Software Engineering: How Hard?

Here’s how hard software engineering is:

It’s pretty tough.

Becoming a software engineer will require a lot of schooling and practice.

Mastering software engineering requires even more time, as completing a single software package can take years of work for entire teams.

But, it’s not the very most difficult topic, according to most surveys.

So if you want to learn all about the areas you need to know to become a software engineer, then this article is for you.

Let’s jump right into it!

Software Engineering: How Hard? (Everything to Know)

How Hard Is Software Engineering?

Obviously, the difficulty is subjective, especially for something like software engineering.

The job has a lot of facets, and no two software engineers do exactly the same things in their position.

So, there’s not a definitive answer I can give you.

It’s not like there’s some standardized scale of difficulty I can reference here.

But, I can say that software engineering is not exactly easy.

Software engineering jobs are lucrative and competitive, and the very topics covered by the work are challenging to most of us.

It might not be the hardest thing you could ever do, but I feel good about saying that software engineering is tough in general, and I’ll be happy to show you why I came to that conclusion.

It Takes Time

Before we get into all of the other aspects of software engineering, there’s one thing that’s important to cover.

This is a job that takes a lot of time.

It takes a long time to master software engineering, and even after you do, it takes a long time to complete any project.

That, by itself, is enough to call it difficult.

Let me put this in perspective.

Pick any program on your computer right now.

Google how many lines of code it has.

Odds are, the number is in the millions.

Now, a single software engineer didn’t write every line of code in that program.

But, they were responsible for all of it, and a single software engineer had to make sure that the entire program was arranged in a way that makes sense, is functional, and is usable by you.

It doesn’t happen quickly.

What Do Software Engineers Need to Know? (6 Areas)

One thing that makes software engineering challenging is that it covers a lot.

To design a program, you have to have more than a little knowledge of whatever the program covers.

If you’re going to make a word processor with a spelling and grammar checker, then you probably need to spend time mastering spelling and grammar, right?

The vertical knowledge component (knowing things outside of your own expertise) is arguably higher in software engineering than in any other field.

On top of that, expertise in software engineering requires you to know a ton in a lot of areas, which I will now cover individually.

#1 Computer Science

Software engineering, in a lot of ways, is built on top of computer science.

The two fields cross over each other all the time, and in fact, a lot of software engineers have computer science degrees.

Computer science is the study of computers and computer systems, which is a crazy broad topic.

Software engineers have to understand software and hardware interactions, the fundamentals of coding, networking, security, probabilistic computation, algorithms, and tons more.

There are definitely elements of computer science that a software engineer won’t have to know for a specific job, but there are a lot of challenging concepts that come with the role of software engineering.

#2 Engineering Principles

Even while practically being a computer scientist (if a specialized one), a software engineer is, in fact, an engineer.

That means that they are expected to apply the principles of engineering on a daily basis.

As basic concepts, the principles of engineering aren’t too hard to understand.

You need to know the concepts of design, aspects of testing, maintainability, management, and arguably a few other ideas.

They’re straightforward when I write them like that.

In practice, each of these principles is vast and deep, and it can take years to master them, much less put them into practice within a software package.

#3 Creative Problem Solving

Software essentially exists to solve problems but to make software that is valuable, you have to do something that isn’t already widely available and accessible.

This demands a creative take on problem-solving that is not always easily taught.

On top of that, software engineers are often tackling brand-new problems.

There is no book to read or set of steps to follow.

They have to pioneer their own way through developing these unique software packages. 

While that can be immensely rewarding, it’s not exactly easy.

How many brand-new things have you ever created?

If you become a software engineer, that number will increase.

#4 Multi-Faceted Work

Another challenge of software engineering is that engineers often have a lot of responsibilities that go way beyond writing code for a software design.

The engineers are often leaders.

They have people working under them, often writing code or running tests under the direction of the engineer.

They are test designers along with being software designers.

They have to make unique tests that certify any software can perform as intended.

They also work directly with customers.

One of the first steps in designing software is meeting with people to see what they want and need the software to actually do.

Keeping up with such a diverse set of demands is certainly not simple.

#5 The Scientific Method

Software engineers also work as de facto scientists.

While they may not unravel the mysteries of the universe directly, software engineers often explore and expand the limits of what computers can do.

Think about the first person to realize that you can make a graphical user interface.

Instead of just typing lines on a computer, you can have this whole visual representation method that makes it easier and more intuitive for non-experts to use.

That’s just one example of how software engineers expand concepts.

But, they’re doing this with computers.

That means that they have to find consistent ways forward, and that involves a scientific process.

#6 Math

At the end of all of this is the word dreaded by so many.

Software engineers do need strong fundamentals in math.

Even if you’re working on software that is not math-heavy, computers are run purely on logic and math.

If you don’t have the foundation, you can’t write the best software.

On top of that, a lot of programs do carry out mathematical functions.

