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Computer Programmer Career Guide

What is a computer programmer?

A computer programmer, also known as a coder or developer, is a technical professional who writes the scripts, commands, and instructions that computers use to perform specific tasks. They convert the designs and technical solutions software engineers provide into executable programs. This specialized role is an integral part of the digitally driven world, directly contributing to the creation and functioning of software that powers everything from business systems to mobile apps and websites.

These professionals contribute to companies’ technological expertise and ensure seamless consumer experience by creating efficient software and applications. They blend their systematic, logical thinking and knowledge of various programming languages to create, troubleshoot, and maintain computer software. Their expertise in this specialized field makes them an essential part of virtually every modern industry.

Duties and responsibilities

The primary duty of a computer programmer is to write and debug code, the language that controls computer operations. They take the designs created by software developers and turn them into instructions that the computer can follow. In this process, they use a variety of computer languages, perhaps most commonly Java, C++, and Python. Another key part of their role is amending existing programs to correct errors or improve performance, requiring them to troubleshoot and solve problems efficiently.

Programmers are also responsible for creating and executing tests to ensure that the code functions properly, thereby maintaining the stability and reliability of the software. Additionally, they are responsible for safeguarding the security of the systems they develop, protecting them against potential cyber threats. Documentation is another critical duty, where they record every aspect of an application or system as a reference for future maintenance or upgrades.

Work environment

Computer programmers typically work in office settings, spending much of their workday in front of a computer. They typically work in the IT departments of enterprise businesses, software publishing firms, data services providers, or management organizations. Collaboration and teamwork are common in this profession, with other programmers or software developers and engineers, particularly when troubleshooting or working on larger projects.

Due to the digital nature of their work, many professionals can work remotely, either as freelancers or employees with flexible work locations. Working conditions for this profession tend to be comfortable, although somewhat sedentary, and the workplace is generally stress-free, except during deadlines or system crises.

Typical work hours

Most computer programmers work full-time. While a 40-hour work week is standard for many, additional hours may be necessary when looming deadlines or system emergencies arise. Despite this, the profession can offer a considerable amount of flexibility. Telecommuting is common, and programmers who work on a contract basis may be able to set their own work hours. For those employed in organizations, typical office hours are observed with occasional evening or weekend work if projects demand.

How to become a computer programmer

Becoming a computer programmer requires a combination of education, relevant experience, continuous learning, and skill upgrading. Here is a comprehensive list of the various steps to help you pursue a career in this profession.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

The first step on your journey is to acquire a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology, or a similar discipline. These programs typically cover the fundamentals of computer systems, programming languages, and database management. They also often include coursework on software engineering, data structures, and algorithms.

Step 2: Gain practical experience

While pursuing your degree, gather hands-on experience. This could involve participating in an internship, working part-time, or contributing to open-source projects. The goal is to apply what you’re learning in the classroom to real-world situations. This helps reinforce your learning and shows potential employers that you have practical experience.

Step 3: Learn multiple programming languages

You’ll need to be versed in several programming languages. It’s a good idea to start with general-purpose languages like Java, Python, or C++ and then expand to specific ones depending on the area of programming you’re interested in. For instance, you might learn Swift or Objective-C for iOS app development or JavaScript if you’re interested in web development.

Step 4: Understand the software development lifecycle

Mastering the development process is key to creating effective software. You’ll need to understand all phases of the software development lifecycle (SDLC), which includes requirements gathering, design, coding, testing, and maintenance. Knowledge of methodologies such as Agile or Scrum would also be advantageous.

Step 5: Obtain certifications

While not always essential, earning professional certifications can enhance your credentials and may be beneficial in competitive job markets. Certificates from leading technology firms such as Microsoft or Oracle signal potential employers that you have a specific skill set. There are certificates for particular programming languages, software development methodologies, or even specific software tools.

