If you’re thinking about majoring in computer science, you may want to know more about what a software engineer does. The title software engineer is just another way of saying software developer or programmer, but there’s a lot more involved in building software than typing source code.
How Applications Are Designed
Many software engineers don’t write any source code at all, instead designing applications using a written system of symbols called Unified Modeling Language. These engineers are the leaders of large projects involving perhaps hundreds of developers working in smaller teams. They get instructions from managers and from the marketing department for what software needs to do, and then they figure out how to convert these instructions into a working software application.
The process of turning instructions a human can read into instructions a computer can understand is easier today than it was 40 years ago, because software engineers have large libraries of design patterns they can use to implement common functions, according to Source Making. There are patterns for every aspect of the software design process, and engineers typically begin by choosing a pattern on which to model the overall application. Patterns such as client-server and model-view-controller give developers a starting point from which to implement the details of a project using patterns for smaller pieces of the program.
Choosing the Right Patterns and Data Structures
Developers use patterns to solve common problems such as how to connect sound and video playback to a program and how to listen for user input. These problems are so common that developers automatically know how to build a program that efficiently solves them, and the task then becomes choosing the best data structures and algorithms to implement the smaller details. This step requires a strong understanding of math and computing theory because it can mean the difference between a program that’s efficient and enjoyable to use and one that seems slow and wastes power in executing code.
Most desktop computers are so powerful that users almost never notice how long it takes to return from a routine. However, even the fastest desktop computers require many days of constant processing to do the kind of graphics processing used by Hollywood studios like Pixar and DreamWorks. Video and audio processing also take a moderately long time to do on modern hardware. When it comes to slow, buggy software, though, the area most people have experience with is Web and mobile apps. When data has to be transferred over a wireless network, it makes inefficient code run even more slowly, and this slowdown is especially noticeable on lighter hardware such as smartphones and tablets.
Software engineers need to be good at math and algorithm theory, but they also need to know a lot about networking, low-level programming, operating systems and high-level, object-oriented programming. When they understand how all these details are implemented on a particular platform, they can find ways to make software run more efficiently. Software made by well-known companies like Adobe and Autodesk always uses the correct data structures and algorithms, but independent smartphone apps sometimes have buggy code that crashes or runs poorly.
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Computers continue to become more important in daily life, and the progress made in computer science is increasing faster than in most other technology industries. If you want to be part of this progress, a good place to start is by learning what a software engineer does.