Computer and Software, Science and Engineering: Important Degree Differences

So, you want to be a software engineer — are you sure you don’t actually want to be a computer engineer? What about a computer scientist? Perhaps a software developer, software designer, or programmer? What’s the difference between all of them, anyway?

Often, the terms to describe tech jobs are used interchangeably, but in the industry, each of the above-mentioned professionals has vastly different knowledge sets, skills, and responsibilities. If you aren’t sure what you want to be, you should learn more about the nuances in tech professions.

computer degrees differences

Computer Science

The use of the word “science” in computer science is perhaps what makes all these different positions so confusing. In all other fields, science is the practice of uncovering the truth about the physical world through trial and error. However, when it comes to technology, computer science is almost a catch-all for any knowledge and skill pertaining to computers.

In a computer science program, you will learn how computers function physically and how they run programs and software. Many hardcore computer scientists argue that computer science deals only with the theories associated with information and computation, but you will learn practical knowledge in your courses, too. At some schools, computer science is the only available degree pertaining to the tech industry, so you might learn aspects of computer and software engineering, design, and programming within a computer science program. What you get from computer science is largely determined by what interests you and where you want to take your career.

[Read more: 5 Best Laptops for Computer Science Students]

Computer Engineering

Compared to computer science, computer engineering is highly specialized. Combining elements of electrical engineering and computers, computer engineers most often assemble the physical elements of tech devices: the microprocessors, the memory chips, the data storage devices, the inputs and outputs, and the networking components. Additionally, computer engineers ensure that a single device will function well in a system of other devices.

computer engineering degree

Unlike computer science, computer engineering directs students onto a specific career track. Computer engineers typically require only a bachelor’s degree and state engineering certification for employment, and they can look forward to a beginning salary between about $45,000 and $75,000. You should consider pursuing computer engineering if you prefer the idea of hands-on work within the tech industry.

Software Engineering

As you might expect, software engineering is the opposite of computer engineering. Instead of focusing on computers’ physical components, software engineers devote time and energy into developing programs and applications for computers to run. The software created by engineers runs the gamut, from entire operating systems to mindless mobile apps.

Typically, software engineers are more diligent than other professionals with similar skills and goals. They are primarily interested in establishing a software foundation that ensures programs will function as intended. As a result, software engineers can command exceptionally high salaries; the median software engineering salary for 2015 was just over $100,000. Even today, the salary of  a software engineer are still within those figures, with professionals who have climbed the corporate ladder earning even higher salaries.

Because software environments are evolving incredibly quickly, it is vital for software engineers to continue their education. Though it is possible for a software engineer to apply knowledge and skill gained from a computer science program, studying software engineering online imbues engineers with the agility needed to succeed in this profession.

Software Design and Development

To start, software engineers might engage in software design and development, but few designers or developers qualify as engineers. It is possible to have the skills to build programs and applications but lack the foundational knowledge and experience required by engineering positions. More often, designers and developers manage small-scale software issues, and engineers tackle large, complex exceedingly technical projects.

Software designers and software developers have hardly any differences in the real world. Theoretically, software designers determine what tasks a program should perform while developers produce the code that performs those tasks. However, the roles of designing and developing are almost always combined, even in large organizations with dozens of specialized professionals. You can become a software designer and developer through self-education, but bachelor’s degrees are also beneficial for long-term employment.


It is possible to be a programmer, but most often, programming is considered a skill rather than a profession. Essentially, programming or coding is the ability to write comprehensible computer code, which instructs computers to execute different behaviors. Most programmers know several computer languages, which helps them fine-tune the code they create, and which they often taught themselves.

Most software development teams contain a bevy of programmers — but few programmers rise to lead their teams without swapping their title for something like software designer or software engineer. You might find your way into the tech industry through programming, but if you are ambitious, you should be working toward a position shift soon.

[Read also: The Truth About Computer Science Degrees]

[Images via: Google Images]