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I'm in grad school at a university that was one of the first to have a software engineering accredited program. My undergrad is in CS. An employer recently recruited at our university and hired 5 SE majors. None of them were CS. Do employers prefer software engineering majors?

The reason I ask is because I can focus on many different areas during my graduate studies and really want to take the classes that will help me land a great job. Right now I'm either going to use CUDA and parallelize an advanced ray-tracer for a graduate project or do research on non-photo-realistic rendering in augmented reality. Pursuing these would leave very little SE classes in my schedule.

If I went the software engineering route, I would probably either do research into data-oriented programming or software design complexity.

Sometimes I think when I'm 40 and look back will it matter at all? For some reason I'm thinking not.

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Programming work ain't all candy and flowers. If you are only doing master's, I would say: pursue what you like. If you have a particular company / sector in mind, then pick classes carefully. I personally would rather hire someone who failed as an artist than someone who carefully and meticulously took classes which helped to land a career. That is just me, of course, but all hiring is done by subjective humans. If you pursue what you like, it will show. When you are 40 you will have a wife, 2-3 kids, a car and a house - happy & boring. Follow your passion while you can. –  Job Jan 5 '11 at 15:06
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@Job, it's not just you. –  Yar Jan 5 '11 at 18:06

10 Answers 10

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I do a lot of developer interviews for my organization. I care very little about the particular degree a person has or the particular university it is from. The fact that they have a degree means a little bit, but still doesn't tell me much. It only tells me that they are focused enough to work toward a long-term goal.

What really matters to me is the person's technical knowledge, attitude, personality, drive, etc.

So to answer the question directly, I would have no preference either way between CS or SE degrees. And this is for jobs working on standard line-of-business applications.

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+1 For "The fact that they have a degree means [...] they are focused enough to work toward a long-term goal." This is definetely something. –  leonbloy Jan 5 '11 at 16:49

As a personal recommendation, there are several books I really like:

  • cracking the coding interview
  • the algorithm design manual
  • code complete

others will have their favorites;

I think your best bet is to program a lot and do lots of exercises from books like these (except code complete is more of an overview of how you should code and abstract things, rather than specific algorithms).

Since you're obviously capable of great things in software, you should definitely land a great job, but one big thing to keep in mind is that companies that sell software have a particular need for practical ability, which is something you can polish with practice.

Best of luck!

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In my experience, some recruiters do place more emphasis on they type of degree, but what I saw more of for entry level is how that degree is obtained at that school. When I was going to Oregon Tech, I had a chance to talk with a recruiter from Lawrence Livermore Labs, and what I was told was that my BS CE degree was superior to other schools rated above us since my schooling was half lab, half lecture and the "higher" schools were 3/4 lecture or more. This was significant to LL since to them, we already had practical knowledge of how to implement different programming concepts; while the students from the other schools had mostly book learning, with little practical application. The net result of this is LL saw grads from OIT able to pick up and run with new stuff more quickly than some other schools. I'm not saying anyone has bad programs, but some programs do make it easier to get into the field professionally.

Once you get beyond entry level, then the difference between CS and CE is minimal, and you should be able to do the work already.

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CE and SE are two different majors. He was asking about SE. –  Pemdas Jan 5 '11 at 20:13

I interview a lot of people. When I see a CS or SE grad, I always ask "What made you pick [x] over [n]"? Just because it is a great way to get someone comfortable and talking. That's about the only value that I place on either degree.

Neither degree assures me that you are a competent programmer that can fill our immediate need. I assign weight to the following:

  • Post graduate work and published papers
  • Involvement in open projects, where I can look at your commitments and how you interacted with your fellow programmers
  • How well you do on tests and questions that I've spent the better part of five years refining
  • How quickly you relax and think like you would if you were just working on a hobby project

Then, my pet peeves come into play. I can't help them, I'm human. Some of them are:

  • People that wear lots of rings
  • People who wear too much cologne or perfume
  • Those that use "umm" as every third word as they speak
  • I can't stand untied shoe laces. Call it OCD.

My point in listing my peeves is simply to inform you that 1/3 of the decision that an interviewer will make will likely have nothing to do with your technical qualifications.

In short, we'll go over your educational background quickly unless you are working on a thesis. Even then, my next question will be:

And then what did you do?

In fact, we'd reach that question even if you were a high school drop out. You didn't waste your money on your degree, but don't give it artificial value.

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You may have a better chance of getting a job with a software engineering degree.. but in the long term a computer science degree will look better on your resume and will allow you to branch out into other computer related fields besides programming.

