Computer science vs. software engineering: What, if anything, makes them different? For those interested in a career in software development or computer tech, these two disciplines will often be the main jumping-off point when choosing a degree.
But which do you choose? While the two inevitably share common ground, they are not the same, separated by both obvious and more subtle differences. Read on to find out why.
What is the difference between computer science and software engineering?
Before we come to grips with the main difference between computer science and software engineering, it is useful to understand what each field is all about first.
What does a software engineer actually do?
Software engineers, sometimes erroneously referred to as software developers, are specialist engineers who create, maintain, and improve computer programs.
Software engineers' duties primarily revolve around finding and generating useful software. They attempt to find answers to questions like, "What is the most efficient solution that meets this set of requirements?".
Software engineers usually consider an end user's needs, and then design and develop software solutions accordingly. They may also suggest recommendations on software updates for existing software solutions.
Software engineers tend to be heavily involved in the "bigger picture" of a software's development and delegate tasks to computer programmers to write the actual code. They may also either delegate or complete the tasks themselves, test and maintain certain aspects of the software, and document everything to improve future versions of it.
Part of their duties also include finding and fixing problems and improving the software as practicably as possible.
Computer scientists employ a systematic approach to find solutions to problems, often applying engineering principles to reach that goal. They tend to use algorithms and various computer languages to build dedicated software while providing detailed instructions on how they work.
Software engineers tend to work under the direction of companies and provide status reports on software development. Duties also include consulting with other departments to meet the client's needs.
In summary, the main tasks of software engineers tend to include, but are not limited to the following:
- Creating, maintaining, and improving operating systems
- Creating, maintaining, and improving network systems
- Creating, maintaining, and improving applications
- Finding and fixing bugs in all of the above
Software engineers can also specialize in a sub-discipline that uses these basic tasks to reach specific goals; as such, duties can include the following:
- Ensuring or reviewing software quality (SQA).
- Analyzing, specifying, and validating the requirements of certain software
- Developing software, including all tasks from programming to testing and then integrating and debugging
- Having a role in economics of a business environment.
- Helping to develop ways to embed software.
- Developing games and entertainment solutions, for example in app-development
What does a computer scientist actually do?
Computer science is the study of how data and instructions are stored, processed, and communicated between computer devices. This field of study tends to involve elements of software design but also tends to include more scientific investigation about the nature of computation.
For this reason, this field is more dedicated to computer hardware and the physical architecture of computer systems.
Professionals in this field effectively create the "brains" of things like smartphones and autopilot systems in planes and certain automated aspects of manufacturing, to name but a few.
While computer science can be a highly theoretical field at times, computer scientists tend to find positions in many different roles in the industry.
The vast majority of computer scientists spend their days doing one or several of the following (courtesy of Target Jobs):
- Thinking about and conceptualizing computational and maths-related problems and challenges
- Developing new products or solving practical computing problems
- Conducting research through experimentation and modeling
- Working as part of a research team with programmers, IT professionals, and mechanical, electrical, or software engineers to solve problems and create new products
- Studying, experimenting in, and investigating technological fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality
- Seeking to improve the performance of existing computer systems and software
- Developing new hardware or computing techniques and materials
Computer scientists are scientists and mathematicians and, as such, are experts in computation theory and computational systems.
While their work can include both abstract and concrete concepts, computer scientists’ focus tends to be on data and finding more effective ways to improve the following:
In practical terms, computer scientists can hold any one of the following titles:
- Network architects
- Software developers
- Systems analysts
- Creators of databases where data is statistically modeled
- Inventors of ways of keeping data protected and authentic
Areas of specialization can also include the following:
- Real-world application of computer graphics
- Abstract computational complexity theory
- Cyber and digital security
- New coding language developing
- Mobile and internet computing
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning
What are the differences between computer science and software engineering?
In essence, the main differences between computer science and software engineering center on each discipline's focus on the theoretical and real-world aspects of computer software. While the details are complex, we can get a rough idea of the main differences in focus from the actual names of each discipline.
Science tends to be more theoretical, while engineering is more applied. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it does serve as a useful shorthand for putting the two fields into perspective.
Computer scientists, to reiterate, tend to focus on understanding, designing, and developing programs and computers. They do this by focusing on what the data is and how it can be transformed, manipulated, and stored; and the nature of algorithms.
Advanced courses in computer science tend to allow for specialization in particular programming techniques and applications. Degrees in computer science tend to be less structured than those in software engineering to allow students to be more flexible so they can build depth or breadth in a variety of application domains or in the fundamentals of computer science.
Software engineers, as the title suggests, tend to “get their hands dirty” building and maintaining software systems. This discipline is much more software-focused than computer science and puts greater emphasis on broader software applications than other related fields like computer engineering (hardware engineering).
Software engineering tends to be more applied than computer science and places much more emphasis on the entire software development process from cradle to grave, to borrow a phrase.
It is also more disciplined than computer science, applying more systematic practices to help ensure that products are reliable and safe.
What do the different educational curricula look like for software engineers and computer scientists?
Computer science degrees tend to focus on several main subjects. These include the following:
- Algorithms and complexity
- Architecture and organization
- Computational science
- Discrete structures
- Graphics and visualization
- Human-computer interaction
- Information assurance and security
- Information management
- Intelligent systems
- Networking and communications
- Operating systems
- Platform-based development
- Parallel and distributed computing
- Programming languages
- Software development fundamentals
- Software engineering
- Systems fundamentals
- Social issues and professional practice
Software engineering, on the other hand, tends to focus on the following main subjects:
- Computing essentials
- Mathematical and engineering fundamentals
- Professional practice
- Software modeling and analysis
- Requirements analysis and specification
- Software design
- Software verification and validation
- Software process
- Software quality and security
Depending on the university or college, people may even be allowed to customize their courses by selecting certain subjects to match their unique job interests and goals.
Computer science vs. software engineering, which is better?
Like any question of this nature, which one is best depends entirely on your ambitions and interests in the world of computers and software. Graduates of either discipline can specialize in programming language development, systems software, software architecture, or application development.
This is because both fields require students to develop an intimate knowledge of computers, especially computer software and its various applications.
That being said, there is some consensus on the matter of which is more useful for preparing graduates for jobs in the real world.
According to sources like Online Engineering Programs, "many agree that a degree in computer science best prepares a student for abstract problem solving and research on the development of computer technology, while a software engineering degree provides a student with knowledge regarding the software development process and how to apply this as an engineer."
Therefore, which one is better will ultimately depend on the path you wish to take in your profession. With regard to compensation, software engineering tends to attract a higher salary with median incomes at around $105,500 a year (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Computer scientists, depending on their specialty, experience, or placement in the private or public sector, can usually expect an average income of between $75,500 and $92,000.
Choosing the right career, whether in computer science or software engineering, can be a difficult and perhaps even a daunting task.
But, rest assured, whichever discipline you choose, your future career will be very challenging, rewarding, and if you sharpen your skills well enough, potentially very lucrative. Good luck!