Step 6: Apply for entry-level programming positions

Upon graduation, start applying for entry-level programming positions. Complemented by any internships or work experience, your degree program should have equipped you with the necessary skills to embark on your professional journey. Take advantage of networking opportunities, online job boards, and university career services to identify possible job opportunities.

Step 7: Ongoing professional development

Technology and programming languages keep evolving, making ongoing learning a critical part of a programmer’s career path. Stay updated with the latest trends and advancements in your field. Consider pursuing a master’s degree or additional certifications, attending industry conferences, or learning new programming languages to enhance your skills and stay competitive.

How much do computer programmers make?

The compensation for a computer programmer depends on several unique variables. First, geographic location greatly influences their wages. Large urban areas offer more competitive compensation than rural areas. Education and prior experience also determine a programmer’s salary. For instance, those with a master’s degree or significant work experience can expect higher pay.

The industry in which they work can also affect the salary. Programmers in application software development or data processing service companies tend to earn more. Similarly, the size and profitability of the company can also impact pay. Larger, established companies generally offer more attractive remuneration packages. Apart from these, additional factors such as language specialization and bonuses influence their compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Software Publishers – $115,160
  • Computer Manufacturing – $111,990
  • Data Processing & Hosting – $95,730
  • Consulting Services – $94,500
  • Insurance Carriers – $93,110

Highest paying states

  • Washington – $126,920
  • California – $112,190
  • New Jersey – $106,790
  • Massachusetts – $97,610
  • New York – $96,280

Browse computer programmer salary data by market

Types of computer programmers

In this section of the career guide, we cover the types and specializations within the profession of a computer programmer. Specialties range from front-end to back-end development, mobile app programming, game programming, and more, each requiring a distinct set of technical skills and understanding.

Application programmer

An application programmer specializes in developing and customizing software applications. They may work on programs for business productivity, for instance, databases, spreadsheets, and accounting software, or they could design applications for entertainment, such as games and multimedia software. Mastery of specific programming languages, like Java or Python, is a common requirement in this field.

Systems programmer

Focused on managing and updating operating systems or network software, systems programmers play a crucial role. They often work with languages like C or C++ that can manipulate the lowest-level parts of a computer system. Maintaining computer system stability and efficiency is their primary responsibility.

Web programmer

A web programmer, or a web developer, writes code to run websites. They could specialize in front-end development, designing interfaces and user experience. Alternatively, they might work on back-end development, handling server-side programming. Proficiency in languages like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or PHP is essential in this specialization.

Mobile application programmer

The rise of smart devices has sparked a demand for mobile application programmers. These professionals design, code, and modify mobile apps for platforms like iOS and Android. Depending on the platform they specialize in, they may need to be well-versed in languages such as Swift (iOS) or Java and Kotlin (Android).

Game programmer

A game programmer is a specialist who applies their coding skills to video game development, working on various aspects of a game, from the game engine to the user interface. Knowledge of scripting languages, animation, and physics, along with a flair for creativity, is often a requirement in this field.

Top skills for computer programmers

Success as a computer programmer requires a range of skills, including proficiency in coding languages, strong problem-solving capabilities, an eye for detail, exceptional logic and reasoning skills, and the ability to learn new technologies quickly.

Proficiency in programming languages

The foundation of a successful career in programming lies in mastering varying programming languages. Different languages such as Python, Java, C++, C#, and SQL each serve distinct roles in the software development process. Mastery of these languages allows programmers to implement complex functions, create user-friendly interfaces, and ensure smooth system operations. Specialists in this role also continually update these skills to adapt to the latest technology trends and advancements.

Troubleshooting and problem-solving skills

Dealing with codes and computing systems invariably involves encountering glitches and system errors. Therefore, troubleshooting and problem-solving skills are extremely important. By quickly identifying and resolving issues that arise during coding or in the program’s operation, programmers keep development projects moving smoothly and ensure the delivery of high-quality, efficient software products.

