Look up a list of “hot” careers, and there’s a good chance that software engineering is included somewhere in the top 10.
It was at the top of CareerCast’s list of best jobs of 2012 and earned the No. 7 spot (as “software developer”) in a Best Jobs of 2013 list from U.S. News & World Report. Its strong showing comes from a high median salary, good working conditions, and the fact that the field is expected to continue growing at a fast pace.
One route to this career is through a degree in engineering. Iowa State University in Ames is one of the few universities in the country to offer a software engineering degree with courses in both computer science and computer engineering.
“Computer science and computer engineering provide the basic science of computing with software and hardware, how they work, the foundations of computing. They are quite broad,” says Sumik Basu, director of the software engineering program at Iowa State. “Software engineering focuses on software development; it’s using the fundamentals of computing in developing software.”
Karl Becker of Marion is a full-time iOS mobile app developer who runs his own company, KB Productions, and is a partner in a library technology startup, Third Iron. He studied computer engineering at North Dakota State University, graduating in 2006 — roughly a year before the iPhone was released and two years before the iPhone’s App Store opened.
That is, two years before his current job even existed.
Still, an engineering degree (and a longtime interest in computers — he started teaching himself programming when he was just 11) gave him a strong foundation to keep up with emerging technologies in a quickly changing field.
“I think every major in college hopefully is about learning how to learn, and engineering is especially like that,” Becker says. “It taught me how to reason, how to think critically and how to problem-solve.”
Iowa State’s Basu agrees, and stresses that while math and technical skills are important, software engineering involves much more than just typing numbers into a computer.
“The outside world thinks a software engineer just sits in front of a computer and codes, but that’s not the main thing,” Basu says. “The main thing is how to solve a problem to serve the needs of the user. … We teach students to first think about the problem — what are the complications, what are the requirements they need to satisfy — then start coding.”
Another myth out there about software engineering? That it’s a solitary pursuit.
“If you want to be a good software engineer, the most important thing is to be able to work well in a team,” says Basu. “Software is very complicated nowadays, and you really have to have experience from many different domains … you need many people, many experts, to build good software. Sometimes those people are coming from the other side of the world, so it’s important for engineers to know how to communicate with people with different cultural backgrounds.”
Basu says most of his students today have dreams of working in computer game design or mobile app development, but that software engineers work in just about every field.
“Being a software engineer does not mean that you only work in the field of computing,” he says. “More and more you see that software is being used in every single thing that you can think of. It’s a very interesting time right now to be in a computing field, to be a software engineer.”
Becker, the mobile app developer in Marion, was a systems engineer at Rockwell Collins for five years and worked on mobile apps after-hours before making the leap into full-time self-employed app development in 2011. He also founded the Iowa Mobile Developers meetup group, which has about 100 members.
In addition to designing apps for his companies, Becker works on contract for others who need an app developer. One example: He partnered with the United Way of East Central Iowa to create an iPhone/iPod/iPad app that allows users to map volunteer opportunities in the community. The app was launched in 2012, and the concept is spreading to other local United Way organizations, he says.
“It’s really exciting being able to see the effects of your work, especially when I know I’m applying my talents and skills toward something that accomplishes something positive in the community,” Becker says. “I get to see my product in use, and I get to talk with the people who are selling my product and the people who are using my product.”