SREs and SWEs complement each other, but they perform different tasks and focus on different priorities.

SRE and SWE: These acronyms are only a letter apart, and they refer to similar roles within the realm of software development and management. However, SREs and SWEs are distinct types of jobs, even if the tools and skill sets associated with them overlap to a certain degree.

What is an SRE, what is an SWE, and how are SRE and SWE roles similar and different? Keep reading to find out.

What is an SRE?

SRE stands for Site Reliability Engineer (or Site Reliability Engineering, depending on how the term is used). An SRE is an engineer who assumes responsibility for making systems as reliable as possible. That means minimizing availability and performance issues within systems.

To achieve this goal, SREs collaborate with a variety of other stakeholders. They work alongside software engineers to help design applications that are reliable from the start. They work with IT operations engineers to find better ways of detecting and responding to disruptions within applications after they have been deployed. And they take the lead in handling incident response when something goes wrong.

The SRE role is sometimes compared to DevOps. Like SREs, DevOps engineers collaborate with several other types of technical stakeholders to help manage a business’s IT assets. However, the main difference between SREs and DevOps engineers is that SREs focus first and foremost on optimizing reliability, while DevOps teams deal more with the software delivery process.

What is an SWE?

SWE is short for software engineer or software engineering. An SWE is someone whose main job is to design and (to a certain extent) write software.

SWE is a relatively broad term. The specific tasks associated with an SWE role may vary. Some SWEs focus mostly on designing application architectures or planning which cloud services to use to deploy an application, then leave it to programmers to write most of the application code. Other SWEs are more directly involved in coding itself. SWE job duties may also extend to software testing and quality assurance, but not necessarily.

You can find a lot of content out there that dives deeper into the meaning of SWE by explaining how SWEs are different from software developers and programmers. That topic is mostly beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that SWE is typically the most prestigious (and highest-paid) role associated with software production. Software developers and programmers tend not to be paid as much because their jobs focus more on code implementation (which a lot of people tend to see as a less creative task) than on application design and architecture.

How are SREs and SWEs similar and different?

SREs and SWEs both play important roles in helping businesses manage the software that drives their operations. In that sense, they are broadly similar. Many companies today hire both SREs and SWEs.

The tools that SREs and SWEs use are also similar to a certain degree. Both types of engineers may use software testing tools to help identify problems within applications. Monitoring and observability software can also provide insights about application health and performance that both roles can use to inform their work.

The major differences

However, in general, SREs and SWEs are more different than they are similar. The main difference between the roles boils down to the fact that SREs are responsible first and foremost with maintaining reliability, while SWEs focus on designing software.

Of course, those are overlapping roles to a certain extent. SWEs want the applications they design to be reliable, and SREs want the same thing. However, an SWE will typically weigh a variety of additional priorities when designing and writing software, such as the cost of deployment, how long it will take to write the application and how easy the application will be to update and maintain. These aren’t usually key considerations for SREs.

The toolsets of SREs and SWEs also diverge in many ways. In addition to testing and observability tools, SREs frequently rely on tools that can perform tasks like chaos engineering. They also need incident response automation platforms, which helps manage the complex processes required to ensure efficient resolution of incidents. Meanwhile, SWEs are likely to use tools like CI servers, source code managers, release automation software and other resources that assist in the software development and deployment process.

Finally, if you’re trying to decide whether to an SRE or SWE, you’ll probably be interested to know that SREs earn a bit more, on the whole, than SWEs. SRE salaries average about $127,000, compared to $108,000 for software engineers.

Conclusion: Complementary roles

Ultimately, it makes sense to think of SREs and SWEs as complementary roles. Although each type of engineer plays a part in ensuring that businesses enjoy quality, reliable software to drive their operations, SREs and SWEs work in different ways, usually using different tools. If you develop and deploy software of any complexity, you need SREs and SWEs working together to achieve smooth software operations.