Web developer vs. software developer: What’s the difference?

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As technology continues to transform businesses, governments, and the lives of citizens, aspiring students are increasingly gravitating toward careers that involve computer science, programming, and application development. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of conferred computer and information sciences degrees grew by 50.7% between 2012 and 2017. However, the wide variety of career paths available in the tech field can make it difficult to narrow down employment options post-graduation. Considering most computer programming roles have at least some overlap, it’s important to understand the similarities and differences between tech occupations to make an informed decision about your future.

For many students, the web developer vs. software developer comparison is particularly challenging to sort out. While those interested in these career fields often pursue similar degrees, such as a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems, the knowledge and expertise they cultivate during their studies tend to vary. Both roles involve writing code, designing client-side applications, and using different programming languages, but the projects they work on are usually quite different. To help you understand the nuances of web development vs. software development, let’s take a closer look at the responsibilities, job outlook, and core skills needed in each of these popular tech occupations.

BSIS students learn about web developers vs. software developers

Web Developers vs. Software Developers

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Regardless of which web design positions you’re interested in, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information systems or computer science can help you assemble the knowledge, skills, and experience you need to launch your career. However, it’s also important to understand which specific skill sets are in high demand, as this will inform your graduate studies and make you more competitive once you join the labor market.

Key Web Developer Skills

The core qualifications for most web developer jobs are a strong command of HTML/CSS coding, experience with programming languages like Javascript and PHP, and an understanding of web application workflows, according to the BLS. Depending on the specific role you’re pursuing, you may also need graphic design experience (front-end development) or database management expertise (back-end development). Since web developers handle everything from creating wireframe mockups for new web apps to managing existing websites, it’s important to understand how online platforms are hosted, how users interact with different navigation frameworks, and how engaging content can improve users’ overall experience. Other key skills and traits for web developers include:

  • Attention to detail: Every new feature on a website or web application goes through several rounds of testing to help eliminate errors and streamline the user experience. As such, web developers must be able to identify and resolve problems related to the code, layout, functionality, and overall design of online resources.
  • Creativity: Web developers strive to find creative solutions to specific design challenges. To meet their clients’ expectations, professionals in this field must balance functionality and aesthetics while remaining true to a company’s core brand identity. This includes choosing colors, fonts, and graphics that align with corporate guidelines and existing marketing collateral.
  • Content management: Websites and web-based applications are only as useful as the content users actively engage with. Publishing blog posts, videos, and other online materials is also essential for ranking competitively in search engines, which is why web developers should have at least some experience with content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, and HubSpot.

Job Outlook and Compensation

Demand for talented web developers continues to expand as more companies look to build in-house IT teams that can manage website operations from end to end. According to the BLS, employment of web developers is projected to grow by 13% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. One reason for this employment surge is that e-commerce is becoming more mainstream, opening up new opportunities for businesses to turn a profit. Research from Shopify, a Canada-based e-commerce platform, estimated that online transactions generated around $3.5 trillion in sales in 2019, a figure that is expected to reach $4.9 trillion by 2021. Even companies that do not directly sell goods or services through online channels are looking to optimize their online presence, as a functional website can help drive new sales leads, foster brand loyalty, and attract an international audience.

In terms of salary, web developers are generally compensated in relation to their level of education, technical skills, and work experience. The median annual wage for web developers was $69,430 as of May 2018, according to the BLS, with the highest 10% earning more than $124,480. Entry-level positions tend to offer starting salaries of around $37,930, though some companies offer more competitive rates than others.

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.

Every software development position has its own unique responsibilities ― some companies rely on developers to actually write code, while others assign this routine work to dedicated programmers. Ultimately, the job openings students apply for should mirror their personal interests and the hard skills they’ve developed during their undergraduate studies. If you’re looking for a more hands-on role, try to prioritize openings that list coding as a core requirement.

Key Software Developer Skills

Many of the skills and traits essential to web developers are equally important for software developers, especially those related to coding, programming languages, and user interface design. This is because professionals in this field must be able to create software solutions that solve very specific problems. For example, if a company was having difficulty managing and organizing its data, a software developer could create an application that collates large data sets in real time. The projects developers would be involved with largely depend on the company they work for, the clients they’re assigned to, and the business challenges they’re trying to overcome. That said, software developers often have particular characteristics that make them well-suited to the demands of their job, such as:

  • Analytical skills: User behaviors and preferences are constantly changing, which can make it difficult to create desktop and mobile applications that will hold up over time. Software developers must be able to analyze user trends and make recommendations that will support the shifting design, content, and management needs of their users.
  • Critical thinking: Every piece of software should solve a particular problem or need, which forces developers to think through the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions. Finding the best approach to a given problem is at the core of the software development profession, requiring a strong attention to detail and willingness to offer creative recommendations.
  • Interpersonal competencies: While software developers don’t collaborate with as many stakeholders as web developers, they still rely on their communication and interpersonal skills when engaged on large projects. Pursuing this career will require you to work closely with other software developers, computer science experts, and IT professionals who may have very different ideas about the applications you’re creating.

Job Outlook and Compensation

Job growth projections for software developers are even more optimistic than those for web development roles. According to the BLS, employment of general software developers is expected to expand by 21% between 2018 and 2028. This occupational growth, however, is largely being driven by the high demand for software application developers ― the BLS anticipates employment for this specialized profession will grow by 26%, compared to just 10% growth for systems developers. As such, it’s important to consider your post-graduation career path carefully and take courses that will support your long-term goals. Education is extremely important in the software development world, and most employers will be on the lookout for candidates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in information technology, computer science, or software engineering.

Alongside promising job growth, software developers also have higher salaries (on average) than professionals in other IT-related fields. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for general software developers was $103,620 in May 2018. The lowest 10% earned less than $61,660, while the highest 10% took home more than $161,290 per year. The industries with the median highest compensation are software publishers, manufacturing firms, and financial institutions.

Launch Your IT Career with an Online BSIS from the University of Alabama at Birmingham

Are you interested in pursuing a job in software or web development? The online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems from the University of Alabama at Birmingham is designed to turn your passion for technology into a full-time career. With courses in business programming, systems analysis, database management, and more, you can assemble the knowledge, skills, and experience you need to excel in the IT industry. Students benefit from a hands-on curriculum that emphasizes real-world programming skills and business savvy, allowing you to explore different career fields and expand your employment opportunities.

To learn more, browse through the BSIS degree page or contact an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Readings:

4 Reasons to Get a Degree in Management Information Systems Instead of Computer Science

Information Systems vs. Information Technology: Which Degree Is the Right Path for Me?

Computer Information Systems vs. Management Information Systems


UAB Online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems

Degrees in Computer and Information Sciences by the National Center for Education Statistics

What Web Developers Do by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Global Ecommerce Statistics and Trends by Shopify

Software Developers, Applications by the National Center for O*NET Development

Software Developers, Systems Software by the National Center for O*NET Development

Software Developers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics