Software Engineering – Student Guide

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is the study of engineering in the software design, development and applications.

What courses are in software engineering?

1 Mathematics
2 Systems
3 Programming
4 Networks
5 Data
6 Applications
7 Artificial intelligence

You may just decide to major in computer science or software engineering in college, or you want to go to coding bootcamps or simply learn to code on your own. Here is an illustrated guide what is software engineering about. It explains basic concepts, and helps you to decide what courses to take, and which areas you would like to specialize in.

landscape of software engineering

Table of Content

  1. Mathematics
  2. Systems
  3. Programming
  4. Networks
  5. Data
  6. Applications
  7. Artificial intelligence

1. Mathematics

Mathematic is important foundation for all science and engineering disciplines. You probably have learned algebra and calculus in middle school or high school. Certain subjects of mathematics like linear algebra, multivariable calculus, probability, statistics, are purely related with computer programming.


Algebra focuses on equations with variables. Linear algebra is concerning linear equations, linear maps and their representations in vector spaces and through matrices.

Calculus needs more brainwork than algebra to understand. Calculus is the study of continuous change between values that are related by a function. Multivariable calculus studies functions of multiple real variables.

Discrete mathematics is the study of mathematical structures that are countable, distinct or separable. They are foundations for software engineering and information systems. 

One of them is probability. A probability is a number, between 0 and 1 inclusive, that represents the likelihood of an event. Statistics is the application of probability theory – the collection, analysis of data. 

Other topics in discrete mathematics include combinatorics, set theory, graph theory, logical statements and number theory.

If you are a computer science major, you will probably study  Theory of computation. Theory of computation deals with how to efficiently solve problems on a model of computation using an algorithm. It has sub-sections as  Automata theory, computability theory, and complexity theory.

2. Systems

Computer system is must know for all students in computer major. A computeris built of various components hardware and software. The hardware includes the CPU, memory, buses, Io devices etc. 

Computer systems

Software includes operation system and applications. Operating system manages the computer’s memory and processors,  as well as all the software and hardware. It also allows you to communicate with the computer. Common desktop operating systems include Windows, MacOS, and Linux.

Compliers are programs that help to convert source Code into machine executable codes.  A compiler performs the following operations:  lexical analysis, syntax analysis, semantic analysis, and code generation. Interpreters execute the code and output the result.

Embedded system is a mini computer in a chip or a device. Like a computer, it has hardware, operation system, and applications. It might also have device driver and firmware in order to function. The mobile phone, medical devices are embedded system.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the billions of wireless devices around the world that are connected to the internet. They all collect and share data. 

A distributed system is a system whose components are located on different networked computers. They communicate to one another, and coordinate in order to appear as a single coherent system. Distributed Operating System can manage multiple CPUs used by Distributed systems to serve multiple real-time applications and multiple users.

Parallel computing refers to the calculations or the execution of processes are carried out simultaneously. Large problems can often be divided into smaller ones, which can then be solved at the same time. 

3. Programming

Programming is the most essential part in software engineering. Programming languages is probably the most debated topic for developers. The current top used languages are Python, JavaScript, PHP, Java, C# and C++. Python is popular in Artificial intelligent. PHP and JavaScript are used in web applications. Java and C# are options to build big enterprise applications. C++ is good for embedded system.


Programming paradigm refers to the way you program. It does not refer to a specific language. For example, there are object oriented programming, logic programming, and functional programming.

Object-oriented programming, OOP is dominant in recently years. OOP is Programming by defining objects that interact with each other. There are 4 principles: Abstraction, Encapsulation, Inheritance, Polymorphism. Doing it right, developers write less code and make a highly scalable application.

Data structures refer to the way how data are organized and manipulated. The most used data structures are arrays, linked list, map, tree, stack, queue and graph. Developers consistently seek ways to make data access more efficient.

Algorithm is a set of instructions or recipe that describes the exact steps to solve a problem. The common used algorithms are binary searching, sorting algorithms, divide and conquer, greedy algorithm, backtracking and recursion, dynamic programming.

Complexity is the measure of the efficiency of the algorithms or solutions. They are evaluated by time and space at worst scenarios. It gives a good indication of  performance for large amounts of data.

Optimization is  the constant effort carried by the computer scientists and engineers. Here are a few well known topics or algorithmic paradigms: minimum spanning tree, shortest paths, random walk, traveling salesman problem, max flow min cut, np complete problems etc.

4. Networks

Computer Networks is to use communication protocols to share information by computers located on the network nodes. In the office buildings,  the computer are connected by local networks. When you work remotely from home, you connect to internet by routers.  On the road, you connect your wireless devices through 4G/5G.

computer networks

Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) is the primary architectural model for internet communications. The OSI model splits the communication process into 7 layers. From bottom up, they are physical, data link, network, transport, session, presentation and application.

Network protocols are standard rules for formatting data in digital communication. At each layer of OSI model, there are protocols you may already have worked with: HTTP used in web application; FTP for file transfer, TCP and IP used in routers, peer to peer (p2p) in the decentralized system. Two examples of TCP/IP models are web stack and IoT stack.

Cybersecurity has become a very important subject in computer networks. Cybersecurity is the collection of technologies and processes to protect computers and systems from cyberattacks. The technologies include firewall, authentication, antivirus, fingerprint, cryptography, digital certification etc .

Blockchain is digitized transactions through a secured, shared and distributed ledger on internet. Bitcoin is powered by blockchain technology. When two parties conduct a transaction, the process includes assign cryptographic keys, validate the transaction, creates a block, append the new block in the blockchain, and complete the transaction.

Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services, including servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and intelligence over the Internet. There are three main service models  – Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS). The most popular cloud service providers are Amazon web services AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google cloud.

5. Data

One major task of Computer is processing data. This includes data collection, process, management, storage and analysis. Data science came to the spot light due to big data. Data science uses scientific methods, and algorithms to extract knowledge and insights from structural and unstructured data. Meanwhile data mining emerges.

data science

Information retrievals have been with us for decades. From an url, crawler is used to collect data and more links. Next is to parse and index data, then store them. sorting,  page Ranking and other algorithms are applied to the process. At the end, users can retrieve the data that are most relevant.

A database is an organized collection of structured information. There are two types of database- relational database and NoSQL database. A relational database organizes data into tables. The schema and SQL are used. Schema represents the design how the data is organized in terms of tables and attributes. SQL is the language to query data. The most popular relational database are Oracle, Sql server and MySQL.

NoSQL database refers to any non-relational database. it doesn’t use table or strict schema. Instead, 4 types of data structures are used, document, key-value, wide-column, and graph. They can scale easily with large amounts of data and high user loads. The popular NoSQL databases are mongo dB, amazon DynamoDB, Cassandra, etc.

Data visualization is the graphical representation of information. It uses visual elements like charts, graphs, and maps. It provides an intuitive way to see and understand the data.

Data mining uses a broad range of techniques,  to look out for patterns and trends that can’t be found using simple analysis techniques. The techniques include classification, clustering, regression, sequential pattern, association. Apache Hadoop and spark are one of the tools that are widely used to do the job.

6. Applications

Application software  is a program or group of programs designed for end-users. The software has been applied in almost every sectors of our society. For example, finance, biology, commerce, educations, tools, game and computer graphics. Here we only focus on 2 areas that attract a lot of talented software engineers – Web applications and mobile applications.

applications software

A web application is application software that runs on a web server and accessed by the user through a web browser.  These applications are usually programmed using a client–server structure. The most successful tech companies provide the software on the web, such as google search, amazon ecommerce, Netflix video stream, Facebook social media.

Writing web applications is often simplified by the use of web application framework, A web framework is a software framework that is designed to support the development of web applications including web services, web resources, and web APIs. The examples are for C#, spring for Java, Django for Python, Angular for JavaScript. When you dedicate to web application, you should be familiar with database, web servers, the MVC pattern, web programing languages such as JavaScript, ajax, json etc.

Mobile applications have become an inseparable part of our lives. From socializing, shopping, travel booking, learning, to watching our favorite movies and TV shows, we have a mobile app for almost everything.

Some of the latest mobile development tools include Android studio, AppCode,  x-code;  languages include java, swift, objective c. While doing web application and Mobile applications, the factors to consider  are timeline, scalability,  security and complexity.

6. Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence means machine or computer behaves like a intelligent beings. It gets significate attraction recently because of its practical uses in real world, such as image recognition, natural language processing, speech recognition, facial recognition, robotics, recommendation system etc.

Artificial intelligence

Any intelligence is a combination of Reasoning, learning, problem-solving perception, language understanding, etc. The reasoning is the process of deriving logical conclusion and making decision from existing data. Probabilistic reasoning is to apply the concept of probability to indicate the uncertainty in knowledge.

As far as learning, there are different kinds of learning in artificial intelligent. Machine learning is subset of AI that allows machines to learn from data without being assisted by humans. Deep learning enable this automatic learning through the absorption of huge amounts of unstructured data such as text, images, or video. Neural networks mimic the human brain through a set of algorithms. It make up the backbone of deep learning algorithms.

Machine learning can be divided into three types: unsupervised learning, supervised learning,  and reinforcement learning. In Supervised learning,  All data is labeled and the algorithms learn to predict the output from the input data. In unsupervised learning, All data is unlabeled and the algorithms learn to inhere structure from the input data. Reinforcement learning is the strategy that agent takes actions in the environment to maximize the reward. 

AI relies on mathematics and algorithms heavily. You should be comfortable with multivariable calculus, linear algebra, probability theory and complexity theory before study AI. While studying AI, you will learn the following algorithms in depth,  Naive Bayes, Markov decision process, K-nearest neighbors, K means, decision tree and random forest.

8. Conclusion

Computer software engineering has huge impact on our society. Big power comes with big responsibilities. When working in the field of software engineering, be conscious of ethical and social issues related to the development and use of computer technology.

Landscape of Software Engineering (YouTube)
Data structures and Java collections

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