In today's world, it's nearly impossible to function without relying on some sort of computer code. You depend on code when waking up to an alarm on your phone, chatting with friends through social media, and sending email to communicate with colleagues. Computer programmers built all of the code that makes those interactions possible, and they continue to construct new software, websites, and mobile apps.
If a computer programming career appeals to you, then you're in luck -- there are fewer barriers to entering this field now than ever before. Many schools and organizations run computer programming bootcamps that allow students to enter the industry within months rather than years. This guide covers everything you need to know about how to become a computer programmer.
What Is Computer Programming?
Just as people communicate with one another by speaking a language, people can "communicate" with computers by using programming -- or coding -- languages. Computer programmers use coding languages like Python and Java to write instructions for computers, creating software, websites, and other computer programs. Without computer programmers, you would not be able to open your web browser and read this website.
Many people wonder about the differences between coders vs. programmers. Add the terms "developer" and "engineer" into the mix and it can get even more complicated. The reality is that these job titles are often used interchangeably, and many people have different opinions about what designates a coder vs. a programmer, developer, or engineer.
The reality is that these job titles are often used interchangeably
The one thing all of these professionals have in common is that they write computer code. A coder may just write simple lines of code, executing discrete coding tasks without being involved in planning the overall architecture of a website or piece of software. Coders might be new to the field.
A programmer or developer, on the other hand, may be involved in planning, managing, or maintaining larger components of a website, piece of software, or system that is being worked on. They may debug more complex problems, and code in multiple programming languages.
Finally, engineers often have an advanced programming skill set, usually with an understanding of multiple programming languages. They may be responsible for overseeing the creation or maintenance of an entire system or network. In other words, they understand the "big picture," as well as the individual lines of code. They may have an engineering degree and apply engineering principles to their work.
However, it is also common for "engineer" to be used interchangeably with "developer" and "programmer," and for engineers to gain their skills through a coding bootcamp, work experience, or other nondegree training program.
Remember, these terms may not always be used in the same way, so be sure to do your homework when looking into specific computer programming bootcamps or programming job descriptions.
What Do Computer Programmers Do?
Computer programmers write code in specialized languages in order to create websites, software designed to run on a computer operating system, and applications for people's phones. They may create websites for businesses, design computer games, or manage databases.
These professionals not only create new programs, but they often manage and improve existing programs as well. Often, software needs updating in order to run more smoothly and to keep up with the latest advancements in technology; computer programmers develop these improvements. Programmers may also test new programs before they're released onto the market. They often troubleshoot problems that arise in the program and fix the code.
Computer Programming Career Outlook
Currently, nearly 214,000 computer programmers work in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, the BLS projects that the number of computer programmers will decline by 9% from 2019-2029.
That said, several jobs related to computer programming have a more optimistic outlook. For example, the number of web developers is projected to increase by 8% between 2019 and 2029, according to the BLS, and the number of database administrators is projected to grow by 10% during that same time period. The field of software development has an even more promising outlook, with the BLS projecting a 22% increase in employment for these workers between 2019 and 2029. All of these professionals use computer programming in their work.
These days, computer programmers do not necessarily need an associate or bachelor's degree to find a job. Many employers look for programmers with coding proficiency, experience, and an impressive programming portfolio, whether they received their training at a university or by some other means -- like attending a computer programming bootcamp.
Computer Programming Career Paths
Coding bootcamps can prepare graduates for a variety of computer programming careers, and many offer specialized programming coursework in areas like mobile applications or website development. The list below outlines some common computer programming careers.
- Web Developer
Web developers write and test code specifically for websites. Web developers can focus on front-end or back-end development.
Additionally, many programmers work as full-stack developers, utilizing both front-end and back-end skills. PayScale data shows that web developers earn an average annual salary of $59,890, while the BLS reported a higher median annual pay of $73,760 in 2019. Web developers can get their training by graduating from a computer programming bootcamp, completing an associate or bachelor's program, or accruing work experience.
- Database Administrator
Database administrators organize, analyze, and store data. This data could include anything from financial information at a Fortune 500 company to public information at a local government office. They possess advanced knowledge of databases, servers, operating systems, and specialized data-related software. These professionals usually need expert knowledge of SQL. In addition to managing data collection and storage, they may install database servers and optimize database security.
The average annual pay for database administrators is $74,040, according to PayScale. Generally speaking, these professionals hold a bachelor's degree in information systems, data analysis, or computer science, although it is possible to get a job as a database administrator by completing nondegree program training.
- Mobile App Developer
Mobile app developers work as a specific type of software developer, concentrating on creating applications for phones, tablets, and other mobile devices. They also troubleshoot and create updates to improve existing apps.
Mobile app developers can enter the industry with an undergraduate degree, or they can develop programming skills through intensive bootcamps. Many professionals add to their repertoire of programming languages over time instead of learning them all at once. According to data compiled by PayScale, mobile app developers make an average annual salary of $69,300.
- Programmer Analyst
Programmer analysts work in positions very similar to computer programmers, but their jobs also encompass the duties of systems analysts, which primarily consist of evaluating how specific computer programs or computer systems fit the needs of a business or client.
