Monday, February 8, 2016

Difference between a programmer, developer, and engineer

Coder, programmer, developer, software engineer and others were among the many different titles I had in my career while writing code. Some were sought after and some were not depending on where I was at in my maturity writing code.

When I first started out I wanted to be called a coder. I worked in IT divisions of small companies where some people in the group were in charge of configuring and maintaining the servers and some were in charge of writing the software that ran on the servers. In those early days  I wanted to distinguish myself from the former group and I put a heavy emphasis on distinguishing my self as a coder or programmer (usually the later). I wanted people to know that I was responsible for the logic of the programs that were running on the system, not responsible for using those programs to manipulate the system.

As I grew in maturity as a programmer I learned that good programming involved refinement and iteration. I started to learn that good programs, ones that were run for years on machines weren't simply written, they developed over time. Developing a system over time required recognizing tried and true patterns and best practices. It required abstractions in order to iterate over the system. Programs weren't simply the logic used to solve a problem. Programs were a set of requirements that grew and changed as the program became more complete.

As I started to master my trade I learned that the best developers were really engineers. People responsible for the design, implementation, and deployment of software. In my mind I started to realize that a great developer was really an engineer. Someone that was able to look at the requirements and design a system that met the need but was also resilient to change. I learned that the one constant in software development was change. Being adaptive to change required a solution to be engineered. You start with an idea, built a system around that idea, and put that system into practice.

As I honed my craft, I started to recognize the different between software programmers, software developers, and software engineers. Some key differences are:


  • Programmers think in terms of languages, SDKs, and APIs. They build systems based on the tools they know and are comfortable with. Programmers value creativity and cleverness.
  • Developers think in terms of requirements, components, and interactions. They design systems using patterns and best practices that meet the requirements. They're able to evaluate, investigate, and determine if particular platforms, languages, and/or frameworks meet the need of the requirements.  Developers value completeness.
  • Engineers are problem solvers. They solve problems regardless of platform, language, or tool. They think about architecture. That is dependencies, single points of failure, scalability, and resiliency change. Engineers value simplicity, flexibility, and adaptability. They recognize that a system is never fully complete.
  • Programmers value the most creative or clever code.
  • Developers value the most abstract, generalized, and re-usable code.
  • Engineers value the simplest code that can be maintained and changed.
  • Programmers don't typically think about deployment. They throw their code over the fence to operations folks who own and maintain the production systems for them.
  • Developers think in terms standardized tools and processes. Developers value the ability to rollback.
  • Engineers think in terms of automation, repeatability, and reliability. They think about the surface area of the change, and how to measure success.


  1. Thanks for outlining some of the differences in thinking and approach to software from your experience.

  2. Engineer is an Operator, in DevOps?