Cracking the code: graduate engineer career guide to the software industry

Few engineering sectors offer as many different possibilities to impact the world as the software industry, whether it’s defending against cyber crime or launching the next big internet startup.

Thanks to the mobile revolution, software is more important in every aspect of our lives than ever before.

Why work in software development?

It’s one of the most thriving, vibrant and varied sectors in the UK

You’ll find software in almost every aspect of our lives today, not just in smartphones and laptops but in cars, factories and even fridges. Every business and every person in the country now relies on a multitude of different software programs every day. There’s arguably no engineering career you could take that offers more possibilities for impacting the world in so many different ways.

And in the UK, which has several of the largest tech clusters in Europe and more software firms in the global top 100 than any country except the US, the sector is growing at its fastest rate since before the financial crisis and more strongly than the economy as a whole.

PMX software
Software is needed to run everything from phones to factories.

It values creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit

Over the years, the sector has emerged as a hot bed of creative talent, with links between innovation centres, business support networks, universities and technology parks. It is particularly strong in the three fields of digital media, games and animation, and application software – all of which require creativity to get ahead.

It is in desperate need of talented engineers

The UK will need 750,000 skilled digital workers by 2017, according to a report carried out on behalf of O2 last year. If the UK can’t support that growth, it could cost the country £2 billion each year. This means there are plenty of opportunities for skilled software engineers – and demand helps keep salaries high.

UK firms such as Virtalis are at the cutting edge of visualisation, animation and virtual reality software.

What does the UK’s software sector actually do?

Britain has world-class expertise in business, finance and manufacturing software and boasts outposts of major multinational firms such as HP and IBM, as well as home-grown giants such as Sage. But it also operates in several exciting niches and emerging areas of software that are becoming increasingly important.

It’s a world leader in the gaming industry

From Grand Theft Auto to Tomb Raider, numerous successes have put the British gaming industry on the map. More recently, UK firms have scored huge hits in the new arenas of social and mobile gaming, including Candy Crush developer King Digital, which recently floated on the New York Stock Exchange.

The games industry is a valued part of the economy and as such, there are government incentives and tax breaks for jobs to stay in the UK. Software developers can now recoup up to 25 per cent of their production costs if a game is set in Britain and has been developed by a British-based team.

It’s developing the next generation of animation technology

As films continually depend on realistic computer graphics, production companies will increasingly depend on more advanced software tools. The recent Oscar-winning film Gravity was made in the UK but created almost entirely with computer-generated imagery (CGI).

UK specialist software firms such as The Foundry develop programs that are used by filmakers all over the world but British visual effects companies that do the actual animation, such as Framestore, DNeg and MPC, also develop their own tools and techniques, so software engineers are vital to their work. Meanwhile, companies such as Virtalis are helping to create new ways of experiencing animation through virtual reality.

The UK has a thriving tech scene developing mobile apps and other internet software.

It boasts Europe’s internet startup capital

In the last few years, London has gradually become the hottest centre for new tech firms in Europe, playing host to over 3,000 startups and so far this year attracting a record €1bn in investment money from venture captialists – 30 per cent more than the amount generated in the whole of 2013. The government has also got involved with its own investment fund and money to regenerate the area around Old Street and Shoreditch that has become known as “Silicon Roundabout” or “Tech City UK”.

Spotify, property site Zoopla and Moshi Monsters developer Mind Candy are among the most famous firms to base themselves in the Capital, and the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook have also given the London tech scene their seals of approval with new outposts there.

What kind of jobs are on offer?

The image of software engineers hidden in the basement is a stale stereotype.

To some, jobs in the software sector have a bad reputation thanks to the stereotype image of an IT developer as a socially awkward employee working in a dimly lit room. But (for most people!) this couldn’t be further from the truth, whether you’re working for one of the world’s biggest corporates or a dynamic startup.

Much of software development comes down to writing code to solve a particular problem, whether it’s processing huge amounts of data in real-time, protecting a website from cyber attacks or developing an app to monitor people’s health. As technology develops, you could find yourself working at IBM on the next neural network that mimics the human brain, or finding a way to animate every molecule of water in an animated film.

All of these are roles are in challenging, fast-paced sectors that require innovative thinking, creativity and dedication. Late nights are part of the job and you will need to get your head around complex programmes while working to tight project deadlines.

A degree in computer science or a related field would serve you well but the sector is very open to anyone who can prove they have the coding skills regardless of what they studied. According to Google, the best way to impress an interviewer for a software engineering role is with technical ability. For instance, experience with programming languages including Java, Python, C and C++ are useful for many positions.

And where are they?

Software jobs aren’t just based in London and the South East of Engiand.

London is at the heart of the software scene in the UK and, as well as all the startups, around 90 overseas tech companies decided to base themselves in the Capital last year. But while the East End’s Silicon Roundabout gets all the hype, there are actually a huge number of software jobs based in West London. And even more are based outside of London along the “M4 corridor” near Heathrow and in Cambridge’s so-called “Silicon Fen”.

Scotland also has its own cluster – complete with a silly nickname (Silicon Glen) – which is a particular centre for the gaming industry. Edinburgh’s Rockstar North is responsible for the Grand Theft Auto franchise while Dundee has also become famous for its games companies inlcuding YoYo Games, which doubled its staff numbers last year to cope with demand for its GameMaker: Studio, the world’s most widely used video game development software.

There are also plenty of jobs in the north of England, particularly in Manchester and Newcastle (home to business software firm Sage). Sunderland Software City, a partnership between the public and private sectors and the University of Sunderland, has ambitions for the north-east to be home to 2,200 software companies by 2020.

It’s also worth remembering just how many companies throughout the engineering sector employ their own software engineers, whether it’s aerospace and defence companies such as Airbus who require programs for everything from aerodynamic modelling to cyber security, or precision manufacturers such as Renishaw who need tools for designing products and operating complex equipment.

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