Building a Career in Software Development

There's more to a career in software development than writing and testing code.

By SmartBrief Education
Published Spring 2019

“New technologies and shifting consumer behavior are disrupting almost every industry, especially finance, automotive, retail, healthcare and manufacturing,” says Andrew Challenger, vice president of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “As these industries shift to meet demand, they are increasingly hiring software developers to help with the transition.”

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment of software developers will increase by 24% through 2026, far more rapidly than the average growth rate for all occupations.

California is the state with the most software developers with nearly 90,000, according to the BLS. Texas and Virginia nearly tie for second and third place when it comes to software developers employed, at 28,720 and 27,800 respectively, according to 2018 BLS statistics. The BLS also reports that software developers in those three states see an annual mean salary between $110,740  and  $131,700. The metropolitan area with the highest number of software developers is the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area, with an hourly mean wage of $58.86 according to the BLS.

Software developers are not relegated to a single part of the US though. Every state in the nation employs software developers, showing the vast versatility and high demand for the position. “Demand is quite literally nationwide,” Challenger asserts. “Anywhere large operations exist needs to attract tech workers. We’ll  start  seeing  more  demand  in  rural areas as manufacturers who supply companies like GM and Ford or produce healthcare products need these skill sets to grow with demand.” Strong demand and good salaries are compelling reasons to consider transitioning into a software developer job, whether you currently work in IT or in another functional area.

Competencies and Skills for Software Developers

“Software development has traditionally focused on coding and sometimes design and testing,” explains Greg Kulczycki, professor of practice in Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science. Some developers work on apps and functions that drive specific tasks, while others code systems that run devices or control entire networks. Developers usually work on teams and deliver working code on a periodic basis, typically every two to six weeks. The mission-critical skill, of course, is knowing how to write and test code. But there’s more to a successful career in software development.

“It's key to recognize that software development involves a lot of problem-solving and creative thinking,” says Mark Oliva, who’s worked in software development for 30 years and also serves as an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech.

"This is surprising to a lot of newcomers to the field, who expect it to be just expressing algorithms as code.”

Adds Challenger: “Employers are always looking for soft skills, [including] the ability to communicate with stakeholders within the company, as well as customers or potential customers. It’s also good to have a firm grasp on the company’s goals, product and organizational structure, as that business knowledge leads to a more well-rounded employee. Developers who work well and can help solve problems with other departments within the organization will be valued very highly.”

How to Get Into Software Development

One popular path for working professionals transitioning into software development is a master’s in information technology that blends technical competencies with business acumen and soft skills like communication and collaboration.

If you’re not already in IT, you may not have much programming or development experience. You need a program that offers a software engineering or software development track to learn programming and development while you advance your understanding of business management.

“In the development courses I teach,” Kulczycki notes, “you develop web and mobile applications that you can show off to a potential employer to demonstrate that you have created something concrete that requires real development skills.”

VT-MIT Program: Designed for Working Professionals

The VT-MIT program is designed to challenge professionals from business and technical backgrounds and help them chart a path to a career in software development or a number of other tech fields. The 100% Online graduate degree program and graduate certificate options are purpose-built to meet the needs of working professionals. U.S. News & World Report ranks the program in the top three online graduate IT programs and online IT programs for veterans nationwide.

There’s value in a master’s program for current IT employees, too. You may know a lot about computer systems and shell scripts, for example, but not have much knowledge of business fundamentals or possess highly developed interpersonal skills. “Anything that helps you communicate with members of your team and the stakeholders that your team interacts with will benefit you,” Kulczycki adds.

Or maybe you want to update your skills to move up the ladder. “Advanced degrees may help professionals who want to progress through the leadership ranks, either at their existing company or during a job search,” Challenger notes. “Certainly continued education can help those who feel in a rut in their current roles and would like to be promoted or otherwise want to further their careers.” Graduate study is also an objective differentiator that helps you stand out in a competitive field when it’s time to find a job.

“A master’s degree will open doors and opportunities,” says Cynthia Cokus, who’s finishing her Master of Information Technology at Virginia Tech. “It shows you are willing to learn and are able to understand new concepts and work with the material. The VT-MIT program gives me legitimacy in seeking these new jobs. It says I’m capable and trainable. Without it, I would not have gotten the interviews I’ve had. During interviews, I’ve been asked about the content of some of the courses, and to show the work products — projects — created.”

Transitioning into a software development career is a good bet. “There will always be a need for software developers into the foreseeable future,” Kulczycki concludes. “The world is changing in a direction where software developers will be even more in demand, not less.”

How to Choose a Master's Program

Cynthia Cokus decided to pursue a Master in Information Technology after a career in teaching. Her college major had been computer science, but she knew the field had changed dramatically in the intervening years.

If you're looking into graduate education, here are criteria to consider:

FIT. “How the program works and its expectations for students should line up with how you learn and what you are willing to put into the program,” Cokus says. “I chose the Virginia Tech Master of Information Technology program because I wanted to earn a full master’s, but … I didn’t want a program focused only on one area, like data science or cybersecurity. The VT-MIT program would let me explore many areas of IT.” She also liked that the program didn’t require the GRE.

FLEXIBILITY. “You should feel confident that you have sufficient time and finances to invest,” Cokus says. “It has to be at the right time of life so that the sacrifices … can be adequately managed.” Many working professionals prefer part-time programs that enable them to keep working while studying. Consider online or blended programs, which offer the most flexibility.

ACCESSIBLE INSTRUCTORS. Professors who are available outside of class time make a big difference in your learning and your career prospects. Ask current students and alums about the relationships they formed with faculty during the program and after graduation.

REAL-WORLD RELEVANCE. Because IT changes rapidly, look for faculty who currently work in the field to ensure that what you’ll learn is current and relevant. For example, Mark Oliva, an adjunct professor in Virginia Tech’s MIT program, is also a working software developer. “Incorporating real-world knowledge and experience into any curriculum is a great benefit to the students,” he says. “We can explore topics far beyond the standard textbook examples to discuss the realities of what students are likely to encounter outside of academia.”