Developer vs. programmer vs. engineer: what’s the difference?

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What makes a software developer different from a programmer or software engineer? You might be tempted to answer “not much”. To some extent, these terms are interchangeable. They all refer in a generic sense to someone who helps create software. But, when you dive deeper, you realize that there are some important differences between software developers, software engineers, and programmers. The terminology you choose to use plays an important role in defining job functions, not to mention setting expectations for salary and career paths.

To prove the point, here’s a breakdown of how similar and different developers, programmers, and engineers are within the software ecosystem. We’ll also discuss the pros and cons of labeling yourself with any of these particular terms – and how you can ‘scale up’ if you find yourself stuck in a lower paying, less glamorous role like programming.

The software hierarchy: programmer versus developer versus engineer

Again, programmers, developers, and software engineers all focus on one basic task: creating software. But their specific responsibilities and approaches can vary widely. Indeed, there is a sort of hierarchy that separates these roles, programmers occupying the least prestigious position and engineers at the top of the totem pole.

The differences in prestige primarily reflect the varying degree to which each role is expected to perform tasks that go beyond writing code.

When it comes to software programmer versus developer, the differences mainly boil down to scope. In general, the only job of software programmers is to produce code. Programmers are generally not responsible for designing application architectures or helping to test or manage code as it flows through a CI / CD pipeline. They simply write code to implement the functionality they are asked to implement, then give it to someone else to build, test, and deploy. Software developers have a broader reach. They spend a lot of their time writing code, but they can also help create, test, and deploy code. Sometimes they are also involved in the design of the application.

Software engineers, on the other hand, take on the widest range of design-centric responsibilities. Sometimes they can write code, but their main tasks are more focused on helping with the planning and design of applications. Software engineers take the initiative in deciding when it’s time to change an application architecture, or drop a codebase and rewrite everything from scratch, for example. They can also help plan CI / CD pipelines, set release schedules, and identify the best deployment options (such as containers or serverless features) for an application.

Programmer vs. developer vs. engineer: salary and professional trajectories

The varying responsibilities of the software programmer versus developer versus engineer are reflected in the differences in income and career opportunities associated with each role.

In terms of wages, the differences are significant. Average salaries for each role break down as follows, according to PayScale:

In addition, compared to programmers, developers and software engineers generally have more opportunities to access even higher paying positions, such as DevOps or SRE Engineer. These latter types of positions require familiarity with the entire process of delivering and managing software – something developers and engineers are more likely to have than programmers, whose main job is simply to write software. coded.

Evolve: from programmer to developer to engineer (and beyond)

Of course, it’s worth noting that programmers, developers, and engineers tend to come from the same type of background. Most have computer science degrees (although it might be easier to become a programmer just by taking a bootcamp coding, while jobs in software development and engineering may be more difficult to find without a formal computer science degree).

The point at which the career paths of programmers, developers and software engineers diverge, then, is usually when people enter the workforce, not when they learn software development.

If you want to maximize your salary and career opportunities, that’s good news. It means you can choose to be whatever you want to be. If you want to earn more and quickly advance in your career, try to land a position as a software developer or engineer from the start. If you are starting out as a programmer, it may take longer to move into development or engineering roles, and you will be paid less while you wait.

That said, if you’re already in a programming role but want to move into development or engineering, there’s not much stopping you. You just need to know more about the larger software delivery process – and possibly the software architecture. As a programmer, you probably already have enough immediate knowledge to master these concepts relatively easily.

Conclusion: choose the programmer vs developer vs engineer labels carefully

The bottom line: In the software industry, the labels that are applied to jobs play a central role in how people think about and approach software creation. While it’s tempting to think of programmers, developers, and software engineers as interchangeable, the reality is that calling yourself a programmer on a resume, or only applying for jobs with a programmer in their titles, will place you in a different professional situation than calling. yourself a developer or engineer.

Likewise, if you create jobs related to software production in a company, the labels you apply to them can play a central role in shaping who you end up hiring and how they approach their jobs.


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