Computer programming is a technology field that focuses on designing, writing, testing, and modifying instructions — or code — that computer systems and devices use to perform specific tasks.
This career requires technical expertise and programming skills to create the code that makes software programs and applications function, translating the software’s design into instructions that computers understand. Programmers generally specialize in multiple programming languages.
In this guide, we’ll cover the following:
- Overview of Computer Programming
- Computer Programming Industries
- How to Get Into a Computer Programming Career
- Skills for Computer Programming
- Pros and Cons of Working in Computer Programming
Overview of Computer Programming
What is programming? Computer programming involves designing, developing, and implementing software applications by writing and optimizing code in various programming languages.
“Programmers are responsible for translating functional requirements into efficient and maintainable solutions, often collaborating with other professionals, such as software engineers, data scientists, and UX/UI designers, for creating user-friendly and high-performance products,” says Ammar Darkazanli, vice president of systems engineering at Biofourmis, who has been developing software for over 30 years and has decades of programming expertise.
In short, computer programming turns ideas into reality. Programmers create coding that allows the software to work on personal computers and devices such as tablets and smartphones.
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Computer Programming Industries
A career in computer programming can open doors into various industries. This gives programmers ample opportunities to apply their skills in different contexts that match their interests and expertise.
“Computer programmers can work in nearly any context, from public sector work for cities to manufacturing and retail enterprises,” explains Dr. Jo Ann Oravec, a professor of information technology at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. “These various kinds of programming contexts have some similarity, though, in terms of need for quality control, documentation, and structure.”
Some industries that rely on computer programming include:
- Information technology and software development
- Finance and banking
- Health care
- Manufacturing and automation
- Entertainment and gaming
- Education and e-learning
- Transportation and logistics
- Energy and utilities
- Aerospace and defense
- Retail and e-commerce
- Agriculture and food production
- Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals
- Environmental and sustainability
Your industry influences the types of programs and products you’ll work on.
“Programmers in finance develop and maintain trading algorithms, risk analysis tools, and customer-facing applications, while those in health care focus on creating electronic health record systems, telemedicine platforms, and medical research tools,” says Darkazanli.
“Automotive and aerospace industries rely on programmers to develop embedded systems, autonomous vehicle technology, and flight control software,” he continues. “In telecommunications, programmers contribute to the design of network infrastructure and communication protocols, while those in the entertainment sector create games, streaming services, and virtual reality experiences.”
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How to Get Into a Computer Programming Career
While employment growth for computer programmers is expected to decline 10% between 2021 and 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there’s still demand. The BLS projects about 9,600 openings for computer programmers each year over the decade due to employees retiring or quitting their jobs.
But what’s involved in breaking into this field? Training, education, and skills development are all ways to prepare yourself for a career in computer programming.
Education and Training
“Education can be a simple three-month bootcamp or multiple years of a college education,” Darkazanli says. “The real key to success is aptitude. Your passion for solving complex problems and your curiosity to dig deep and understand how things work will determine how successful of a computer programmer you are.”
The BLS reports that you typically need a bachelor’s degree to begin a computer programming career — for example, in computer science, software engineering, or a related technical area. But having a formal degree isn’t a hard and fast requirement for every programming job. In many cases, other types of education and training can also help you launch a computer programming career.
“Depending on your field, you may be able to replace a formal education with provable skills, internships, certificates, coding bootcamps, relevant personal projects, and/or expertise that you can demonstrate using a tech stack that is common in your industry,” says Cameron Perrin, a software engineer with expertise in programming and software development.
Skills for Computer Programming
Technical skills — or hard skills — are critical components of computer programming positions.
Perrin flags the following hard skills that computer programmers depend on the most.
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Data Structures and Algorithms
A strong foundation in data structures (arrays, linked lists, trees, and graphs) and algorithms (sorting, searching, and dynamic programming) helps programmers write efficient code and solve complex problems.
Mobile App Development
Knowledge of mobile app development frameworks such as React Native, Flutter, and Swift — as well as platform-specific languages like Swift for iOS, Java, or Kotlin for Android — will enable you to create user-friendly applications for various devices.
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Programmers also need knowledge and practice with relational databases (like MySQL and PostgreSQL) and non-relational databases (like MongoDB and Cassandra), as well as database management systems to efficiently store, retrieve, and manage data in software applications.
Version Control Systems
Knowing how to use version control systems like Git, SVN, or Mercurial is critical to enabling you to effectively collaborate with other developers, track changes, and maintain the codebase.
Soft skills are also essential to long-term success in programming positions. “Computer programmers need to know how to communicate with each other in teams, as well as how to document their work in order to be effective in their jobs,” Oravec says. “They also need to know how to adapt very quickly to new versions of software, which requires knowing how to learn from crowdsourced social media information sources as well as industry-produced documentation and educational materials.”
Some of the most important soft skills for computer programming careers include:
- Teamwork abilities
- Time management
- Attention to detail
- Critical thinking
Pros and Cons of Working in Computer Programming
How do you know whether to choose computer programming as a career path? It helps to understand the positive and negative aspects of the job. According to experts in the field, here are some of the pros and cons of computer programming.
Pros of Computer Programming
High Demand and Stable Jobs
Despite the field’s slight drop in projected employment growth, Perrin notes that the technology industry is growing all the time, and skilled computer programmers are in high demand in many different industries. “This demand translates to increased job stability and opportunities for career growth,” he says.
According to the BLS, professionals in this field can command high pay, with an average annual wage of $93,000 per year. “Computer programmers usually get good salaries and benefits packages that reflect how valuable their skills are on the job market,” Perrin says.
According to Perrin, many programming jobs offer flexible hours and the chance to work from home in a remote job, which makes it easier to balance work and life.
Chance to Work in a Wide Range of Fields
The sky’s the limit once you’ve mastered computer programming skills since you can transfer these talents to other technology jobs. “Computer programming is a broad field that can lead to jobs in software development, web development, mobile app development, data analysis, artificial intelligence, and so much more,” Perrin says.
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Continuous Learning and Creative Problem-Solving
Computer programmers are constantly learning new languages, technologies, and techniques. “This keeps the job interesting and ensures you are always growing,” Perrin says.
And since programming involves solving complex problems and developing innovative solutions, programmers can enjoy a great sense of accomplishment.
Cons of Computer Programming
Programmers may sometimes have to work long hours or weekends to meet tight deadlines or resolve critical issues, which can lead to burnout and hurt their work-life balance. “You’re never off and you have to exercise very strong discipline to not take work with you home,” Darkazanli says.
Limited Social Interaction
While not true for every position or company, Perrin notes that programmers often work alone or in small groups, focusing on complex problems for long periods of time, which he says can make them feel alone and limit their social interactions. “Flexibility and working from home may socially isolate you as a programmer,” Darkazanli says.
Lack of Control Over End Result
Computer programmers seldom have control over high-level decisions about how or whether their work will ultimately be used. It can feel demoralizing to work on a project with little possibility of success. For this reason, programmers must have pride in their work and not be dismayed if their entire efforts aren’t used.
“The work a programmer slaved over for a month can be eliminated in a minute, or they can have a year’s worth of effort scrapped because of changes in a project that they had nothing to do with,” Oravec says. “Beautiful, structured coding efforts can never see the light of day, and for programmers to stay sane they must enjoy their efforts at coding.”
Hard for Managers to Evaluate Your Work
Darkazanli points out that unless you work for a seasoned leader, it can be difficult for managers to evaluate the efforts and results of your computer programming work. “Sometimes, you can pull an overnighter to solve a very simple problem,” he says.
“Unless your manager understands the stress you are under, it can make for
an unpleasant 1:1 meeting with your manager.”
According to Oravec, computer programming salaries may initially seem high but can plateau quickly. “A move into management is sometimes the only way to get substantial raises, unfortunately,” she says.
Since new versions of software constantly emerge as technology evolves, computer programming can involve significant retraining to keep up to speed and stay relevant. “The amount of retraining that programmers need to do can be exciting and interesting at first, but over the years can wear people down,” Oravec says.
As a result, she says many programmers eventually move into the roles of project management or management as a way to stay in the computing profession without producing code regularly.
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