The world would be a very different place without software developers. But what does a software developer really do? Let’s explore this increasingly important profession to learn more about the day-to-day activities of software developers (including mobile app developers and web app developers), their skills, education, salary, job outlook, and more.
What is software development?
The answer to the question “what does a software developer do?” is very straightforward: a software developer develops software applications. The problem is that not many people outside the IT industry know what software development involves.
Broadly speaking, software development is sometimes defined as “a process by which standalone or individual software is created using a specific programming language.” This process can be broken down into different steps—conceiving, specifying, designing, programming, documenting, testing, and bug fixing—and there are multiple approaches to software development that organize these steps.
In the past, software was typically developed using the waterfall model, which breaks down software development into linear sequential phases, where each phase depends on the deliverables of the previous one. Today, Agile software development is the dominant approach to software development, emphasizing the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and centering around the idea of iterative development.
Software Developer vs. Programmer vs. Software Engineer vs. Coder
If a software developer is someone who develops software applications, what about programmers, software engineers, and coders? Are they just different names for the same profession, or are there any important differences between them? Yes and yes.
The truth is that these four terms are often used interchangeably, both by people who are part of the IT industry and those who aren’t, such as journalists. If you wanted to be really nitpicky about the meaning of the four terms, you could define them like this:
Software developer: Someone who builds software applications from start to finish.
Programmer: An older term for a software developer.
Software engineer: Someone who applies the principles of software engineering to software development. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software engineering is “the systematic application of scientific and technological knowledge, methods, and experience to the design, implementation, testing, and documentation of software.”
Types of software developers
Just like there are art and music teachers, language teachers, or biology teachers, there are also different types of software developers, and each type solves specific problems and has domain-specific knowledge.
In software development, front-end is the part of a software application you see and interact with. For example, a file manager can be seen as a front-end to the file system, which controls how data is stored and retrieved. The file manager itself doesn’t understand how to store and retrieve data; it merely knows how to communicate with the file system based on the input it receives from the user.
Front-end development is a very dynamic subset of software development, with new frameworks and technologies being released all the time and user expectations evolving just as quickly. Great front-end developers are fantastic problem-solvers who love learning new things and applying them to meet the needs of end-users.
If a file manager is a front-end to the file system, then we can say that the file system is the back-end of the file manager because it handles data storage and is removed from the user. Indeed, back-end developers specialize in building and maintaining the logical infrastructure that powers user-facing components.
When you open Google Search in your web browser, all you see is an unassuming search bar with two buttons and a couple of options around it. However, behind this simple search bar is a mind-bogglingly complex system developed by leading back-end developers, and its purpose is to crawl the web, index it, and retrieve the most accurate search results.
The system behind the Google Search page is written in Python, Java, and C++, which are three very popular back-end programming languages. Other popular back-end programming languages include C#, PHP, Ruby, Rust, and Pearl, just to give a few more examples. In addition to being fluent in one or more of these languages, back-end developers also work with databases, caching systems, and servers.
A software developer that has both front-end development skills and back-end development skills is called a full-stack developer. A long time ago, all software developers were full-stack developers, but with the increasing complexity of software applications and the size of software development teams growing, the demand for full-stack developers has shrunk.
Depending on the project, some choose to assemble a large team of developers and divide them into separate (usually small) teams working on backend and frontend. This solution has some drawbacks though. The bigger and more separated the teams are the more difficult it is to align both layers of software together. On the other hand, when the project is small or medium-sized, full-stack developers might work hand in hand in one team, creating a coherent product that all of them can understand and update.
Desktop developers develop software applications for desktop and server operating systems, such as Windows, macOS, Linux, or *BSD. For many years, desktop application development dominated the IT industry, but the demand for desktop applications has decreased considerably during the last two decades because of the rise of the internet and mobile devices.
Web developers are software developers who specialize in the development of websites. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, websites were much simpler than they are today, consisting of not much more than formatted text and images. Over the years, websites have become so complex that we now talk about web applications to signify how similar they are to desktop and mobile applications.
The demand for mobile development has skyrocketed with the advent of smartphones and tablets. Two mobile operating systems dominate the mobile landscape today—Android and iOS—and each of these two operating systems supports different programming languages, frameworks, and development environments. Mobile developers learn them to create mobile applications, which are sometimes designed to be compatible even with desktop operating systems.
Because mobile development is very young and dynamic, mobile developers must always be on the lookout for new technologies and technological approaches. To understand just how far has mobile development come in the last decade, all you need to do is take a look at the first version of the Android operating system, which was released on September 23, 2008, and compare it with the most recent one—both in terms of how it looks and what it can do.
What does a software developer do besides writing code?
In addition to writing code, software developers have many other responsibilities and day-to-day duties:
- Reading other people’s code: Self-taught software developers are frequently surprised by the amount of time they have to spend reading other people’s code. The reason why software developers spend a lot of time reading through other people’s code is simple: real software applications are incredibly complex products of large software development teams, and it’s impossible for anyone to dive into one of them without making some effort to understand it first. Reading other people’s code is also a great way to improve one’s software development skills.
- Documenting code: It’s one thing for a software developer to understand his or her own code, and it’s something else entirely to find the same code comprehensible a week, month, or year down the road. That’s why professional software developers spend a lot of time writing clear comments and documentation. By documenting their own code, software developers can also identify potential areas of improvement, which helps them produce code that not only works but works well.
- Testing code: Testing is an important part of software development, and all software developers test their own code—just like writers read their own writing to identify grammar mistakes and stylistic errors.
- Participating in meetings: Modern software development is a collaborative effort, and meetings help the whole team stay on the same page and complete all objectives. Agile teams hold very short daily meetings, which rarely take more than 15 minutes. Of course, software developers stay in touch with their colleagues on Slack and other team collaboration platforms, if only to see how everyone’s doing and boost team morale with a funny gif.
- Mentoring: Senior software developers assist junior software developers with their learning and career growth, sharing their knowledge, giving them advice, and answering their questions. Many software development companies these days even have mentorship programs that match new hires with senior software developers, but sometimes the process isn’t formalized at all.
Software applications have become an integral part of our daily life, and the demand for people who develop them has never been greater. In this article, we’ve asked the question what a software developer does and explained that there are now many different types of software developers, each characterized by a specific set of skills and responsibilities.