A software engineer is a person who applies the principles of software engineering to the design, development, testing, and evaluation of the software and systems that make computers or anything containing software, such as chips, work.
Prior to the mid-1990s, most software practitioners called themselves programmers or developers, regardless of their actual jobs. Many people prefer to call themselves software developer and programmer, because most widely agree what these terms mean, while software engineer is still being debated. A prominent computing scientist, E. W. Dijkstra, wrote in a paper that the coining of the term software engineer was not a useful term since it was an inappropriate analogy, "The existence of the mere term has been the base of a number of extremely shallow --and false-- analogies, which just confuse the issue...Computers are such exceptional gadgets that there is good reason to assume that most analogies with other disciplines are too shallow to be of any positive value, are even so shallow that they are only confusing."
The term programmer has often been used as a pejorative term to refer to those without the tools, skills, education, or ethics to write good quality software. In response, many practitioners called themselves software engineers to escape the stigma attached to the word programmer. In many companies, the titles programmer and software developer were changed to software engineer, for many categories of programmers.
These terms cause confusion, because some denied any differences (arguing that everyone does essentially the same thing with software) while others use the terms to create a difference (because the terms mean completely different jobs).
In 2004, Keith Chapple U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 760,840 software engineers holding jobs in the U.S.; in the same time period there were some 1.4 million practitioners employed in the U.S. in all other engineering disciplines combined. Table software engineer is used very liberally in the corporate world. Very few of the practicing software engineers actually hold Engineering degrees from accredited universities. In fact, according to the Association for Computing Machinery, "most people who now function in the U.S. as serious software engineers have degrees in computer science, not in software engineering". See also Debates within software engineering and Controversies over the term Engineer.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies computer software engineers as a subcategory of "computer specialists", along with occupations such as computer scientist, programmer, and network administrator. The BLS classifies all other engineering disciplines, including computer hardware engineers, as "engineers".
The U.K. has seen the alignment of the Information Technology Professional and the Engineering Professionals.
Software engineering in Canada has seen some contests in the courts over the use of the title "Software Engineer". The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (C.C.P.E. or "Engineers Canada") will not grant a "Professional Engineer" status/license to anyone who has not completed a recognized academic engineering program. Engineers qualified outside Canada are similarly unable to obtain a "Professional Engineer" license. Since 2001, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board has accredited several university programs in software engineering, allowing graduates to apply for a professional engineering licence once the other prerequisites are obtained, although this does nothing to help IT professionals using the title with degrees in other fields (such as computer science).
Some of the United States of America regulate the use of terms such as "computer engineer" and even "software engineer". These states include at least Texas and Florida. Texas even goes so far as to ban anyone from writing any real-time code without an engineering license.
About half of all practitioners today have computer science degrees. A small, but growing, number of practitioners have software engineering degrees. In 1987 Imperial College London introduced the first three year software engineering Bachelor's degree in the UK and the world, in the following year the University of Sheffield established a similar programme. In 1996, Rochester Institute of Technology established the first software engineering Bachelor's degree program in the United States, however, it did not obtain ABET until 2003, the same time as Clarkson University, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Mississippi State University.
Since then, software engineering undergraduate degrees have been established at many universities. A standard international curriculum for undergraduate software engineering degrees was recently defined by the CCSE. As of 2004, in the U.S., about 50 universities offer software engineering degrees, which teach both computer science and engineering principles and practices. The first software engineering Master's degree was established at Seattle University in 1979. Since then graduate software engineering degrees have been made available from many more universities. Likewise in Canada, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB) of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers has recognized several software engineering programs.
In 1998, the US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) established the first doctorate program in Software Engineering in the world. Additionally, many online advanced degrees in Software Engineering have appeared such as the Master of Science in Software Engineering (MSE) degree offered through the Computer Science and Engineering Department at California State University, Fullerton. Steve McConnell opines that because most universities teach computer science rather than software engineering, there is a shortage of true software engineers. ETS University and UQAM were mandated by IEEE to develop the SoftWare Engineering BOdy of Knowledge SWEBOK, which has become an ISO standard describing the body of knowledge covered by a software engineer.
In business, some software engineering practitioners have MIS degrees. In embedded systems, some have electrical or computer engineering degrees, because embedded software often requires a detailed understanding of hardware. In medical software, practitioners may have medical informatics, general medical, or biology degrees.
