As the world consumes more and more data, businesses increasingly require experts who know how to handle large amounts of customer information, competitor research and product performance results. They also need professional developers to build and manage their increasingly complex websites and apps. These two distinct needs have led to two exciting tech fields: data engineering and software engineering. The two sometimes overlap, but actually have different areas of expertise.

To those outside the tech world, terms like “data engineer” and “software engineer” may sound interchangeable, since both rely heavily on programming skills. Some may even assume that data engineers and software engineers do the same thing.

In reality, software engineers usually only engage in data infrastructure to a limited extent.  Their primary focus is on building websites that function well for the end-user. The task of data engineers, however, is to maintain large datasets and build the structures that house them. So while each profession involves a common background of data management,  software engineers and data engineers have vastly different responsibilities.

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Here are some of the important differences between data engineers and software engineers.

What’s the Difference between a Data Engineer and a Software Engineer?

Data engineers build systems that can store, consolidate and retrieve data that’s required for the systems and applications built by software engineers. Data engineering emerged as a specific skill from within the software engineering profession, since data engineers are trained to handle tasks independent of the tasks assigned to the software engineering department. Data engineers pull out data from stable, well-documented APIs designed to retrieve historical data from another party.

Data engineers are specialists within the field of software engineering. They are responsible for making accurate data available to end users such as executives, data scientists, or analysts, enabling them  to make crucial decisions. The work of a data engineer includes distributed computing, advanced data structures, building data pipelines, and concurrent programming, to name a few. The field is dynamic and data engineers need to update their skills regularly in order to adapt to new tools such as Kafka, Hadoop, Hive, and Spark, if they want to stay competitive.

A software engineer, on the other hand, works with designers, programmers, and developers to build applications and systems. The tasks of a software engineer include the development of the operating systems, software design, front and back-end development, and developing mobile apps.

Software engineers are also sometimes called infrastructure or platform engineers. They are primarily focused on data modeling, SQL, and applying technologies like Spark and AWS. Unlike data engineers who are specialized in their tasks, software engineers function at a higher level. They’re responsible for building the system that imports and stores the data, be it a website, specialized software, or app.

How to Succeed as a Data Engineer

To excel as a data engineer, you need a strong grasp of programming languages, databases, and tools, as well as the ability to collect, query, and store information from databases. The recent growth of Big Data has placed more responsibility on data engineers, who now need to have a keen understanding of legal implications and privacy concerns. To excel in this field, you’ll need to be able to navigate this new territory with confidence.

A data engineer should have excellent working knowledge of Python and SQL and be well versed in Java. Experience working with cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services will add credibility to your profile. A strong understanding of NoSQL and SQL databases will also be essential to those working in data warehousing and data modeling.

How to Succeed as a Software Engineer

Software engineers need to be fast and efficient, as they have to handle macro-level tasks. Apart from the technical aspect of building systems and writing code, software engineers should also be team players and good communicators. As a software engineer, you’ll work with various people including project managers, quality assurance professionals, sales reps, developers, and customers. From a competitive standpoint, you’ll need to stay up to date with  developments across your industry .

Difference in Salary between Data Engineers and Software Engineers

When it comes to salary, data engineers make a higher income from their work. Data engineers earn an average of $122,837 per year, while software engineers earn an average of $99,002 per year.

How to Start Your Career in Data Engineering

If you’ve got your heart set on becoming a data engineer, you might start with a bachelors degree (although it’s not necessarily required to land a job). You should also be prepared to use certain programming languages for data mining, like SQL.

If you can demonstrate your ability to deftly pull insights from large datasets, then you’ll get hired in an entry-level data engineering job. After about a year of experience, you could increase your earning potential with a master’s degree, or throw your hat in the ring for a more senior position. Some also consider getting certified in big data, although many employers actually favor relevant data analysis skills and experience rather than a certification.

Throughout your career as a data engineer, take every opportunity to collaborate with interdisciplinary groups like data modelers, architects, and other IT specialists to draw knowledge from their projects and use it to improve your own approach.

How to Start Your Career in Software Engineering

Software engineers have a broad knowledge base beyond code. Depending on the specific needs of the company, a software engineer might specialize in databases, middleware, network control systems, or business applications. If any of these responsibilities catch your attention early on, then focus on honing your skill set and establishing yourself in that niche of engineering.

To become a software engineer, some choose to pursue a bachelors degree in a related field like computer science. You might also apply for an internship to gain hands-on, practical experience. There’s also an array of professional certifications that promise to help you get hired as a software engineer.

While all of these approaches are perfectly effective when it comes to starting your career, a coding bootcamp can help you learn the exact skills you need in less time, and at a lower cost. You’ll create a portfolio of work that demonstrates your front-end and back-end coding skills, while building industry connections and partnering with an experienced mentor. All of these factors could result in a high-paying software engineering gig.

Data Engineering vs Software Engineering: Similar Skills, Different Professions

In short, data engineers examine the practical applications of data collection and help in the process of analysis. Data engineers work closely with large datasets, and build the structures that house that data long-term. Data engineers should be well versed in programming languages like SQL that allow them to build, maintain and secure big data. Most data engineers have been software engineers at some time in their career and have moved on to  specializing in data engineering.

Software engineers are also skilled in computer programming, but they perform work that includes designing and developing operating systems, as well as front and back-end development. While some software engineers rely heavily on data, you’re not guaranteed to focus on data analysis if you pursue a career in engineering. Engineers who focus on front-end web development, for example, are much more concerned with the look and feel of a website, rather than organizing the data on the back end.

If you’re interested in learning more about software engineering, data engineering and data science, our tech careers blog covers everything you need to know about breaking into these exciting new fields.

We’ve explored what it’s like to work as a full-time developer, created valuable cheat sheets to serve you throughout your career development, and researched the most sought-after tech skills. You can get hired as a full-time software engineer, data engineer, or any other tech professional - even if you don’t have a degree. You just need to know where to start.

When you’re ready to take the next step, try an online software engineering program to learn the skills you need, and launch your tech career.

Which Tech Career is Right for You?

Ready to change your career and join the world’s next workforce? At Thinkful, we’ve got your back with various tech programs to get you equipped with in-demand skills.

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