “full stack” refers to the entire base of languages, frameworks, and technologies used to service a business website. The front and back end are inextricably linked in a functional system; when a user interacts with a feature on the front end, the back end should immediately fulfill any requests that they might make.

As a jack-of-all-trades, full stack developers should have a holistic understanding of how an entire operation functions. However, they may have more experience in one discipline or the other. 

Mobile Developer

As you might have guessed from the name, mobile developers create software specifically for mobile devices. These programmers build applications tailored to the unique characteristics of mobile platforms such as Android and iOS. 

There’s no question that mobile developers are — and will continue to be — in-demand. According to research from Statista, 204 billion mobile app downloads took place in 2019 alone. As one writer for Webopedia explains, “Any business that operates an online website or web service can use a mobile app and may want to develop specific mobile applications in-house.” 

Keep in mind, however, that if you want to take advantage of the mobile development hype, you will need to learn a few languages outside of programming’s common core; these include Swift, C#, and Java for Mobile. 

Step 2: Acquire the Skills and Training

Now that you’ve identified a few areas of interest, let’s address the specific skills you’ll need to succeed. Regardless of your specialty, all software developers are required to have the same core set of skills.

Once you’ve charted a general direction for your software developer career roadmap, you can start working to obtain the skills you’ll need to succeed in your chosen role. As we mentioned earlier, all software developers will need to build the same foundation of core programming skills; however, you may need to pick up additional coding languages or capabilities if you want to tailor education to one of the specialties mentioned above. 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will one day “be done” with your programming education. As in every tech-centric field, there will always be more to discover. Adopt a learning mindset and dedicate yourself to learning any and all languages that pique your programming interest. 

As you progress, you may find interest in some languages that don’t fall within your chosen specialty. Feel free to explore and seek inspiration — but don’t use your interest as an excuse to avoid learning core skills that you need to know for your immediate career!

Wondering which skills you’ll need to obtain while charting your software development career path? See below for the major categories:  

Core Skills for All Software Developers

Additional Skills for Front End Developers

Additional Skills for Back End Developers

Additional Skills for Mobile Developers

Thanks to the prevalence of open-source-everything, aspiring developers have no shortage of ways to obtain these skills. Below, we’ll run through the most tried-and-true educational pathways for getting up to speed. 

College

College is perhaps the most straightforward and traditional route towards landing a fulfilling role in software development. According to Stack Overflow’s 2020 report, 49.3 percent of professional developers held a bachelor’s degree while 25.5 percent had received a master’s degree.

A college education has its benefits. For one, you can trust an undergraduate program to be comprehensive; rather than focus solely on practical skills, college programs often take a deep dive into the theoretical concepts that underlie coding practice. Students learn to think like programmers and are often compelled by their curricula to create projects for their professional portfolios. 

A comprehensive education in coding languages, algorithms, and data structures equips students with insight into how computers operate under the hood. Moreover, college students often have easy access to the resources they need to develop industry connections, land internships, and, in some cases, land entry-level jobs immediately after graduation. 

If you have yet to achieve a degree, we recommend aiming for majors that can successfully prep you for a coding career. Which majors should you choose? Well, according to Stack Overflow, the most popular majors for professional devs are as follows

  • Computer science, computer engineering, and software engineering (62.6%)
  • Other engineering discipline (9.3%) 
  • Information systems (7.9%) 
  • Natural sciences (4.4%) 
  • Mathematics or statistics (3.6%)

Keep in mind, college offers a fantastic learning path but it’s by no means your only option. 

Boot Camps

Want to learn foundational programming skills, but don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to enroll in a full-time degree program? You might want to consider a coding boot camp

Boot camps are fast-paced training programs that equip learners with in-demand, marketable programming skills. These programs generally cover a wide range of subjects, including algorithms, design principles, server-based coding languages, version control, and database management. However, specific coursework will differ significantly between different boot camps.

In recent years, coding boot camps have become remarkably popular; Career Karma’s 2020 report found that the coding boot camp market grew 4.39 percent in 2019. Moreover, a whopping 33,959 learners graduated from boot camps in that year alone.

Why are boot camps so popular? The lower cost and faster pace probably play a role. Not only are boot camps a whole magnitude less expensive than a traditional college program, but they can also be completed within three to six months. While college programs put a heavy focus on coding theory, boot camps focus specifically on what employers want developers to do on the job. 

Boot camps are also much more flexible than conventional degrees. Depending on your needs, a program can be conducted online, in-person, or part-time.

