Web Development · Software Engineering Leadership

Which do you prefer to be called: software engineer vs. web developer?

Lucas Jaz

May 21st, 2015

The titles  ‘web developer’ and ‘software engineer’ are often used interchangeably even though there is technically a difference in definition. Interested to hear from engineers if they have a preference or care at all about what they are called?

Jake Carlson Software Development Manager at Oracle

May 21st, 2015

I'm sorry but anyone that is making a distinction in skill level or seniority between these titles is wrong. Perhaps this is a cultural bias on their part, but IMO it's important to take words at face value. 'Web Development' is a subset of 'Software Development,' just as 'Mobile App Development' or 'Embedded Software Development' are subsets of it as well. A software's platform should not be the sole determiner of how complex or difficult the problems being solved on it are. If it were, though, the web is one of the more complex and difficult mediums to develop for as the developer has far less control over the device and manner of consumption than other environments.

Software development for web-based applications is absolutely not somehow lesser than non-web-based software. Other (but not all) subsets of software require user interfaces just as web-based applications require HTML & CSS. Yes, HTML is of course not very difficult to master. I would not necessarily rank CSS as easy to master, and to claim client-side Javascript is easy to master is sheer ignorance. And that's just frontend. 

Now bring PHP, Ruby, Python, Java, etc into the mix. PHP gets picked on because it has a very low barrier to entry / learning curve, but that doesn't mean there aren't world-class frameworks and whole armies of *very* experienced and skillful senior software engineers that use it. PHP was made for the web and so may be more associated with 'web development,' but the others are also used in that context. And when they are used in that context, they are not automatically simpler or more fit for more junior developers. That's just nonsense.

Now I know that there are some programming language snobs that think 'Software Engineers' use "real" programming languages, whereas 'Web Developers' use inferior languages, but frankly those are the kind of people you don't want to work with or listen to. Javascript proficiency, for example, is one of the most sought after skillset in programming right now. It was created for the web and has been so successful that it has been retooled for other purposes altogether.

I introduce myself as a 'Web Developer.' I love the web and it accurately describes my focus under the umbrella of software development, My experience runs the gamut between frontend development to backend API development to web application devops. Over the course of my career I've had titles all over the map: UI Developer, Frontend Developer, Web Developer, Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineer, and even just Lead Developer, etc. The title is meaningless; what matters is what you do. 

Some people get caught up in thinking that 'Software Engineer' sounds more legit than other titles for some reason. I get that the word 'engineer' sounds impressive, but it's all smoke and mirrors and should be seen as such. The truth is that title is extremely broad and encompasses a plethora of specializations. It's like being more impressed with someone being called an 'Attorney' than being specifically called a 'Divorce Lawyer'. Both are lawyers; the former may sound more formal and encompasses many specialties, but a 'Divorce Lawyer' is no less a lawyer than any other attorney.

So to answer your question: I prefer whichever title suits me for a given purpose. If someone asked all software engineers to raise their hand, I would undoubtedly raise my hand. But since everyone is familiar with the web, I find it easy to describe the work I do as web development to people I meet because it conveys my specialty within the realm of software development; I'm the guy that makes the websites you use work.

David Schwartz Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev

May 21st, 2015

It sounds like you believe that the entire universe of software development involves web-related technologies. Not too helpful for people who do embedded real-time process-control stuff, like aircraft systems, eh?

Software engineering (aka computer science) is a discipline. Software development is a practice. Web development is a specialty. There are dozens of specialties in the software development world.

I dare say that even the term "coder" represents a specialty -- someone who takes a design and writes code to implement it. Unfortunately, I see it used synonomously with "Software developer" these days, as if there's not much to the field of software engineering other than taking some chicken scratch from a napkin and reducing it to lines of code in python or ruby.

If it was that simple, they wouldn't have 4-year college degrees, Masters Degrees, and PhDs in the field.

Joanan Hernandez CEO & Founder at Mollejuo

May 22nd, 2015


To some extent they're irrelevant :-)


Karl Schulmeisters CTO ClearRoadmap

May 22nd, 2015

What is the issue here?

  • are you trying to hire folks?
  • are you trying to create a corporate promotion hierarchy?

from the name of your company - and its infringement on a copyrighted name (go look up what happened to the original D&D developers for using the term "hobbit"), I get the feeling that you are putting the cart before the startup horse.   In a startup the only reason for this question is if you are looking to hire a developer. 

And in a startup - titles only matter roughly.

Folks who care about what title they have, really don't belong in a startup environment in my experience.  A startup environment is very much about

"ok who thinks they can do this?  no one?  ok lets describe who we need to find to get this done"
"ok well who thinks they can learn this the fastest"?

shilpi gupta

May 21st, 2015

I would prefer being called as software engineer or software developer. Web developer narrows the scope and i believe if your basics are solid, you can work at different layers of the tech stack - ui/backend application layer/system layer. 

I personally don't care, specially if the person using the term does not understand the difference. They could call me "the computer guy" and I'd be happy with that too.

To me, if you want to get specific about what a computer professional can and cannot do, then you need to go beyond the title and see exactly what they are versed in. Titles are very often out of sync with what the professional actually does anyway. Woe be to him or her who comes to any sort of conclusion about someone based on a job title, specially in a field as varied as tech.

Tim Cullen Principal Software Engineer

May 21st, 2015

To my way of thinking there is quiet a difference in the terms. A Software Engineer is someone who is capable of performing a wide range of software development tasks. Be they embedded development, OS level work, networking protocol development, etc. A web developer is someone who works with web based technologies. The former is considerably more varied and versatile than the latter.

Brendan Gowing CTO at CENTURY Tech

May 25th, 2015

While acknowledging that this is a very subjective question which obviously leads to very subjective responses, for me, when I hear someone preferably describing themselves as a "web developer", I get a little nervous.

In my experience, those whose careers have been primarily focused on web development can have a somewhat myopic outlook on how to develop applications. Everything becomes a web app of some sort. More disastrously, they typically struggle to handle state as common web backends are not good at state (HTTP being a stateless protocol). There is a tendency to fall back on operationally more challenging solutions (e.g., dropping in Redis on a whim because it is "fast" despite that added operational overhead).

While I further acknowledge that even further refined categorisations like "front-end web developer" or "back-end web developer" can be useful, when I come to hiring developers, I look for those with experience in full-stack web development and who have also worked on non-web technologies if I can. A broad understanding of technology is important.

The web is the best thing that has ever happened. Beats the wheel, IMHO. As technologists, we should always strive to better ourselves in order to build the best, most appropriate technologies and not limit ourselves to the simplest, but not necessarily most correct, solutions. However, as mentioned, this is all just my opinion.

Ming Tsui

May 21st, 2015

good way is by saying software engineer is mostly one earned a 4 year degree in CS

where web developer could be anyone who have learned to code web page presentations

and also scripting language for communicating with the internet. The web developer also

could have earned a 4 year CS degree also but maybe not. I think the software engineer

title to more to the person with a college degree and a web developer could be anyone

on the street who is determine to learn the trade of web development. This is why you could

see many con artists trying to make money helping people develop web sites.

David Schwartz Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev

May 21st, 2015

I agree with Amir ... knowing a markup language like HTML and CSS does not make you a "programmer" or even a "developer". Especially since the vast majority of "web developers" use Adobe Creative Suite to do their stuff. The term "designer" seems to have been hijacked to describe this kind of work these days. Not sure what they're calling "software design" now because "designers" ain't doing that kind of stuff.

There's no logic involved in web pages, unless you're talking about a back-end programming platform like php, ASP, python or ruby. If that's the case, then things get a bit murkier.