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Software Engineer Vs Data Engineer - Which Position Is Right For You?

seattledataguy profile image SeattleDataGuy ・6 min read

Photo by Fotis Fotopoulos on Unsplash

Which Career Is Right For You?

Software engineer vs. data engineer. People outside these professions are often confused about the differences between these experts. They may think these are two different names for the same thing: a programming expert. Of course, the duties of each engineer type are different, but their roles are similar enough to confuse people who are in the industry as well.

If you are a new data engineer, you may be confused yourself. What exactly separates you from a software engineer? The answer is not a simple one. In fact, you can honestly say "It depends on the circumstances." While there are tangible differences, the two positions frequently perform some of the same duties.

Why Is It So Challenging to Compare a Data Engineer vs. a Software Engineer?

Since people often ask about the differences between a data engineer and a software engineer, you should have an answer. These are two separate careers, so having a definition should not be difficult, you may think. In reality, discussing the differences is challenging because their duties often overlap. On any given day, you can find a software engineer working with data concepts and a data engineer writing code.

However, this type of overlap is common in many industries, including education. Think about school administrators versus classroom teachers. You wouldn't be shocked to find a principal delivering a lesson or a teacher dealing with discipline issues. But you would understand that the focus of their jobs differs. The principal's focus is on administration issues and the teacher delivers lessons and manages the classroom. Software and data engineers have a different daily focus.

Different Types of Data Engineers

Data engineers are not all the same. In fact, you will find at least two main types of data engineer: A data engineer who is really a software engineer with a data focus and a BI developer type of data engineer.

The former data engineer does more than write code for data pipelines. If you fit this category, you may also develop logging and monitoring systems that manage the data pipelines, tasks that are more on the software engineering side.

If you are the latter data engineer type, you will probably use more Dragon Drop and Airflow coding because others have already developed the infrastructure. Instead, you are often parameterizing data pipelines and completing the tasks they need to run.

Of course, these data engineer categories can also overlap depending on your employer and changing circumstances. Data engineers need to be flexible.

How Data Engineers Solve Problems vs. Software Engineers Solve Problems

Data engineers and software engineers may not approach their duties in the same way. If you are a data engineer, you probably take a different approach to problem-solving than a software engineer does. Often, you can see these differences in where the engineer places their logic.

Software engineers like to have one place for all logic so they do not have to add extra logic layers downstream. They like things upfront to simplify the process.

In contrast, if you are a data engineer, you probably like to put more logic on the SQL side. This preference has to do with your skill set. A data engineer needs to develop categories in order to map data from different suppliers. You must categorize so you can simplify naming conventions and mapping.

A data engineer will also rely on tables and SQL, while a software engineer will lean on Python, etc. Despite these innate preferences, as a data engineer, you should put your logic upstream as far as possible in order to reduce errors. Adding layers of logic as you go can become needlessly complex and make it vulnerable to problems.

Differences in Salary

The salary edge usually goes to the software engineer, something that is obviously not popular with you and others in the profession. This difference is most common in larger companies where software engineers may earn as much as 40% more than a data engineer. However, in smaller companies, the salary difference may be smaller since the job duties may overlap more. In reality, they may not care that much about the differences in engineer definitions. Your salary will depend on what you give the company more than what your title is.

Skill Sets for Data Engineers vs. Software Engineers

Data engineers and software engineers are definitely not the same. The skill sets for data engineers do differ from those of software engineers although some skills are needed in both professions. Companies that rely on SQL may value the data engineer more since you are much stronger in this area. As a data engineer, you have honed your SQL skills since you are continually modeling, structuring, and manipulating data. Software engineers are weaker here since SQL generally doesn't affect their jobs as much. Their focus is usually on functions such as insert, delete, and update which do not require as much in-depth SQL knowledge. You have a definite career advantage in this area.

​What Do Other People Say About Software Engineers vs. Data Engineers

Some experts try to put a stricter definition on software engineers and data engineers and see fewer overlapping skills. They may base their conclusions on what coding languages each engineer type uses and on other criteria that really do not hold up. For instance, while software engineers might use C# more often, data engineers certainly use it in their duties, too. There is no point in creating artificial boundaries between the two careers. The job definitions should be based on reality and not theory.

Conclusion

The duties of data engineers and software engineers overlap, especially in smaller companies. But there are tangible differences between the two. For instance, data engineers generally work with Dragon Drop coding and data visualization. You will probably be coding but not nearly as much as a software engineer.

But as a data engineer, you can lean more toward a software engineer's role and end up doing lots of data pipeline coding. You will not be dealing with many infrastructure and core data layers, however.

You may be a data engineer who focuses on BI work and modeling and not software engineering. In that case, you will be the more traditional data engineer who moves data from point A to point B. You will be concerned with data warehousing, ETLs, ELTs, and data lakes. And with the many advanced software programs out now, you simply will not have to work with as much coding.

In larger companies, data engineers focus on data pipelines, but in smaller businesses, data engineers do more software engineering in order to develop these pipelines. Also, you will often place your logic in code on the SQL side, while software engineers place it far upstream.

In short, your duties as a data engineer vs. software engineer largely depend on your employer.

Thanks for reading! If you want to read more about data consulting, big data, and data science, then click below.

Realities Of Being A Data Engineer

Developing A Data Analytics Strategy For Small Businesses And Start-ups

5 SQL Concepts You Need To Know Before Your Next Data Science Or Data Engineering Interview

How To Improve Your Data-Driven Strategy

What Is A Data Warehouse And Why Use It

Mistakes That Are Ruining Your Data-Driven Strategy

5 Great Libraries To Manage Big Data With Python

What Is A Data Engineer

Discussion (4)

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damjand profile image
Damjan Dimitrov

Thanks for the discussion. This is actually the first time I hear that the responsibilities of software engineers and data engineers overlap or the two jobs are confused between each other. We can boil it down to a very general and vague yet still mostly correct statement - Software engineers develop software, data engineers analyze data. Of course, these two can vary by a lot depending on the company, but I can almost never see a case where the two careers wouldn't be able to be told apart. Do you have any sources to confirm this?

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seattledataguy profile image
SeattleDataGuy Author

This is a great question. I wouldn't say I am used to seeing data engineers "analyzing data". Typically, analysts do analysis(In my experience it can depend company to company).

In general, in my experience data engineers focus mostly on building data infrastructure.

So to restate your statement I would say "Software develop software, data engineers develop data infrastructure and data analyst analyze data"

What "develop data infrastructure" means can cover a broad level of tools. In some cases this means using drag and drop tools with very little coding and clearly no software engineering what so ever.

In other cases they may use libraries like Airflow which still abstracts a lot of software engineering away.

I have worked for start-ups and big tech companies where I have seen data engineers play more of a SWE role. In fact, I recently was asked to consult on a project for a software engineering team to help them develop their software infrastructure for their data systems. In this case I spend a lot of time developing the system and APIs that helped manage the entire process.

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steelwolf180 profile image
Max Ong Zong Bao

Awesome post, I always think that it always the same for both software engineer and data engineer.

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seattledataguy profile image
SeattleDataGuy Author

I find it interesting how many different definitions of data engineers that people have. For example, Damjan Dimitrov felt like they are more like analysts where you see them similar to software engineers.

I think the truth is you can spend a lifetime working and never experience both sides, in terms of seeing cases where data engineers are more like software engineers or the opposite.

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