Main image of article Software Developer Degree: How Can You Earn One?

While there are many routes to becoming a software developer, one is to go the full distance and get a four-year bachelor’s degree. Different colleges and universities use different names for what’s essentially the same program; the most common is Computer Science, while others include Software Engineering or Software Development. These programs are sometimes offered within an engineering, math or science school within an institution.

Obtaining a four-year degree is a big step, and potentially a rewarding one. Let’s talk about what you need to do before you start, and what to expect once you get there.

Community Colleges and Associates Degrees

Before getting into what the programs involve, let’s talk briefly about community colleges and associate’s degrees. In general, associate’s degrees are perfectly acceptable, but with a caveat: many of the most important computer science courses are in the third and fourth years of a four-year program, and therefore aren’t taught at community colleges. So, completing a two-year program at a community college in computer science and not furthering your studies at a university or four-year college might not always give you all the coursework companies want to see when hiring junior developers. If you’re considering an associate’s degree, look closely at the course offerings and compare them to the offerings at a four-year institution.

One common approach is to start at a community college, finish, and then complete your four years at a four-year institution. This can be beneficial in a couple of ways. For example, if you applied to your favorite university and didn’t get accepted, you have a second chance at acceptance after completing the coursework at a community college. Even better, your community college teachers can (hopefully) write you a sterling recommendation that will help you get in when you re-apply.

The First Two Years

What do the first two years at either university or community college look like for those who want to become software developers? You’ll learn the basics of programming languages, along with algorithms and data structures.

“Algorithms” are processes that solve a problem or achieve an operation, such as counting to high numbers. You’ll explore algorithms and how to code operations using as little memory as possible.

“Data structures” refers to how data is stored; you’ll need to know a lot about data to successfully build software, especially if you want to work at companies that rely on apps to process and analyze huge databases.

Years Three and Four

During years three and four is when you get into the most practical, hands-on studies, such as how to write database code in languages such as SQL, which stands for Structured Query Language. You also get into advanced concepts like how CPUs are designed and the architecture of operating systems. Much of this is fundamental to any software developer job.

(With an associate’s degree, it’s possible to learn this material, but you might have to take some side courses or do some self-study. Plan accordingly!)

Preparing to Pursue a Degree

How should you prepare for a four-year degree in Computer Science? Regardless of how much of an expert you are in using a computer, and even if you already know some programming, there is one driving force, one single word that makes all the difference in the world:


If that frightens you, pause a moment and take a deep breath. Most people who struggle in math do so simply because they didn’t have the best teachers early on. We use math, even calculus, every day, even if we don’t realize it. When you’re driving a car and accelerating to enter a freeway, that’s calculus: You’re very aware of your speed relative to both the speed limit and those of the cars around you. Math is within anyone’s grasp.

But if you truly dislike math, you might want to reconsider whether a software developer degree is for you, because you are going to take a lot of math courses, some very advanced.

How much math should you know before enrolling in a degree program? Ideally, you will be starting your degree program with calculus. That means you don’t need to know calculus, but instead everything up to it, including Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, and a basic understanding of trigonometry.

Technically, you don’t have to have completed these courses prior to enrolling in a computer science course, as universities do teach them. If you want to make absolutely sure you have the right math background before pursuing your degree, consider signing up for online courses (free or otherwise) that teach algebra, trigonometry, and pre-calculus before you enroll.

Select Your Electives

Once you’re in the program, there will be the base courses that I mentioned earlier; you also get to choose some courses, which are called electives. In software development, you’re not just building software for the sake of building software—you’re building applications that serve a purpose within a particular industry. For example, you might be building medical applications; or software for cars; or software for phone systems. And this is where electives can help.

Consider this scenario: A company that makes medical imaging software is hiring a junior developer position. They might receive over a hundred resumes. How can you stand out? Suppose medical imagery is something you’re interested in. Now imagine that, on your resume, you note that you’ve taken a couple of physiology and biology courses in addition to the requirements for your computer science degree. That alone can push your resume to the top of the stack and land you the coveted interview.

In other words, think about what excites you besides software. Maybe you enjoy fixing cars, and landing a software developer job with an automotive manufacturer is your goal. Then you might take a couple automotive engineering courses, as well. Or maybe you love music and want to help build music software. A couple of music theory courses could go a long way. Think beyond software development!

Understand that once you land your first job building software in a particular industry, it’s very possible you could spend your entire career in that industry. Those electives will help set your course for you.


And that brings us to one industry in particular: gaming.

A large percentage of teenagers who plan to go into software development want to make games. A smaller but still significant number of adults have the same plans.

Game development is a viable career choice… with some caveats. First, there are far more developers applying for positions than there are open positions. The competition is extremely high, making it especially difficult to break in as a junior developer.

The second caveat is that game development requires a high expertise in math. Yes, you will master math in your first two years of the university program, but gaming requires even more math than what you normally take, especially advanced calculus and a type of math called linear algebra, which is required for rendering in three dimensions.

Think carefully before targeting game development. Our advice is to have a backup plan in place. (You can always devote your side projects to building games, and potentially turn that into your full-time gig.)

People Skills

Software developers work on teams. That means you need to be able to get along with people, but it also means having the empathy and connection to see your software through end-users’ eyes.  

Software developers might develop something that seems perfectly simple to the developer. Yet when our users start using the software, they don’t understand it. We think the text we wrote on the screen was perfectly clear and the UI/UX make sense. But during testing, issues arise.

As professional software developers, we need to let go of our egos and recognize that such gripes are valid. While it might be hard to respect the users, the reality is that they’re the ones paying us to build software for them. And if we turn around and fix it so they understand it better, the more they’ll respect us and our software. The key word in this case is that we must build software with high usability.

While not every degree program will touch on “soft skills” and the human element behind software, it’s critical that you keep these things in mind as you build school projects and engage with your fellow students. These skills are ultimately just as vital as your technical ones.


Plan to work hard. A software developer degree requires a lot of work. Many of your evenings and weekends will be spent working on assigned projects while your friends are out having fun. It takes a lot of effort, but it’s worth it in the end.


Related Software Developer Jobs Resources:

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