The primary difference between web developers vs. software developers has to do with the programs they work with and what they’re trying to create. Web developers are mainly concerned with websites and web applications that run on internet browsers, while software developers are more focused on computer programs for desktop and mobile devices.

Both career fields require extensive programming experience, a strong attention to detail, and a knack for problem solving, but they have different workflows, maintenance requirements, and levels of complexity. For example, web developers often work in close collaboration with business and marketing experts to ensure their company’s website is efficient, user friendly, and aesthetically pleasing. Software developers, on the other hand, tend to work with other tech-oriented co-workers on large-scale software, operating system, and mobile application projects that might not require input from other business units. Ultimately, the career path students choose should align with their professional goals and personal interests, which is why it’s crucial to explore each role in detail before committing the time and resources.

Becoming a Web Developer

Web developers are responsible for how a website or web application looks and functions, from its user interface and page layout to back-end systems for gathering data. They work with organization leaders to design unique and engaging websites for businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and anyone else looking to communicate more effectively online. Web developers are also in charge of maintaining the performance of the websites and applications they create, ensuring users have a consistent and positive browsing experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, common web developer job responsibilities include:

  • Coordinating with clients/business leaders to outline new web design projects
  • Creating and testing web applications and website features
  • Writing code in various programming languages, including HTML/CSS, XML, and JavaScript
  • Integrating content into websites, such as graphics, written copy, videos, and audio
  • Establishing technical requirements to support websites’ long-term functionality
  • Developing security elements to protect user data and business assets
  • Monitoring website traffic and performance

Diving a bit deeper, the web development field can be broken down into three specialized areas based on a candidate’s particular skill sets and professional interests: back-end developers, front-end developers, and full-stack developers. Each of these web design roles comes with different expectations and responsibilities:

Back-end web developers: These professionals focus on the technical aspects of websites and web applications that support both basic and advanced functionality. They largely work on administrative components including databases, website architecture, and application logic, creating new APIs and user interfaces based on predefined specifications. Generally speaking, this type of developer is concerned with how websites and web-based applications work on a fundamental level.

Front-end web developers: Sometimes called client-side developers, these design experts are in charge of how websites and applications look and function from the users’ perspective. They are responsible for making all online content easy to access, browse, and interact with, especially for users who may have limited computer skills. Front-end web developers must also ensure their websites are compatible with a wide range of operating systems, browsers, and devices to prevent display and functionality errors.

Full-stack web developers: As the job title suggests, these web design professionals are proficient in both front- and back-end development tasks. Most full-stack web developers have extensive experience in application design, user experience, and programming languages like HTML, XML, JavaScript, MySQL, and others. As such, they are able to fill advisory roles and technical positions that require both computer science and business savvy.

Becoming a Software Developer

Software developers invent, manage, and optimize computer programs that run on desktops, laptops, smartphones, and other mobile devices. Using different programming languages ― such as Java, Python, C#, and SQL ― these computer science professionals write complex code that governs how desktop applications function. Many software developers work for large technology companies, like Microsoft and Oracle, designing new products or fine-tuning existing applications. This includes troubleshooting code bugs, updating user interfaces, creating new in-app tools, and much more. According to the BLS, software developers have some combination of the following responsibilities:

  • Analyzing users’ needs and designing software-based solutions
  • Recommending software upgrades to existing computer programs and systems
  • Designing new applications for specific audiences (consumers, enterprises, etc.)
  • Creating detailed models and diagrams that outline which software code is needed
  • Documenting all aspects of application and system design for future reference
  • Testing code for new applications to ensure consistency and efficiency
  • Ensuring software is compatible with present data management systems

Software developers are heavily involved in every stage of the application design process, from the initial planning to the final rollout of new computer programs. However, just like web developers, professionals in this field are often categorized into specific roles based on their specializations: software applications developers and software systems developers.

Software applications developers: These professionals tend to focus on designing specific desktop and mobile applications, tools, and games for consumer audiences, according to the National Center for O*NET Development (NCOD). They often work on the same project for many years and are responsible for ensuring their software is functional, engaging, and efficient.

Software systems developers: Developers in this role are largely concerned with designing systems-level software for enterprise customers, rather than the public, according to the NCOD. They use their extensive programming knowledge to create computing applications for a range of industries, from manufacturing to aerospace and beyond. The software they develop is used to manage corporate networking apps, database management systems, and other critical infrastructure.

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