Software Engineering

Software engineering (SE) is concerned with developing and maintaining software systems that behave reliably and efficiently, are affordable to develop and maintain, and satisfy all the requirements that customers have defined for them. It is important because of the impact of large, expensive software systems and the role of software in safety-critical applications. It integrates significant mathematics, computer science and practices whose origins are in engineering.

Students can find software engineering in two contexts: computer science programs offering one or more software engineering courses as elements of the CS curriculum, and in separate software engineering programs. Degree programs in computer science and in software engineering tend to have many courses in common; however, as of Spring 2006 there are few SE programs at the bachelor’s level. Software engineering focuses on software development and goes beyond programming to include such things as eliciting customers’ requirements, and designing and testing software. SE students learn how to assess customer needs and develop usable software that meets those needs.

Both computer science and software engineering curricula typically require a foundation in programming fundamentals and basic computer science theory. They diverge in their focus beyond these core elements. Computer science programs tend to keep the core small and then expect students to choose among more advanced courses (such as systems, networking, database, artificial intelligence, theory, etc.). In contrast, SE programs generally expect students to focus on a range of topics that are essential to the SE agenda (problem modeling and analysis, software design, software verification and validation, software quality, software process, software management, etc.). While both CS and SE programs typically require students to experience team project activity, SE programs tend to involve the students in significantly more of it, as effective team processes are essential to effective SE practices. In addition, a key requirement specified by the SE curriculum guidelines is that SE students should learn how to build software that is genuinely useful and usable by the customer and satisfies all the requirements defined for it.

Most people who now function in the U.S. as serious software engineers have degrees in computer science, not in software engineering. In large part this is because computer degrees have been widely available for more than 30 years and software engineering degrees have not. Positions that require development of large software systems often list “Software Engineer” as the position title. Graduates of computer science, computer engineering, and software engineering programs are good candidates for those positions, with the amount of software engineering study in the programs determining the suitability of that graduate for such a position.

Most IT professionals who have computing degrees come from CS or IS programs. It is far too soon for someone who wants to work as a software engineer or as an information technology practitioner to be afraid that they won’t have a chance if they don’t graduate from a degree program in one of the new disciplines. In general, a CS degree from a respected program is the most flexible of degrees and can open doors into the professional worlds of CS, SE, IT, and sometimes CE. A degree from a respected IS program allows entry to both IS and IT careers.

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