If you're considering software engineering and development as a career, you might be alarmed at the recent news stories of jobs in these fields going overseas. The news media has presented many alarming stories reporting that companies are closing their U.S.-based offices, complete with pictures of countless cubicles filled with workers somewhere in India or Eastern Europe.
So what are the real facts? Well, there are jobs going overseas, but it's not taking away from the high demand for engineers needed to work one-on-one with clients to meet their design specifications here in the United States. For example, although the textile industry has seen many jobs move to other countries, shirts are still designed in the U.S. And while programming is easy to do outside the U.S., in order to build the information systems programmers must actually talk to the users-something that's difficult to do if they are halfway around the world.
Software engineers with the right skill sets and work experiences are still in high demand here in the U.S. Even if you're still in your first or second year of school, understanding the needs of the industry will put you in a better position in a few years when you begin to send out your resume.
Breaking into the Field
Frank Tsui, associate professor in the Department of Computing and Software Engineering at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga., believes that software engineering isn't a big enough field to differentiate from computer science. "Corporations do note the differences, but academic departments don't," he says. Only about fifty universities across the country offer software engineering degrees. And some believe that software engineering is a title too narrow for a field that is always maturing and evolving.
Whatever you want to call it, Tsui believes two to three years of experience is needed for future software engineers or developers. Students may have to consider taking positions indirectly related to the software engineering field. Graduates can gain experience doing software testing and integration before they are able to start software engineering jobs. With software programming jobs moving overseas, it is crucial that the many pieces of software programs are assembled and tested component by component. "These jobs look at how software programs are meeting design requirements," says Tsui. "They are looking at the characterization of good design versus bad design, and if the program meets the customers set requirements."
Graduates might also take positions building web portals, programming languages or game development. To gain the experience they need, software engineers work in IT departments, support database administration and network administration projects by providing additional perspective to building systems that have a software component.
Once graduates get around two years of experience, many go on to become project managers, working directly with the customer, ensuring satisfaction, and maintaining and keeping end users'
Intel is one company that encourages students and recent graduates to apply their skills by working with and being mentored by some of the best software engineers in the country. New hires at Intel might design and test customer based webproducts, work with end users to enhance performance of software applications, and help design hardware through integration and software compatibility.
Face-to-face time between software engineers and their customers is a key to keeping many design jobs on U.S. shores. Glenn Ray, assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, stresses that value-added skills are needed in software engineering in the U.S.
Ray points out an emerging technology that future software engineers can look forward to and companies will need to implement for IT survival is called web services. A web service allows two computers to "chat" with each other to exchange important information. This is very similar to using Instant Messenger systems. Gartner, a publicly traded IT consulting firm, has forecasted that enterprises should adopt web services by 2009 in order to survive. Cap Gemini recently surveyed 200 large companies and they identified web services as their top IT priority.
Though many graduates go on to be employed solely by one company, experienced and ambitious software engineers may go out on their own and work as contract software engineers. Ryan Jones, an independent IT consultant and Iowa State University graduate, has been doing contract work for three years in Des Moines, Iowa, and surrounding areas.
"Contracting is a lot riskier than a normal W-2 job," says Jones. "It's not something that you want to if you're the only income supporting a wife and kids, but if you make it work, the financial rewards are limitless." Jones has done work for companies like ING Financial Services and IBM. While Jones didn't begin contracting until five years out of college, he says that there are some students who are ambitious enough during their college years that they can begin their contract software engineering careers while still in school. "There are students who learn HTML, XML and other computer languages in college, and in one to two years they are able to go out on their own," Jones explains.
College graduates who are considering this type of work in the future should get to know companies which sub-contract work out to software engineers, and find the human resource people at different companies they may be interested in working for. If there is a particular industry or company you want to work for, it may help to take classes or learn as much about the company as you can.
With no job shortage to be concerned about, what range of salaries can graduates expect? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, starting salaries for those with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering in 2003 was $51,343. For those with a bachelor's degree in computer science, it was $47,109.
Southern Polytech students are going to work for companies like Georgia-Pacific, Coca-Cola and Equifax. Recruiters who work with Claudette Tennant academic advisor at Auburn University's Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, are telling her that they are having a problem finding qualified software engineers. "We've also seen a decrease in enrollment since the late 90s and the IT bubble burst," Tennant says. Companies like Exxon-Mobil, Harris Corp. and Harley-Davidson have hired some of her students.
Clearly the demand for software engineers isn't disappearing anytime soon. Those who continue to build on their skill sets as software engineers and show employers their potential to manage projects and lead teams designing software will find challenging and rewarding jobs in their future.