Strong opinions, weakly held

Software engineers and computer programmers

Here’s how the Boston Globe describes the difference between a software engineer and a computer programmer:

While software engineers develop the software, computer programmers convert the design into code that the computer can follow.

That is, I believe, the definition of a distinction without a difference. The good news is that both jobs are on the paper’s list of ten least stressful careers.


  1. I believe that is the definition of software engineer vs programmer per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the Department of Labor. See this page: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos303.htm

    Often the BLS definitions of professions can be decades out of date, or kind of bizarre in general. It can take a professional organization a lot of lobbying to get the definition of a profession changed. The STC, the professional organization of technical writers, recently went through this process to include the fact that tech writers these days sometimes work on the Internet. 😐

  2. The difference (according to the Boston Globe) is that apparently “software engineers” make ~$16k/year more. 🙂

  3. I can see a difference between “architect” and “programmer”. The size of the jobs I work on tend to require people to think about the structure of the project at a high level, and then hand off coding tasks to several people “under” them. The architects rarely code, instead spending time writing specifications, testing performance assumptions, and chopping the big parts into smaller parts.

    But I’ll also say that I do hardware design, where the fundamental structure of gates on silicon hasn’t changed much in decades (moore’s law aside), and the speed/complexity tradeoffs are pretty well understood.

    I don’t know that the same could be said of software, at least in the same way.

  4. In jobs I’ve held the distinction was always between “analysts” who would design/architect the software, and “programmers” who would implement those designs. I think newer (by which I mean the past 20 years or so) approaches to software development make those categories less useful, not to mention the growing impact of system and network architecture on the design of software.

    That said, does the Boston Globe article or the careercast.com article it links to ever explain their methodology? Unless there was some actual worker survey involved that wasn’t mentioned, it sounds like some people just randomly picked a few careers they thought sounded difficult or cushy. I have a hard time understanding the health professions on the “least stressful” list. Is being a dental hygienist or chiropractor, doing moderate physical work all day, really less stressful than being an optician? Why is “philosopher” on the list versus just “university professor”?

  5. My experience has been that software engineers spend their time making up methodologies in an attempt to explain why the software never got delivered, and programmers ship.

  6. The terms are interchangeable. I say “programmer” most of the time, because A) I’m British, B) I’m old skool (AKA “old”), and C) it annoys people.

    I think the title “Architect” is ridiculous. In other news, my current job title is “Front-End Architect”, because that’s how title progression goes in most software engineering organizations. I generally describe myself as “anti-architecture” in the sense that architecture is not particularly distinct from the other processes of programming and treating it as such is likely to lead to a lot of wasted time.

    Write the code to do the thing. If it turns out that some part of that code is “architectural” and might be usefully re-used, that’s great, but it’s not required or universal.

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