Understanding computing systems and networks

Familiarity with computing systems and networks is essential. This knowledge base aids in system design, coding, and troubleshooting. Understanding how computers and systems interact allows these professionals to create more efficient code and develop more robust software that aligns with system capabilities and limitations.

Excellent collaboration and communication skills

While the stereotype of a programmer might be someone working solo in front of multiple screens, the reality is that collaboration is crucial in this field. They often work in teams and must be able to communicate their ideas and code effectively. They need to collaborate on projects, discuss and resolve issues, and explain complex technical concepts to non-technical team members or clients. Therefore, strong communication and teamwork skills prove vital for success.

Concentration and adaptability

Writing, reviewing, and debugging code requires increased concentration levels. They often dive deep into lines of code for hours to develop and fine-tune software applications. Equally important is adaptability to keep pace with the rapid rate of tech development as technologies, frameworks, and programming languages evolve. A successful computer programmer, therefore, remains ever-ready to learn and adapt.

Computer programmer career path

As a computer programmer, the career opportunities are virtually boundless. Their skill set and specialization often dictate their direction regarding future career growth. However, some common career paths stand out and are worth considering for professionals in this field.

The first step on many programmers’ career ladder often involves shifting into senior or lead programming roles. These positions are typically characterized by an increased level of responsibility, both in terms of coding and oversight of junior programmers’ work. They might also involve coordinating between different departments to align business objectives with software development.

Another common career progression route is moving into a software architect role. In this position, an individual primarily focuses on developing software systems and outlining the blueprint for complex application structures. Often, this involves collaborating with other stakeholders to translate business needs into technological solutions.

There’s also the potential to transition into project management with a role like IT project manager. This can be an exciting step for those with strong organizational and leadership skills. IT PMs oversee all aspects of a project, from planning and scheduling to budgeting and implementation, ensuring that projects meet quality standards and are delivered on time and within budget.

For those with profound technical and analytical skills, becoming a data scientist could be an attractive career advancement. In this role, computer programming knowledge is combined with statistical and machine learning techniques to analyze and interpret complex data and develop data-driven solutions.

The landscape of the computer programming field has been changing dramatically over the past decade. Rapid advancements in technology have seen increased demand for specialized skills and knowledge in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data analytics. Today, those specialized in multi-paradigm programming languages like JavaScript, Python, Java, and C++, among others, seem to be particularly in high demand. With technology playing an integral role in every industry, there is a growing demand for programmers able to create software applications tailored to specific business needs.

Over the past few years, the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) has influenced important changes in the computer programming profession. IoT technology requires these professionals to have a broad understanding of hardware, software, and networking. Cybersecurity and ethical hacking have become critical skills, too, with an increasing emphasis on protecting online platforms and sensitive data. In this dynamic technological landscape, they can boost their employability by staying up-to-date with the latest technology trends and consistently improving their skill set.

Employment projections for computer programmers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of computer programmers is projected to decrease by 10% through 2031. This decline is mainly because some of the programming work may be outsourced to countries with lower wages. However, U.S.-based programmers with advanced technical skills can still enjoy rich opportunities, particularly in evolving technology such as cloud computing, cybersecurity, and mobile applications.

Computer programmer career tips

Stay updated with the latest programming languages and tech trends

Staying ahead of the game requires continuous learning. The technology world changes rapidly, and programmers must keep up with these changes to stay relevant. Ensure you’re updated with the latest languages, platforms, and technology trends by reading related articles, following influential people in the field on social media, attending webinars, and participating in relevant forums and communities.

Obtain relevant certifications

Certifications offer potential employers concrete validation of your skills and expertise. They also set you apart from your peers and can advance your career. Certifications such as Microsoft Certified: Azure Developer Associate, Oracle Certified Professional Java SE 8 Programmer, or AWS Certified Developer can be beneficial.

Nurture your problem-solving skills

In the programming world, problems are the norm rather than the exception. It’s less about avoiding problems and more about effectively solving them. Growth in programming often comes from learning new ways to approach challenges. Constantly work on improving your problem-solving skills, embrace roadblocks as learning opportunities, and develop a positive mindset toward difficulties.