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In the long term either degree will mean nothing and experience will mean everything. –  Pemdas Jan 5 '11 at 18:13

To put your question another way, do software engineering courses have more potential than computer science curriculum these days?

Sure, AJAX and XML are cool things to know.

But most software perceived as cool at some level relies on fundamental computer science principles. Google and Facebook are great web companies as of Jan 2011, but they do need tons and tons of graph theory, compilers and advanced algorithms.

Never opt flavor of the season courses.

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If Ajax is a flavor of the season, it sure is a long one. –  Yar Jan 5 '11 at 18:07
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"Sure, AJAX and XML are cool things to know." what does this have to do with software engineering? I have never heard of AJAX or XML being considered course work for a SE curriculum, maybe IT with a web concentration , but not SE. –  Pemdas Jan 5 '11 at 18:14

I recruit and I'm equally happy with either, or indeed pretty much any numerate discipline (my own degree is in Electronic Engineering). I've actually worked with a couple of History graduates who were great programmers so I wouldn't rule anything out.

What I would say I care about is:

1) That you have a decent basic level of knowledge of whatever you've studied. If you're a CS/SE graduate then if I'm recruiting you at graduate level I expect you to know more about IT than a mathematician (because you've spent three years studying it and if you know less than someone who hasn't then there is something wrong with you).

2) I am interested in the grade / classification you got to a certain degree as it shows that you applied yourself (or not).

3) I want to hear you able to speak about elements of your degree with clarity, insight and enthusiasm. I'm less concerned about what those elements are than that you understood them, learned from them and enjoyed doing so.

4) That you did something other than study and drink at university, whatever it is.

5) I do care to some extent where you went to university / college. I don't go through rankings in details but it will stand out if you went to an established university with a good reputation.

The specific degree is, to me, far less important than those things.

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For software engineering positions the answer is probably yes in most cases. This is assuming they actually know the difference. CS programs typical lack any sort of coverage related to designing complex software solutions. It's almost like asking if an employers would rather higher a physics major or a mechanical engineer.

Edit: I really think people need to reevaluate what you think is a good answer to this question. I think some of them are corner cases and/or not practical.

"Employers prefer individuals who they feel can get the job done to a high standard in a fast paced environment"

This statement is true, but you need to get your foot in the door first before you can be evaluated. Based solely on what degree you earned and baring any experience from internships and what not. I firmly believe that employers are going to look at SE first in most cases.

"So to answer the question directly, I would have no preference either way between CS or SE degrees."

Suppose you have 100 applicants, How would you filter them down to say 20? " technical knowledge, attitude, personality, drive, etc" are nice qualities, but you are not going to determine those from a resume. The type of degree you have is definitely used as filter, especially if you have to submit a resume electronically as part of the application process. It is easy and fast. It's exactly the same thing as using GPA as filter. Yeah you might say it doesn't matter, but I can guarantee that the 3.5s are getting looked at more than the 3.0s

Someone noted that most people don't know the difference between the two. That is probably true, but many do and if you have a SE degree it broadens your exposer to those that don't know and to those that do.

Ultimately, if you want to be a developer a SE degree will open more doors for you. I am not saying that CS is restrictive in any way or that one is better than the other. What I am saying is that a SE degree will be more marketable in general in terms of finding a software engineer position. There are always exceptions.

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Not Necessarily

I have a BS in Computer Science and an MS in Software Engineering. CS is more technical. SE is technical, but also integrates with business, so you get instruction on timelines, proposals, cost estimation, stakeholder interaction, etc. It's really up to person or company hiring you what they need more of, but both are similar enough that you won't need a whole lot of learning to get a hard knocks double major.

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It depends. My CS degree requirements were VERY business/management heavy. –  Brian Knoblauch Jan 5 '11 at 18:46

Employers prefer individuals who they feel can get the job done to a high standard in a fast paced environment.

What lands a job and what makes you exceptional at a job vary greatly. Keep in mind landing a job does not in any way guarantee success.

Pick what interests you as passion for a particular subject never goes out of style and will always show favorably in an interview and later on in life.

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That is true, but they also don't want to hunt for a needle in a hay stack. You can guarantee an SE major has exposer to design while you can not for CS majors –  Pemdas Jan 5 '11 at 15:01
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@Pemdas Understood, but if you ask 10 people within I.T. today how an SE differs from a CS both scholastically and by title you will get 10 different answers. The line of work is at such an early stage. In addition any CS major not exposed to design to some degree should demand a refund from their school. –  Aaron McIver Jan 5 '11 at 15:08
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I would hope the persons doing the hiring would know the difference. –  Pemdas Jan 5 '11 at 15:11

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