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When the first digital computers appeared in the early 1940s,[11] the instructions to make them operate were wired into the machine. Practitioners quickly realized that this design was not flexible and came up with the "stored program architecture" or von Neumann architecture. Thus the division between "hardware" and "software" began with abstraction being used to deal with the complexity of computing.

Programming languages started to appear in the early 1950s[12] and this was also another major step in abstraction. Major languages such as FortranALGOL, and COBOL were released in the late 1950s to deal with scientific, algorithmic, and business problems respectively. David Parnas introduced the key concept of modularity and information hiding in 1972[13] to help programmers deal with the ever-increasing complexity of software systems.

The origins of the term "software engineering" have been attributed to various sources. The term "software engineering" appeared in a list of services offered by companies in the June 1965 issue of COMPUTERS and AUTOMATION and was used more formally in the August 1966 issue of Communications of the ACM (Volume 9, number 8) “letter to the ACM membership” by the ACM President Anthony A. Oettinger;[14], it is also associated with the title of a NATO conference in 1968 by Professor F.L. Bauer, the first conference on software engineering.[15]. At the time there was perceived to be a "software crisis".[16][17][18]

In 1984, the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) was established as a federally funded research and development center headquartered on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. Watts Humphrey founded the SEI Software Process Program, aimed at understanding and managing the software engineering process. The Process Maturity Levels introduced would become the Capability Maturity Model Integration for Development(CMMi-DEV), which has defined how the US Government evaluates the abilities of a software development team.