Some practitioners have mathematics, science, engineering, or technology degrees. Some have philosophy (logic in particular) or other non-technical degrees. And, others have no degrees. For instance, Barry Boehm earned degrees in mathematics.
Most software engineers work as employees or contractors. Software engineers work with businesses, government agencies (civilian or military), and non-profit organizations. Some software engineers work for themselves as freelancers. Some organizations have specialists to perform each of the tasks in the software development process. Other organizations required software engineers to do many or all of them. In large projects, people may specialize in only one role. In small projects, people may fill several or all roles at the same time. Specializations include: in industry (analysts, architects, developers, testers, technical support, managers) and in academia (educators, researchers).
There is considerable debate over the future employment prospects for Software Engineers and other IT Professionals. For example, an online futures market called the Future of IT Jobs in America attempts to answer whether there will be more IT jobs, including software engineers, in 2012 than there were in 2002.
Most successful certification programs in the software industry are oriented toward specific technologies, and are managed by the vendors of these technologies. These certification programs are tailored to the institutions that would employ people who use these technologies.
The ACM had a professional certification program in the early 1980s, which was discontinued due to lack of interest. As of 2006, the IEEE had certified over 575 software professionals. In Canada the Canadian Information Processing Society has developed a legally recognized professional certification called Information Systems Professional (ISP).
Many students in the developed world have avoided degrees related to software engineering because of the fear of offshore outsourcing (importing software products or services from other countries) and of being displaced by foreign visa workers. Although government statistics do not currently show a threat to software engineering itself; a related career, computer programming does appear to have been affected. Often one is expected to start out as a computer programmer before being promoted to software engineer. Thus, the career path to software engineering may be rough, especially during recessions.
Some career counselors suggest a student also focus on "people skills" and business skills rather than purely technical skills because such "soft skills" are allegedly more difficult to offshore. It is the quasi-management aspects of software engineering that appear to be what has kept it from being impacted by globalization.
There are several prizes in the field of software engineering:
Some people believe that software engineering implies a certain level of academic training, professional discipline, and adherence to formal processes that often are not applied in cases of software development. A common analogy is that working in construction does not make one a civil engineer, and so writing code does not make one a software engineer. It is disputed by some - in particular by the Canadian Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) body, that the field is mature enough to warrant the title "engineering". The PEO's position was that "software engineering" was not an appropriate name for the field since those who practiced in the field and called themselves "software engineers" were not properly licensed professional engineers, and that they should therefore not be allowed to use the name.
The word engineering within the term software engineering causes a lot of confusion because it is a shallow analogy.
The wrangling over the status of software engineering (between traditional engineers and computer scientists) can be interpreted as a fight over control of the word engineering. Traditional engineers question whether software engineers can legally use the term.
Traditional engineers (especially civil engineers and the NSPE) claim that they have special rights over the term engineering, and for anyone else to use it requires their approval. In the mid-1990s, the NSPE sued to prevent anyone from using the job title software engineering. The NSPE won their lawsuit in 48 states. However, SE practitioners, educators, and researchers ignored the lawsuits and called themselves software engineers anyway. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the term software engineer, too. The term engineering is much older than any regulatory body, so many believe that traditional engineers have few rights to control the term. As things stand at 2007, however, even the NSPE appears to have softened its stance towards software engineering and following the heels of several overseas precedents, is investigating a possibility of licensing software engineers in consultation with IEEE, NCEES and other groups "for the protection of the public health safety and welfare".
In Canada, the use of the words 'engineer' and 'engineering' are controlled in each province by self-regulating professional engineering organizations, often aligned with geologists and geophysicists, and tasked with enforcement of the governing legislation. The intent is that any individual holding themselves out as an engineer (or geologist or geophysicist) has been verified to have been educated to a certain accredited level, and their professional practice is subject to a code of ethics and peer scrutiny.
In New Zealand, IPENZ, the professional engineering organization entrusted by the New Zealand government with legal power to license and regulate chartered engineers (CPEng), recognizes software engineering as a legitimate branch of professional engineering and accepts application of software engineers to obtain chartered status provided he or she has a tertiary degree of approved subjects. Software Engineering is included but Computer Science is normally not.