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Computer programmers write and edit the code and scripts that make computer software and applications work. Software developers and engineers give computer programmers designs that they translate into languages computers can understand.

Most computer programmers earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. They may also earn professional certifications to demonstrate proficiency in a specific programming language or vendor-specific product. Besides the obvious career path to computer programming, potential jobs for computer programmers include software developer, web developer or software engineer.

Keep reading to learn the specifics of how to become a computer programmer. We explain what computer programmers do, the typical education and experience requirements for this role, and the job outlook for this industry.

Key Takeaways

  • Computer programmers write, test and debug code that allows software and applications to run correctly.
  • You need a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field to become a computer programmer. It also helps to get hands-on experience and to earn a relevant professional certification.
  • You can earn a good salary as a computer programmer, but the number of job openings for this role is declining because of automation. Programmers can spend more time on things that can’t be automated or consider using their skills to pursue related careers such as software development or engineering.

What Is a Computer Programmer?

Computer programmers are tech professionals who play an essential role in the software development life cycle. They write the code that makes software and applications run correctly on computers and lets people accomplish their desired tasks. Programmers work closely with software developers and engineers, and sometimes their duties overlap.

But exactly what do computer programmers do all day? Common job duties for computer programmers include the following:

  • Write and test code using various programming languages such as JavaScript, Python, C++ and Ruby
  • Debug, or fix, errors in code
  • Use and create code libraries
  • Write and use software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications
  • Design software programs (technically a software developer task, but sometimes programming and software development duties overlap)

How To Become a Computer Programmer

Becoming a computer programmer usually takes at least four years, the amount of time it typically takes to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer programming or a related field. Prospective computer programmers should also consider completing an internship, pursuing a professional certification and taking continuing education classes to make the most of their job prospects.

There are also computer programming bootcamps available for career switchers and programming certificates for students who want a fast-tracked education. However, you probably won’t qualify for as many jobs with a bootcamp or certificate as you would with a full degree. Below, we explain the steps to becoming a computer programmer.

Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming a computer programmer is to earn your bachelor’s degree in computer programming or a related field such as computer science. These four-year programs cover programming languages and let students write and test code and fix programming problems. Besides providing experience with specific programming languages, a computer science degree gives the foundation and background knowledge to learn new programming languages.

Complete an Internship

You’ll get to do some hands-on computer programming in your bachelor’s program. However, many employers prefer to hire programmers with professional experience. You can get professional experience while still in school through an internship. Internships can also provide the chance to network with other professionals in the field, meet prospective mentors and get letters of recommendation or even job offers for after graduation.

Consider Professional Certification

Professional certifications, widely used in the information technology field, can help your job prospects as a programmer. Some employers like to hire programmers who are certified in the programming language or a vendor-specific product that their organization uses.

See the section on certifications for computer programmers below for more information.

Take Continuing Education Classes

Technology is constantly changing. To stay relevant in the tech field, and to learn new programming languages and skills, plan to regularly take continuing education classes and participate in professional development activities. Programmers usually must complete continuing education every few years to maintain or renew professional certifications.

Computer Programmer Salary and Job Outlook

Computer programmers earn relatively high salaries: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that computer programmers earned a median annual salary of $99,700 as of May 2023. Programmers in the top 10% earned more than $167,230.

The BLS projects an 11% decline in computer programmer jobs between 2022 and 2032. This is largely because of increased automation of programming tasks and because developers and analysts are taking on some programming tasks.

Even though employment may decline in this field, the BLS still projects about 6,700 job openings for computer programmers each year between 2022 and 2032. These job openings are expected to arise when workers retire or change fields. As more programming tasks become automated, computer programmers may shift to focus on other work that is more difficult to automate, such as strategic planning.

Earning potential for computer programmers varies by industry and region. Top-paying states for programmers include Washington, California and New Jersey, where you can earn $122,830 to $158,520 per year. Programmers can make the highest average salaries (over $140,000) by working in the following industries:

  • Building material and supplies dealers
  • Securities, commodity contracts and other financial investments and related activities
  • Oil and gas extraction

Computer Programmer Specializations

Computer programmers usually specialize in several programming languages. They can also focus on various other areas of the field. We highlight some popular computer programmer specializations below.

Certifications for Computer Programmers

Some companies prefer or require programmers to hold a professional certification in a specific programming language or programming product. Below, we highlight some popular certifications for computer programmers.

AWS Certified Developer – Associate Certification

The AWS Certified Developer – Associate certification demonstrates proficiency in the best practices and main services of Amazon Web Services, a cloud computing service. If you have worked as a developer and have in-depth knowledge of at least one high-level programming language, you can take the certification exam. You must pass a 130-minute, 65-question exam and pay $150 to complete the certification.

CompTIA Security+ Certification

This certification costs $404 for just an exam voucher. You can pay more and get access to a self-paced study guide and e-learning bundle, including access to instructor-led training. The CompTIA Security+ credential covers best practices in IT security. The exam takes up to 90 minutes and includes a maximum of 90 questions.

Professional Organizations for Computer Programmers

Joining a professional organization for computer programmers can open the door to various benefits, including networking opportunities, discounts on conferences and publications, and invitations to career development workshops. Below, we highlight some professional organizations for computer programmers.

  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM): ACM seeks to advance the computer science profession and use computing to solve the world’s problems. Members get access to professional resources, local chapters, networking events and leadership opportunities.
  • Association for Women in Computing (AWC): Founded in 1978, AWC promotes women in computing, including programmers, consultants and system analysts. Becoming a member gets you access to career development opportunities and programs.
  • Computing Research Association (CRA): CRA advocates for the computer research community and was founded in 1972. Its members include more than 250 groups active in computing research in North America.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Becoming a Computer Programmer

What qualifications do you need to be a computer programmer?

Computer programmer requirements typically include a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, some employers prefer to hire programmers with a professional certification in the products and/or programming languages they use.

How long does it take to become a computer programmer?

If you earn a bachelor’s degree, one of the typical computer programmer requirements, it will usually take at least four years to become a computer programmer. If you teach yourself programming or complete a programming bootcamp, you may be able to become a computer programmer in less time. However, you likely won’t qualify for as many jobs as you would with a degree.

How do I get started as a computer programmer?

The best way to start working as a computer programmer is to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. An internship provides hands-on experience and can help you get your first job. Getting a relevant professional certification can also increase your chances of getting hired.

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Last Update: July 8, 2024