Modern Tech Careers: Software Engineer vs. Data Scientist

A software engineer works on a project.

Society is becoming increasingly focused — and dependent — on technology. We rely more on computer systems and algorithms to manage our lives than ever before, from the Alexa personal assistant that tells us the best route to take to work to the food delivery app that routes dinner to our doors. Most global computer systems rely on massive sets of data to function properly and assist users with their searches, whether they’re seeking traffic information, music, news, or Yelp recommendations.

A software engineer works on a project.

Software engineers and data scientists play a big role in developing our relationship with technology. Both careers require proficiency in computer systems and programming and advanced education, and both offer opportunities in many different industries. Continue reading to learn more about software engineers and data scientists and explore how to prepare for success in either field.

Software Engineer Overview

In software development companies, financial institutions, manufacturing, retail, and more, software engineers design and code programs and software that power industries and our daily lives. Software engineers are coding experts. They utilize complex algorithms and plan detailed systems and software with other engineers and developers to build solutions that meet many needs. Software engineers work in offices and typically spend most of their day on computers, solving problems with a team of computer science professionals.

Software Engineer Salaries and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there were 1,365,500 software developers working in the United States as of May 2018. Of that group, 944,200 jobs for software developers were in applications and 421,300 were in systems software. Software developers earned a median annual salary of $105,590. There was not much fluctuation in salary by industry, though software publishers paid the highest median annual salary ($114,320), and computer systems design paid the lowest ($100,080).

As of 2018, 34% of applications developers and 31% of systems software developers worked in computer systems design and related services. Of application developers, 10% worked in finance and insurance, 10% in software publishing, 7% in manufacturing, and 5% in management. Of systems software developers, 19% worked in manufacturing, 6% in finance and insurance, and 5% in software publishing.

The BLS expects the job market for all software developers to grow by 21% between 2018 and 2028, which is more than four times the projected national job market growth rate of 5% during that span. Software developers in applications will grow by 26%, adding 241,500 jobs, while systems software developers will grow by 10% (42,600 jobs).

Data Scientist Overview

Data scientists are computer professionals who experiment with new technologies and programming. They design experiments that involve data systems, management, security, storage, and other aspects of big data manipulation. They might focus on improving query speed in a large retail network or data security for the federal government. Ultimately, data scientists further many different industries, from food delivery to financial development.

Data Scientist Salaries and Job Outlook

The BLS reports there were 31,700 computer and information research scientist jobs in the United States as of May 2018. The largest employer of data scientists was the government (8,800 jobs, or 27.9%), followed by computer systems and related services (20%), scientific research in physical, engineering, and life sciences (16%), higher education (8%), and software development (5%).

The median annual salary for all data scientists was $118,370 in 2018, according to the BLS. The lowest 10% earned about $69,230 annually, and the top 10% earned approximately $183,820. The industry that paid the highest median salary was software publishing ($140,220), followed by scientific research in physical, engineering, and life sciences ($128,570). Postsecondary education ($82,660) paid the lowest median annual salary.

The BLS expects the job market for data scientists to grow by 5,200 jobs between 2018 and 2028. That 16% growth is more than three times the projected national average job market growth during that time. The BLS expects computer systems design to grow by 42.9%, adding 2,800 of those 5,200 jobs — the most of any industry.

Similarities Between Software Engineers and Data Scientists

Both software engineers and data scientists are advanced computer technology professionals who need specific training to perform their jobs. Individuals in these fields can come from similar educational backgrounds, such as a bachelor’s degree in data science. Many go on to earn an advanced degree, industry certification, or both. Software engineering and data science jobs exist across many different industries — some of which overlap, and all of which have a need for proprietary software or data management.

Differences Between Software Engineers and Data Scientists

While software engineers and data scientists are both computer science professionals with some similarities, they fill different roles. The way they work with data, the industries in which they tend to find employment, and the educational requirements differ between them.

Data Focus

In the course of their work, software engineers might design and program software for managing, storing, and analyzing data, but that’s only a small part of their jobs. They might also program video games, kiosks for ordering at a fast-food chain, or new editing technology for filmmakers.

Data scientists, on the other hand, work only with programs and systems that they (or others) design for the storage, protection, and display of large data sets. Their work prioritizes streamlining and designing ways to read and interpret data, helping companies and individuals make sense of the massive amount of information they have access to.

Work Environments

Software engineers often find employment in companies that have a need for proprietary software or develop software for other industries. That’s why these professionals tend to work for software developers and computer systems designers, software publishers, and finance companies in need of software tailored to their specific needs.

While data scientists must know how to design programs and data software, they can work for employers who have systems in place. They instead focus their work on analyzing and managing large data sets. They experiment with that data to test potential improvements or new approaches to production, distribution, and more. Data scientists are often employed by the government, colleges, and research institutions, in addition to software development firms.

Educational Requirements

Data scientists typically have an advanced degree, such as a master’s in data science. During graduate study, students expand on what they learned in undergraduate courses, deepening their understanding of the field and learning more about the math and programming at the core of data science.

Alternatively, software engineers can enter the field with only a bachelor’s degree, especially if they have industry certifications that prove their ability to understand and utilize certain programming languages.

Software Engineer vs. Data Scientist: Which Is Right for You?

Software engineering and data science jobs will become more valuable as our reliance on technology increases. If you enjoy focusing your efforts and talents on creating new software and computer programs, software engineering might prove to be a great fit for you. On the other hand, if you want to dive into analysis and spend your time working with raw data, data science might be a better fit.

No matter which career you choose to pursue, the right undergraduate degree can get you off to a good start. Discover how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Data Science could help prepare you for a job in either field.

Recommended Readings
Building Skills for the Future of Machine Learning

Projected Tech: A Look at the Future of Software Engineering

The Future of Data Science and New Skills for Data Scientists

CoderHood, “A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer”

Dataconomy, “What Is the Real Difference Between Data Science and Software Engineering Teams?”

Harvard Business Review, “What Data Scientists Really Do, According to 35 Data Scientists”

Maryville University, Online Bachelor’s in Data Science

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Computer and Information Research Scientists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Software Developers

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