In order to not get bogged down in technical aspects of the software industry I’ll use an analogy: to keep it simple, let’s compare the software creation process to that of creating a dining room table and the people required to design and build it:
Programmer: this is a basically the apprentice in many ways, the person who knows how to varnish wood, drill holes, use a measuring tape and even a Vernier caliper. However someone needs to provide guidance to him on how to build a table. A supervisor needs to tell him the length of the wood to cut, what screws to use and where to drill into the wood. At the end of the day he will have been able to create a table with his own two hands, but he is not able to do this without guidance and supervision. In the software world this is the guy that knows one or more programming languages and can apply them to write a function or a class but he cannot envision and create an entire application from beginning to end without supervision. Given enough time and hard work he will progress to becoming a Software Developer/Engineer/Architect.
Software Developer/Consultant: suppose you want to have a custom dining room table built for your home. As a non-technical person you have an idea of what you’d like the finished table to look like but you don’t know how to build it yourself. So you go out and find someone who can build a custom table from scratch according to your specific requirements i.e. you tell the guy more or less how big your room is and the length of the table, the number of chairs you’d like to make space for etc. The Software Developer is the person that can build a custom application according to a customer’s requirements. Due to him being in charge of the development of the software, he does have some creative freedom but ultimately he needs to make the customer happy by following a specific customer’s requirements.
Software Engineer: now suppose that you’re the owner of a company that designs and manufactures furniture. This is a completely different ball game now because you’re no longer trying to satisfy a single customer’s needs but rather and entire market in your entire country perhaps. So instead of getting a single table designed and built you’re looking at getting thousands of tables built. To get the job done you will need a person with a whole new set of skills that go beyond the Software Developer’s abilities. Software Engineering principles need to be applied to the problem. These include design patterns and principles. The Software Engineer has a broader view thinking further ahead asking questions regarding scaling and re-usability. When creating thousands of tables one needs to think about creating an attractive product that will not just please one customer, but that many will love. This person also thinks about which materials are cost effective and the durability. It’s all good and well to create one table, but this person also thinks about how to duplicate the design over and over at ease so that each copy looks exactly the same as the next one and is of the same quality. The Software Engineer is the person that designs and develops software that will be sold to not only one person but many.
On the surface the Software Developer may seem very similar to a Software Engineer, but in my opinion of the main differences between the two is their personalities or the circumstances which are imposed on them i.e. it’s not so much about technical abilities. The Software Developer is typically a shortcut kind or person that looks for quick fixes and accrues a lot of technical dept. This is in part due to the rigid time and budget constraints that Software Developers work under because they bill by the hour. Moreover, when you’re developing a product and billing by the hour, that product will only be as good as it needs to be i.e. “do we really need this feature, how much is it going to cost, can we find a quick workaround for that problem by not spending more time and money etc.”.
Lastly, a Software Developer typically works on multiple projects at the same time, meaning that their focus is scattered and their priorities change from day to day. A lack of focus and prioritization results in lower quality products being developed. A Software Engineer on the other hand typically works on a single project at a time and gets allocated a larger budget without having to clock hours. A larger budget also allows for more time to focus in strategy and design of the product instead of just working without thinking i.e. running around like headless chickens.
Software Architect: continuing with our analogy, the furniture company will not only have a single dining room as a product, but many different types of products. This requires a technical person to oversee the design and creation of every single product which brings about a whole extra set of challenges. This person needs to think about reusability e.g. can we use the design of table A when we’re working on table B by perhaps tweaking it a bit? This person may also be responsible for thinking about overall costs e.g. or which wood suppliers should we use to create the best/cheapest products etc. The Software Architect is the person that thinks about all the products that are being engineered and asks themselves how these products fit into the big picture of the company. In very large companies that have very large products a Software Architect may be assigned to oversee only a single product and engineers could be assigned to components of the large products.
To summarize; the difference between all these people is the scope of their view and responsibilities in the process of designing and developing of software. Of course there are many other titles (especially managerial ones) in this industry but I chose to focus only on the very technical ones.