Programmer analysts can update programs to meet a client's needs, or they can create entirely new programs for their clients. These professionals also troubleshoot and analyze problems associated with a client's software and computer systems. Programmer analysts earn average annual salaries of about $66,830, according to PayScale.
- Computer Systems Engineer
Whereas programmers deal primarily with software, systems engineers consider both the software and hardware components of computer technology. Systems engineers make sure a client or company's computer systems work smoothly, efficiently, and securely. This may involve troubleshooting, daily maintenance, and collaborating on teams with both hardware and software vendors. Their work often involves very complex analysis, as they must take into account integration functions, security features, and computer systems architectures.
Computer systems engineers usually need a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, information technology, or computer science. PayScale data shows that systems engineers earn average annual salaries of about $80,620.
What Kind of Skills Do Computer Programmers Need?
Computer programmers need both hard and soft skills in order to succeed in their field. Individuals cannot enter the industry without coding knowledge, for example. They may also struggle if they do not possess patience, troubleshooting skills, and the ability to concentrate deeply. You can find some of the most important skills that programmers need listed below.
- Programming Languages
- Analytical and Problem-Solving Skills
Computer programming involves delivering complex instructions, and the process of writing code comes with unexpected missteps, glitches, or inaccuracies that can derail an entire project. Therefore, programmers need to be able to analyze their own and others' work and solve problems with a cool disposition under pressure.
- Attention to Detail
The process of coding involves writing intricate lists of computing commands. Every parenthesis, period, and quotation mark carries a meaning, and one character can cause a significant change for the entire computer program. For this reason, programmers should not just embrace "big-picture" thinking. They should also work diligently when it comes to keeping track of small details.
Computer programmers look at numbers, letters, and other characters on their screen for hours at a time. They may become tempted to open another tab on their computer or get distracted by their surrounding environment. Programmers need the ability to reject distractions in order to commit to projects.
- Math and Logic
Programmers may use different types of math in their work, including arithmetic and algebra. Although many coders do not technically need additional math skills to succeed at their profession, understanding mathematical concepts such as numbers theory, logarithms, calculus, and discrete mathematics can help programmers create more intricate and advanced projects.
Why Pursue a Career in Computer Programming?
Computer programming can prove to be a great career for anyone who enjoys math, technology, and science, as well as someone who wants a job that challenges them every day.
Individuals who do not want a traditional job may also enjoy computer programming. While the career path does support many 9-5 office positions, many programmers can work remotely and follow flexible schedules. Programmers who work as freelancers may prefer the freedom to choose their own clients and set their own hours.
Where Can You Work as a Computer Programming Professional?
Many programmers work at tech companies, although organizations across many different industries also need computer programmers. Programmers can find work in financial institutions, healthcare settings, media organizations, nonprofits, and government agencies.
Computer programming professionals often work in large cities where many tech companies are based, like San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles. At large companies, programmers often carry out their day-to-day tasks in offices. Tech companies located in these larger cities tend to offer higher salaries to match the more expensive cost of living.
However, an increasing number of startups and large companies allow their programming employees to work remotely. Some programmers are self-employed, so they can carry out their tasks at home or at coworking spaces. In fact, a growing group of "digital nomads" work on their computers while traveling full time.
Frequently Asked Questions About Computer Programming Careers
- Is coding hard to learn?
It can be, but isn't for everyone. Many programmers say learning to code isn't particularly difficult, but it's not particularly easy either. Others say learning basic coding is relatively simple, but learning advanced coding can be tough. In the end, the answer largely depends on the student -- their interest, motivation, talent, and background knowledge, as well as how much time they're willing to invest in their studies.
- How long does it take to learn programming?
Computer programming bootcamps last anywhere from one week to six months (or longer). Although students can dip their toes in the water through one or two-week programs, they likely need a longer time to master programming. Many students need at least three months to learn coding, although shorter and more intensive bootcamps may provide adequate preparation, too.
- Is computer programming a good career?
Computer programming can be a great career for anyone who enjoys working with numbers and technology, creating websites and software, and engaging in problem-solving. According to the BLS, computer programmers earn an average annual salary of $92,610, which exceeds the country's overall annual average salary of $53,490.
- Is there a demand for computer programmers?
The BLS projects that the demand for computer programmers will fall by 9% between 2019 and 2029. However, computer programming occupations with more specialized job titles are likely to grow, according to BLS data; the web development profession is projected to grow by 8%, and the number of software developer positions is projected to increase by 22% over that same time period.
- Can I be a computer programmer without a degree?
Yes. Many computer programmers learn their coding skills through intensive bootcamps or other training programs, instead of in a college degree program. Employers often put more weight on programmers' skills and portfolios instead of their educational background.
- How much do coders make?
- What's the difference between a coder vs. a programmer?
There is a lot of overlap, and the two terms are often used interchangeably, especially by people outside of tech fields. In the tech industry, the term "coder" typically refers to anyone who can write code, even if that involves just one coding language and the code doesn't involve anything particularly complex.
Programmers, on the other hand, usually know more than one coding language, plan and develop larger sections of code or an entire project, and solve difficult problems that emerge in the development process.