Moreover, one Indeed survey found that 72 percent of employers believe that boot camp grads are “just as prepared and likely to be high performers” as those with computer science degrees. Perhaps more impressively, a full 12 percent of surveyed employers said that they believed boot camp grads are “more prepared and more likely” to succeed than college grads.

Boot camps have made it easier for those who might not otherwise have the time or money to attend a full-time, four-year program to get their footing in the industry. 

Self-Directed Study

Part of the reason software development is such a great career path is that the field welcomes candidates from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. If you are unable to commit to a structured program, you can, in theory, receive all the necessary training by studying online tutorials, online courses, and books. 

In fact, according to Stack Overflow, only 23.7 percent of surveyed professional developers believe that a formal education is essential, while 15.8 percent think it’s not at all important or necessary.

We do suggest looking over learner reviews before you commit to a self-directed course. You can waste a lot of time wading through confusing or unstructured content on the web. Finding a “coding buddy” may also help you keep your spirits up. If you work in isolation, it can be challenging to stay on top of your self-defined workload.

While it requires discipline, self-study can be very low-cost or free if you do it right. That said, you’ll need to identify the best resources, develop your portfolio, and be proactive in finding your own networking and professional opportunities if you want to thrive. 

What’s the Best Way to Learn Software Development?

There is no right or wrong way to learn software development. While you consider your options, make sure to keep your priorities and goals in mind. Not every path is suitable for everyone — and that’s all right! Ask yourself these questions as you gauge your options:

  • What is my ideal timeline for upskilling?
  • How much money do I have to set aside for tuition?
  • Would a part-time curriculum work better for my schedule? Can I commit to a full-time program?
  • Do I need to keep working as I learn?

Answering these questions may help you make the best determination for your educational pathway. Once you have the training, you can take the next step on your software developer career path.

Step 3: Get an Internship

Navigating the software developer career roadmap can be tricky as a newly-minted developer. Before you start applying to jobs, you’ll want to curate a stand-out resume and portfolio that will set you apart from other candidates. We suggest pursuing a software developing internship to help show your relevant experience.

Interns get industry experience in documenting, testing new applications, assessing ideas, and developing solutions to company problems. Internships also provide learners with the opportunity to collaborate with senior software developers and shadow seasoned professionals.

Before you apply, try to develop a personal pet-project outside of your coursework that demonstrates your experience with languages that the company uses. You may also need to gather references from teachers and brush up on technical interviewing challenges prior to applying for intern roles.

Step 4: Become a Junior Software Developer

Junior software developers are skilled entry-level developers who assist a team in all aspects of software design and implementation. In this role, the developer creates basic code models, whiteboards problems, identifies bugs, and learns their company’s codebase. They also help monitor the technical performance of internal systems and identify areas for further improvement.

After several years of work, junior developers may have the opportunity to take on more responsibility as senior developers or team managers.

Step 5: Progress to Senior Software Developer

As experienced members of a development team, senior software developers are responsible for developing applications from concept to launch. In an established company, these developers may craft operating systems or sophisticated proprietary software.

Senior developers are usually tasked with building and managing reliable and efficient systems. They must have extensive command over several programming languages, computational logic, and flow-charting.

These experienced developers usually have detailed knowledge concerning hardware, networks, operating systems, and computer architecture. Owing to their experience, senior developers often take on a managerial role over more junior team members by reviewing their code or teaching them software design techniques.

Senior developers must be analytical thinkers with strong project management capabilities. Most hold at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science and more than five years of experience in development.

What’s My Outlook as a Software Developer?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but software developers occupy one of the most coveted career fields in the modern world. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that software development jobs will grow 21 percent from 2018 to 2028 — that’s more than four times the 5 percent average growth anticipated for all other professions.

Reports from SlashData indicate that there were 18.9 million active software developers globally as of the fourth quarter of 2018. Furthermore, researchers expect that the metric will more than double to 45 million by 2030.

A chart showing the projected growth of the software developer population

Software developers aren’t just confined to the tech industry, either. The chances are good that the vast majority of companies you interface with provide computer-based services. When was the last time you dropped by your bank to drop off a check? When was the last time you called a service representative when you had the option to simply look online?

Key industries such as healthcare, education, government, finance, and nonprofits all rely on software developers’ labor. As a new developer, you get to choose what missions most closely align with your interests. You have the power to select the set of real-world problems you want to solve.

Software development is one of the best industries you could explore in 2020. Developers score well in every facet of job satisfaction, praising the high degree of autonomy, pay, flexibility, and impact that comes with the career.

Has this software developer career roadmap inspired you? Start exploring your educational options and plotting your career path today!

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