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Web Developer vs Software Engineer: Is There Really a Difference?

By Liz Eggleston
Last Updated February 22, 2021

Is there a difference between a Web Developer and a Software Engineer? Sure, there are some historical differences, but in the real world, how do these two roles play out? Is one job harder to get than the other? Are salaries different? Gregorio Rojas, co-founder and head instructor at Sabio, joins us to share what he’s learned over the past 20 years in the industry. 

Our Takeaways:

  • Look past the job titles and instead ask yourself what the company is actually looking for in a job description! 
  • Engineers and Developers are given different titles at different companies. 
  • Beware of the false hierarchy in tech – jobs with the word “engineer” in the title aren’t necessarily harder or higher paying than “web developer.”

Meet Your Expert: Gregorio Rojas

  • Gregorio is co-founder and head instructor at Sabio, a coding bootcamp in California that aims to break down barriers into tech.
  • Before starting Sabio, Gregorio held many positions in tech – he's worked on the back end, front end, and of course, had Software Engineer and Web Developer on his resume!

What is a Software Engineer?

In a bubble, a Software Engineer is someone working very close to the hardware, building tools and optimizing software for efficiency and effectiveness. Software Engineers are also designing the approach to building software – think about optimizing software for speed or load.

What is a Web Developer

Historically, Web Developers would just be building web pages. But today, a Web Developer may be building APIs that are accessed via a web protocol. Regardless, a Web Developer is typically writing code for the browser.

However, I want to point out that these terms aren’t used in a bubble today! In the real world, the two roles overlap and the job titles are almost insignificant. 

Are the terms used interchangeably?

The problem that we get into when we talk about differences in titles is that it’s chaos right now. A lot of industries are really good about assigning specific job titles to specific tasks. In computer science, though, there’s no rhyme or reason across the industry. At some companies, they don’t have Engineers or Developers; instead, they might have Application Analysts. That makes it really difficult to answer the question, “What is a Web Developer? What is a Software Engineer?” 

I see a lot of folks try to make a hierarchy out of these jobs titles, saying that an Engineer has a harder job than a Web Developer, which we just know isn’t true. For anyone who has had to write complex, cross-browser CSS (a task we may associate with a Web Developer), we know how hard that work is!

Web Developer Salaries vs Software Engineer Salaries

The BLS says that Software Engineers earn higher salaries (~$100,000) than Web Developers (~$75,000). And that may be true nation-wide, but when you look at salaries company-by-company, those numbers go out the window. I was talking to a developer the other day who is getting paid $150,000 to write React code on the front end. If you looked at her job title, she would be called a Web Developer, but she’s getting paid $150K! 

A lot of people I know in the industry don’t have the Engineer title – maybe they’re Application Developers – but are getting paid like engineers. You have to let go of your preconceived notions of what an Engineer is and what a Developer is because that prevents you from achieving your goals.

Job Title Hierarchy →  Inequality in the Tech Industry

One important repercussion of this hierarchy is that a newcomer to tech sees the word engineer and thinks, “I’m new to this, I don’t qualify for that job. This company is looking for this big person called an Engineer. I don’t know a ton of math, so how can I do that job?That’s just not the case.

The thorn in my side is that tech tries to create this hierarchy in the industry in order to gatekeep. In tech, we talk so much about open source technology etc, but then tell beginners, “don’t try this at home!” like it’s a special, elite club – and I think that starts with job titles. Companies beef up job titles and then infer that someone with a better title is smarter than you. There are so many biases and barriers in tech – I don’t like those gates. I don’t like that someone looks at a job posting for an API Engineer but only thinks of themselves as an API Developer. Those are the same thing! Go look at what the actual employee does – you’ll find that you probably do that too.

As a bootcamp grad, you already have a little imposter syndrome. We try to train our students at Sabio to talk themselves up – trust me, people in the tech industry have no problem talking themselves up. Engaging in “my name is better than your name” is a silly game.

How to use Job Postings to Find a Job You’re Qualified For:

You must read the description and look for the specific tools and skills that the job requires, in combination with the number of years of experience that the company is looking for. Someone coming out of a bootcamp or a 2-4 year degree isn’t going to get a real “Engineering” job, even if the job title contains the word “engineer.”  

If the Job Description is for a React Engineer, look for specifics: “Am I writing JavaScript on the front-end or the back-end?” Application development and API development may not fall into the job title of “Engineer,” but it’s still a job that you should apply to.

And when you look at a job description, if you don’t have 100% of the things a company is looking for, don’t let that scare you off! Don’t be afraid to send out a resume for a job that you don’t check all the boxes for – those are often wishlists.

This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with Sabio. If you want to learn more about Sabio, please join them for an info session via zoom. 

About The Author

Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!

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