Data Science vs. Software Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Data Science vs. Software Engineering: What’s the Difference? was originally published on Forage.

If you have a passion for coding and technology, a software engineering or data science career could be right for you. But what’s actually the difference between data science vs. software engineering? One key difference is that while data science centers on manipulating and analyzing vast amounts of data to glean valuable insights, software engineering is focused on building and maintaining highly complex computer programs and systems.

Data Science Definition

Data science involves analyzing data to find meaningful insights.

It’s an interdisciplinary field focused on “solving complex business problems through data analysis and statistical techniques (such as machine learning, deep learning, and reinforcement learning, among others),” says Shashank Agarwal, senior decision scientist at CVS.

The field of data science evolves around a data lifecycle — at each stage, specialized professionals manipulate data to capture, maintain, process, and analyze the information, and then communicate findings to key stakeholders.

Data scientists, analysts, and engineers play essential roles in helping businesses optimize processes, innovate products and experiences, make ground-breaking discoveries, and prevent mistakes or risks.

Data Scientist Responsibilities

A data scientist, the primary job title within data science, is an analytics specialist skilled in problem-solving and tackling complex business questions using methodical processes.

“They often work independently or in small teams to find strategic solutions for businesses, designing metrics and ensuring data accuracy,” says Agarwal.

Some common tasks a data scientist may handle in their day-to-day job include:

  • Creating statistical models
  • Automating tasks or processes using software engineering
  • Coding in SQL
  • Aligning the possibilities of data analysis with company goals
  • Manipulating data in programs like Sigma or Excel

“A significant part of my job revolves around extracting strategic business intelligence from health care data and providing actionable insights,” adds Agarwal.

Software Engineering Definition

Software engineering focuses on creating and maintaining software or computer programs. Almost every person and industry relies on software. For instance, the operating system for your phone or laptop is a type of software. Applications, internet browsers, Microsoft Word, and Gmail are also types of software developed and maintained by software engineers.

Careers within software engineering typically break down into specializations, like handling the parts of software that users see and interact with or crafting cybersecurity solutions to keep users safe from malware.

Software Engineer Responsibilities

A software engineer spends most of their day coding.

However, engineers “also have to work out what code to write,” says Lachlan Hardy, consultant at Blackmill Consulting and former VP of engineering at Forage. “That can involve talking to customers, planning, research, and having lots of conversations about architecture, best practices, and the right approach in a given context.”

Often called software developers, software engineers often need to handle other tasks outside of coding, like:

  • Designing different aspects of software, like user interfaces
  • Reviewing current software and making recommendations for changes or upgrades
  • Documenting processes
  • Keeping up to date with advancements in relevant technologies and tools

“There’s also testing code, whether by writing automated tests (in code), or checking a staging environment, or both,” says Hardy.

Although many parts of a software engineer’s role involve working with others, most of the time is spent alone with a computer. Technology changes constantly, and it can be easy to get lost in the work.

“As an industry, we have a tendency to overwork and burnout, so setting boundaries for yourself is very important,” advises Hardy

Data Science vs. Software Engineering Salaries

Data scientists make an average annual salary of $115,240, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those working in monetary authorities, computing infrastructure, and software publishing often receive higher salaries.

However, across the board, “data scientists typically enjoy competitive salaries, often surpassing six figures, making it a financially rewarding field,” says Agarwal.

On the other hand, software developers make an average of $132,930 per year based on BLS data. Like data scientists, software publishing and computing infrastructure engineers often have higher-than-average salaries.

>>MORE: Learn more about the highest-paying software engineering jobs.

How to Get Into Software Engineering vs. Data Science

Software Engineering Education

Most software engineers pursue at least a bachelor’s degree in areas like computer science, information technology, mathematics, or a related technical field.

Although “a computer science or software engineering degree is the traditional path, lots of people enter the industry without a relevant degree through developer bootcamps,” says Hardy.

Ultimately, you need to have the right skills regardless of your degree. You especially need to know how to code. You can typically gain mastery over a programming language, such as JavaScript, HTML, Python, or SQL, through other paths beyond college. Internships, job simulations, and coding bootcamps are all great ways to build the skills employers are looking for.

Data Scientist Education

Data scientists often need a bachelor’s degree. While many choose to study statistics, mathematics, computer science, or other technical fields, your degree isn’t as important as your applied skills in data science.

“A strong foundation in subjects like statistics, mathematics, and programming is crucial,” says Agarwal.

However, like with software engineering, you can gain a foundation in programming, math, and statistics through online courses, data science and SQL bootcamps, internships, and independent study.

Whichever path you choose, remember to keep track of your projects and seek out exciting or challenging projects to expand your knowledge.

Expert words of advice

“Building an online portfolio that showcases a wide variety of projects, including machine learning, natural language processing, deep learning, and more, can capture the interest of potential employers. Unique and intriguing projects have the potential to stand out and make a strong impression.”
— Shashank Agarwal, senior decision scientist at CVS


Both data scientists and software engineers need core skills like:

However, data scientists need a broader familiarity with the data science lifecycle and fundamental knowledge of how data is collected, stored, and analyzed.

“Problem-solving, strong communication, and business acumen are crucial for addressing real-world challenges and aligning data science with organizational objectives,” adds Agarwal.

On the other hand, software engineers must have more in-depth or specialized coding skills to build and maintain massive programs. Cloud computing and object-oriented programming are also vital in software engineering.

Hardy suggests that software engineers must stay curious: “There is so much to learn, and it never ends. You can work as a software engineer for 20 years and still have more technologies, design patterns, or specializations to dive into.”

Bottom Line: What’s the Difference?

Although coding is required in both data science and software engineering, the scope of these industries is quite different. While data science involves analyzing data to solve business problems, software engineering focuses on creating computer programs, many of which also address complex business problems.

Professionals in data science use coding to make data analysis faster and more accurate. At the same time, software engineers write programs to build the back- and front-ends of software, ranging from operating systems to mobile applications to websites.

“Both fields require meticulous attention to detail,” adds Agarwal. “Data scientists ensure data integrity and validity for meaningful insights, while software engineers focus on the smooth operation of software systems.”

Think a career in technology might be right for you? Start learning the skills employers look for with Forage’s Software Engineering Career Path.

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