North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

Understanding the foundations – and the future – of software engineering

Posted on: March 19, 2024
Programming code abstract screen of software developer. Computer script

Software engineering is the term used for the broad array of activities connected to the development, maintenance, and optimisation of software systems and applications. It’s a dynamic – and indispensable – field in computer science and technology, one that’s guided by fundamental principles and tasked with creating high-quality, reusable, and efficient software programmes.

To better understand software engineering, though, as well as the direction it’s headed, it helps to first look at the history of the field and the design principles that guide it.

The history of software engineering

The concept of software engineering emerged in the 1960s, and the term was popularised by the NATO Software Engineering Conferences held in 1968 and 1969. 

In the early days of computing, programmers were often tasked with creating software without established methodologies or standardised practices, but the emergence of software engineering helped to recognise the discipline’s distinct challenges and requirements. 

As technology more broadly has evolved, so too has software engineering. For example, methodologies around software engineering have evolved from the linear Waterfall model of the 1970s through to the iterative Agile model commonly used today. And the principles around good software engineering – such as modularity and encapsulation – have created a community of software engineers who create reusable and maintainable code that’s easier to debug and test before validation.

Typical responsibilities for software engineers

Responsible for crafting the data structures of quality software systems, software engineers are effectively the architects of the digital world.

Their role has a diverse range of responsibilities within the software development lifecycle, including:

  • conceptualisation
  • creation
  • implementation 
  • maintenance
  • auditing and evaluation.

Programmers within the software engineering discipline also write code, develop algorithms, and design modules for software programmes, systems, and apps.

The principles of software engineering

The software engineering process is typically guided by established principles. The five most common are known by the SOLID acronym:

  • Single Responsibility Principle (SRP) – emphasises the importance of keeping each module focused on a single task. By doing so, the codebase becomes more modular and easier to comprehend, leading to greater maintainability and scalability. The idea of modularity – and the Separation of Concerns (SoC) principle – is widespread in software engineering; these ideas push software engineers to divide or segment their designs into smaller, more modular components that can interact with one another to create more complex software systems.
  • Open/Closed Principle (OCP) – encourages the development of software systems that are open for extension but closed for modification. This principle supports the idea of adding new functionalities without altering any existing piece of code, promoting the modular and scalable architecture desired within the field.
  • Interface Segregation Principle (ISP) – underscores the importance of clean interfaces in software design, and suggests that clients should not be forced to depend on interfaces they do not use.
  • Liskov Substitution Principle (LSP) – emphasises that objects of a superclass, the root class, should be replaceable with objects of a subclass without affecting, or breaking, the programme. 
  • Dependency Inversion Principle (DIP) – requires high-level modules not depend on low-level modules. This approach fosters a more flexible and reusable codebase by ensuring that high-level modules are not tightly coupled to specific low-level implementations. 

Other basic principles in software engineering include:

  • Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) principle – emphasises the importance of simplicity in design and implementation. This philosophy argues that complex solutions often lead to more problems.
  • Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) principle – advocates for the elimination of redundancy in code. Instead, the DRY principle places greater emphasis on code reuse and maintaining a single source of truth, which in turn contributes to the overall maintainability and efficiency of a codebase.
  • You Aren’t Gonna Need It (YAGNI) principle – underscores the importance of avoiding unnecessary features during the software development process. Instead, this principle encourages software engineers to focus on required features, avoiding the addition of functionalities that aren’t essential.

Understanding the importance of software engineering

Software engineering is what makes the majority of modern technology possible. It’s the mechanism that transforms user requirements into functional and efficient software applications that meet user expectations, solve problems, and evolve – or innovative – over time.

As pointed out by Forbes, our world would be markedly different without software engineering:

“Software engineering helps us communicate, be more productive, learn new things, pay our bills, purchase products and attend to our medical needs, among many other tasks each day. Software engineering professionals create and maintain the technologies that make our everyday lives simpler.”

Challenges in software engineering

Complex requirements

While the basic principles of software engineering push for simplicity and modularity in system design, the fact remains that software systems are often complicated by nature, and the complexity of real-world problems often leads to intricate software solutions. This requires careful consideration and strategic planning from software engineers – and managing the balance between flexibility and stability, especially in large-scale projects, can be a daunting task.

Ongoing change

The constant evolution of programming languages, frameworks, and tools poses a challenge for software engineers because they’re required to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and metrics in technology – and these change rapidly – so it’s essential software engineers possess a willingness to adapt to new technologies while maintaining existing code.

The future of software engineering

Software engineering is evolving and advancing alongside significant or emerging technological areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain. In fact, it’s fair to say that these areas are disruptors that are reshaping the landscape of software development.

And within this emerging environment, software engineers are increasingly working in interdisciplinary teams. This cohesion means they can call on and collaborate with experts from various areas in order to develop cutting-edge solutions within the field’s new landscape.

Build your career in software engineering

Develop the knowledge and skills for a career in the high-demand, well-paid software engineering field with the 100% online MSc Computer Science with Software Engineering at North Wales Management School, part of Wrexham University. This flexible master’s degree has been designed for online learners from a range of backgrounds who want to launch or advance their career in software engineering.

You will explore the practical science of computer programming and software systems – with a commercial focus – alongside fundamental elements of software engineering and computer science. Core modules cover areas such as systems engineering, virtual and cloud computing, and mobile application development, and you’ll learn modern languages and platforms, including HTML5, Java, PHP and MySQL.