What Algorithms and Data Structures Should Any Software Engineer Know?
IEEE Computer Society Team
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Software engineering is a broad field that touches on many different areas. Applications in software engineering can be varied, ranging from scientific coding to database programming to web development to programming hardware and more. Despite all these varied applications and seemingly unrelated areas, there are core competency skills that all software engineers should have. Let’s look at those core areas in this article.
Before looking at specific algorithms, it’s important to be familiar with software engineering at the ground level. That means having a familiarity with object-oriented programming in one or more languages. Traditionally, this has meant learning the C++ language. However, the principles of object-oriented programming can be learned in multiple languages, and a successful software engineer should be versed in more than one language so that you can meet the different challenges and solutions that may come your way. Other languages to explore if you don’t know them already include Java, Swift, C#, Ruby, and Python. Once you master the fundamentals in one language, it should be relatively easy to move from one language to another. The principles of object-oriented programming are the same, different languages only differ in the details.
Becoming familiar with data structures starts with the basics of coding. Perhaps the simplest data structure is arrays. If you don’t understand this very basic data structure, it’s impossible to move on to more sophisticated ones — so make sure you completely understand this fundamental concept and have experience using arrays.
The next data structures to learn are linked lists, stacks, and queues. The linked list could be said to be the next logical step in development from using arrays. From there, you should become familiar with trees, hash tables, stacks, and queues.
Of course, there are as many algorithms as there are ideas that people can dream up. That said, there are several core algorithms you must be familiar with in order to become a successful software engineer. The first step isn’t really to focus on specific algorithms, but to learn how to solve complex problems like a software engineer. This includes breaking down a complex problem into simple, easy-to-solve steps. Next, you must learn how to program with “black boxes,” which is related to object-oriented programming but can actually be considered separate from it. For example, breaking a program down into independent functions and passing data into and out of these functions. We can call the functions “black boxes” because what goes on inside the box isn’t important to the rest of the program, the only thing that matters is passing variables/data into and out of the box (assuming the functions work properly). Then individual parts of the code can be modified without changing the whole.
Now that these fundamentals have been established, it’s possible to move on to specific techniques and algorithms.
One of the most important algorithms to develop familiarity with is recursion. Recursion is a powerful tool that allows you to write more sophisticated and efficient computer code, and learning recursion is also important in training your mind to think like a computer scientist.
Other types of algorithms can be broken down by type. One central set of algorithms every software engineer should know is searching and sorting algorithms. Important search algorithms include binary search and depth search. Must-know sorting algorithms include heap sort, merge sort, quick sort, number of inversions, and insertion sort.
Hashing is also an important skill to learn that combines algorithms and data structures. Hashing simply means taking some data and passing it through an algorithm or formula to produce a new result called a hash. One application of hashing is in cryptography.
Other important algorithms the software engineer needs to learn include string matching, parsing, and mathematical algorithms. As a software engineer, you should be able to translate mathematics into software, which can involve a wide variety of applications including basic statistics such as mean, median, and mode, probability and expectation values, matrices and matrix multiplication, solving simultaneous equations, fast exponentiation, Fibonacci numbers, prime sieving, and more.
To Sum it All Up
There are many important skills a software engineer needs to learn, however, every software engineer should know the data structures and algorithms described in this article. Attending a university and taking computer science and engineering courses is a great way to ensure that you learn all these skills, but if you have the self-discipline to do it, it’s possible to master many of these concepts through self-study. IEEE Computer Society has great resources, from how to choose a graduate program to how to advance your career as a software developer. For more resources, head over to the blog!