Improve your documentation skills

Creating and maintaining proper documentation for your code enhances readability and maintainability and can help others understand your logic. It is an overlooked aspect but extremely important for large-scale projects and efficient teamwork. By improving your documentation skills and habits, you ease your future work and that of other programmers who may have to build upon or debug your code.

Build a professional network

Networking can open doors to opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable. It’s vital to actively engage with peers and professionals in the sector to foster relationships, exchange knowledge, and stay informed about potential opportunities.

  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • IEEE Computer Society
  • International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology (IACSIT)
  • Programmers Guild

Invest in continuous learning

The field of computer programming is continuously evolving. Hence, continuous learning and keeping yourself updated is non-negotiable. There are multiple ways to ensure continuous learning:

  • Attend workshops and tech conferences
  • Complete online courses (Coursera, edX, Udemy) to learn new languages and techniques
  • Read programming books and blog posts regularly
  • Participate in coding challenges or contests to sharpen your skills

Where the computer programmer jobs are

Top employers

  • IBM
  • Microsoft
  • Google
  • Amazon
  • Oracle

Top states

  • California
  • Washington
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Massachusetts

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • Monster


What skills are necessary for a computer programmer?

A computer programmer must have proficiency in various programming languages, strong problem-solving abilities, logical thinking, attention to detail, and good communication skills. It’s also beneficial to be familiar with database management and be able to work in a team-oriented environment.

What personal qualities are beneficial for a computer programmer?

They often possess patience, persistence, and a strong desire to tackle and solve complex issues. An inherent curiosity and desire for continuous learning is also a common characteristic due to the rapidly evolving nature of technology.

What kind of education is typically required for computer programmers?

Most positions require at least a bachelor’s degree, usually in computer science, information systems, or a related field. Courses that individuals often study include computer science, computer languages, algorithms, and mathematics.

What is a typical work environment like for a computer programmer?

They often work in office settings. This job tends to be highly collaborative, requiring regular interaction with project managers, fellow programmers, or clients. Work hours can be regular, although deadlines may necessitate longer hours. Remote or freelance work can also be common in this field.

What tasks does a day in the life of a computer programmer entail?

Programmers spend much time writing, testing, and maintaining detailed instructions, called programs or codes, that computers must follow to perform their functions. They might also update or expand existing programs, debug programs by testing for and fixing errors, and use code libraries to simplify writing.

How crucial are programming languages to computer programmers?

Very. Different languages are used for different tasks, so the more they know, the more versatile they will be. Regularly used languages include Python, Java, C++, and SQL.

What types of industries employ computer programmers?

They can be found in various industries, including computer systems design and related services, software publishers, manufacturing industries, financial institutions, and educational services. Any industry that requires software development might employ computer programmers.

Is continuous learning important for computer programmers?

Yes, continuous learning is vital in computer programming. Technology and programming languages evolve rapidly, making it important for professionals in the field to stay current with these changes. This often involves self-study, attending industry workshops and conferences, or pursuing advanced degrees or certifications.

Are certification programs valuable for computer programmers?

Certification programs can be a valuable addition to their credentials. They can officially recognize industry competence and proficiency in specific programming languages or aspects of the job. Many employers value these credentials, and they can aid in professional advancement.

What kind of programming projects are beneficial for building a computer programmer resume?

Creating a diverse range of projects showcasing your skills can benefit your resume. This can include everything from building a website, designing a game, or developing an app. Any project that demonstrates your proficiency in different programming languages, problem-solving ability, and creativity will be valuable.

How does a computer programmer stay organized when managing multiple projects?

Successful programmers often employ strong time management and organizational techniques to manage multiple projects. This can include breaking projects down into manageable tasks, prioritizing these tasks, and using time management tools. Documentation skills are also crucial for keeping track of changes and for future reference.