To make such software, you really do need to understand the math that is being done.

Otherwise, you’re taking shots in the dark, and it’s extremely unlikely that your program can withstand deep scrutiny.

What About Schooling?

Working as a software engineer clearly requires skills that are not easily obtained.

It takes time and dedication to get to that point.

Some of that time and dedication will go into schooling.

Most software engineering jobs want you to have at least a four-year degree.

They also want job experience on top of that, but that’s another story.

In order to get an appropriate degree in software engineering, there’s a lot to study.

So, let’s look at these details and see how hard it is to just get the prerequisites in order to apply for a job.

Undergraduate Degrees

There are a lot of software engineering positions that only require an undergraduate degree.

For the most part, you will either need a software engineering degree or a computer science degree.

If you go the computer science route, you’ll want to emphasize studies that apply to software engineering (rather than say, number theory).

Let’s talk specifically about a software engineering degree.

It’s a math-heavy program (not the most math-heavy, but definitely above average). 

Using this Auburn curriculum I found as an example, that software engineering students have to get through Calc II.

This is not the most for any engineering field, but it’s not the least either (some engineering technology degrees don’t require any calculus).

Graduate Studies

For the best software engineering jobs, you might need an advanced degree.

If you’re working on product development, it’s actually unlikely that you need a PhD before you can apply.

A lot of positions prefer commercial experience to extra schooling, once you go beyond a master’s degree.

But, there are positions that prefer a master’s.

In order to get the advanced degree, you are going to take a much deeper look into computer systems.

You’ll likely have to learn even more math.

You’ll also have to do a research project, thesis, or comparable software development project.

This is professional-grade development that is required just to finish the degree.

How Does Software Engineering Compare to Other Fields? (4 Fields)

Alright. Schooling is tough.

The work itself is demanding.

Software engineering takes a lot of time.

By now, you’re probably convinced that software engineering is neither simple nor easy.

But, we still don’t really know how hard it is.

In order to gauge that, we’re going to have to compare some other fields.

To try to do that, I’m going to compare undergraduate study programs.

It’s really hard to do apples-to-apples comparisons across different job sectors.

But, we can look at schooling to see how tough that is.

When we do, we find that software engineering is definitely above average in difficulty, but it’s not the very most difficult major out there.

Once again, I want to emphasize that this is subjective.

These comparisons below are based on surveys, acceptance and graduation rates, GPA averages, and a few other factors.

So, looking at some of the most notoriously difficult majors, let’s compare software engineering.

#1 Computer Science

Computer science and software engineering are extremely comparable.

They’re going to be much closer in what you learn and do than anything else we compare to software engineering today.

It’s fair to say that the two degrees are pretty much equal in difficulty.

In fact, you can really think of software engineering as a subclass of computer science.

With that said, how hard is computer science? 

It depends on who you ask, but it’s usually considered one of the harder degree programs at a university.

Most of the programs that score harder are hard sciences and engineering degrees, and not all hard science and engineering degrees are tougher than computer science.

The big thing is that computer science usually isn’t quite as math-heavy as the fields that rank harder.

#2 Physics

Again, it depends on who you ask, but physics is often regarded as the very hardest undergraduate major.

Some aspects of biology and engineering sometimes edge out physics in difficulty, but it’s tough.

Physicists learn a lot of math, and then they have to apply it to esoteric concepts that are not easily visualized or understood at all. 

Physicists also spend a lot of time writing code specifically to solve problems.

So, you get some crossover between software engineering and physics.

While physics might be regarded as more difficult, most physics majors would not be bold enough to call software engineering easy, for what that’s worth.

#3 Mechanical Engineering

There are a lot of engineering degrees.

Rather than go through all of them, I picked one.

Mechanical engineering is not on the top of the engineering difficulty ranking (biomedical, aero, and chemical engineering usually rank higher), but it’s still widely considered tougher than most majors out there.

Mechanical engineering is arguably a little tougher than software engineering, but not by much.

The engineering elements are actually pretty similar in the two fields.

The idea of working with users to figure out what they want and then translate that into well-engineered products is somewhat universal.

But, mechanical engineers usually have to do more and harder math.

This is another case where coding is part of the job, but mechanical engineering code is usually a lot less involved than software engineering.

#4 Neurology

Neurology is arguably a weird thing to pick for comparison, but it highlights a few things.

First, it’s easily one of the most challenging areas in biology.

Second, working in neurology typically requires a professional degree (PhD or doctorate).

That’s why it’s a little weird to talk about it in terms of undergraduate studies.

But, there are undergraduate neurology programs, and they are not simple.

Neurology requires a broad look at topics that range from computer science to math to anatomy and psychology, and all of them come together in this very specific field.

On average, neurology is again harder than software engineering.

Yet, this is another case where neurologists are unlikely to scoff at the challenges of software engineering.