How to Become a Computer Programmer

Written by Coursera • Updated on

To find out how to become a computer programmer, explore the degrees, certifications, qualifications, and skill set of successful computer programmers. There are many ways to enter into this growing industry.

[Featured image] Programmer at a computer

Becoming a computer programmer involves acquiring the right technical and workplace skills and typically requires earning a bachelor's degree in computer programming or a related field. Some employers require only an associate degree, and it is possible to become a computer programmer without a degree. Computer programmers often take courses and seek certifications to enter the field and stay current in their skills in this ever-evolving profession.

What is a computer programmer?

A computer programmer designs and tests computer codes (computer languages) to allow computer applications and software programs to run correctly. Engineers and software developers design the programs and then, programmers typically specialize in using specific codes to translate the designs into a set of instructions that the computer knows how to read. 

People commonly associate computer programming positions with the information technology (IT) industry. Although that association is correct, the need for computer programmers spans across every major industry, including, but not limited to:

Finance: Financial computer programmers may work for lending organizations, banks, credit processing companies, and many other financial industry organizations.

Health care: Computer programmers in the health care industry design and test cloud systems for holding and processing data, analytical solutions, and other types of healthcare-centered software products.

Agriculture: Computer programmers develop machine learning tools and AI applications to find the best way to increase crop yields and field use efficiency while reducing the use of chemicals, waste, and other harmful factors.

Design: Working with and understanding digital materials is easier when a designer has computer programming skills. These skills give them the tools and background needed to carry out design tasks required for their jobs. 

Retail: Traditional retail stores are trying to compete by focusing on increasing online sales. Computer programmers play a crucial role in ensuring retail companies' websites and systems run efficiently for customers and employees.

Becoming a computer programmer

While there are different paths you can take to becoming a computer programmer, the essential steps are the same. Here's a look at a typical timeline to becoming a computer programmer, step by step:

1. Evaluate your current skill, education, and experience level.

2. Narrow down an industry of interest.

3. Decide what style of education and training works best for you.

4. Research and pursue your desired educational path. Whether you choose an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree, make a plan and follow it. If you decide to pursue an online certification, research your best options.

5. Once you complete your education, you can research ways to gain valuable work experiences like an internship or entry-level position.

6. Apply for your desired position and follow up.

7. Become a lifelong learner by keeping your computer programming skills up to date.

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Both workplace and technical skills are essential to becoming a successful computer programmer. From adaptability and patience to coding and algorithms, this position requires a combination of specific abilities and talents.

Grow workplace skills

Communication skills: As a programmer, you will often explain highly technical terms to complete projects and repair issues. The ability to effectively communicate to all types of audiences in different environments is essential for a programmer. 

Problem-solving: One of your primary responsibilities will be to solve problems in this position. Your regular tasks will likely include repairing codes, fixing software issues, and creating technical solutions. Your ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently will be critical to your professional success.

Adaptability: It is essential to have the ability to handle the changes that come with the computer programming industry, and you should be able to adapt and quickly move forward.

Teamwork: As a computer programmer, you will often work within a team environment. You’ll need to be able to delegate responsibilities or accept a specifically tasked project easily—working as part of a team is a vital skill for a computer programmer.

Patience: Computer programming is a complex process that often takes an extended amount of time to complete. The ability to be patient with your team, your project managers, and yourself is essential.

Acquire technical skills and common tools

Computer programming and coding: Coding is creating a set of instructions that allows a computer to perform a particular task. These are written in specific programming languages, and being well-versed in these is essential to becoming a successful computer programmer.

Programming languages

Deciding which programming language to specialize in depends upon what industry you choose to work within. Some common languages are:

• C

• Java

• Python

• C++

• C#

• Visual Basic

• JavaScript

• PHP

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Data structures and algorithms: These are key parts of programming. Knowing how data is organized and utilized for solving issues will put you ahead of the game as a programmer.

Source control: Understanding how to manage and store code is an essential technical skill of a programmer, meaning you will need to be well-versed in version control concepts and tools.

Understanding common tools: For computer programming, the essential technical skills listed above work hand in hand with common programming tools: 

  • Source code editing software like Notepad++, Sublime Text, and TextMate

  • Compiler software, such as MinGW and Borland C++ 

  • Database management systems software like Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL software, Oracle, and Pick

  • Development environment software like Microsoft Visual Basic and Xerces2 Java Parser

Assess degree options

Educational requirements for a computer programmer position can vary, but most computer programmers have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology, or computer engineering. Some students go on to pursue a master’s degree in computer science. If you’re able to pursue a graduate degree, it may be an investment worth making when you consider the positions that become available with such education.

Some employers may only require an associate degree, and most associate degree programs only take two years to complete. If you take this route, it’s vital to showcase your programming work experience to balance out a less advanced degree. 

In addition to a formal degree, many programmers obtain certificates or participate in “coding bootcamps” to gain even more skill, knowledge, and experience in their field.

Read more: How to Choose a Data Science Bootcamp

You can become a computer programmer without a degree, but you’ll need some self-discipline. Research what skills successful programmers use in their day-to-day jobs and pursue that knowledge independently. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Take online or in-person classes.

  • Watch videos.

  • Participate in webinars.

  • Read books.

  • Listen to programming podcasts.

Salary expectations for Computer Programmers

Although educational requirements for computer programming positions vary, it’s no secret that the more advanced your degree and skill set is, the more likely you are to obtain positions with larger salaries.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that computer programmers earned a median salary of around $89,190 in 2020, well above the national median. The highest 10 percent of earners, typically those with the most education and experience, earned more than $146,050 that same year [1].

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Computer science degree

Computer science is the foundation of the profession of computer programming. When you pursue this type of degree, you learn about using computers and the theories behind computing. Many of your core courses will involve using math and engineering principles. You'll also learn software and hardware development and gain familiarity with artificial intelligence. Computer programmers can use their computer science knowledge and design ways for computers to operate effectively.

Information technology degree

Information technology, or IT, involves computers, networking, storage, and other physical devices and infrastructure to create, store, and secure forms of electronic data. For example, you’ll find IT used primarily in commercial applications in computer technology and telecommunications. Computer programmers working in IT (IT programmers) may be responsible for monitoring server data and functionality, performing required maintenance of systems, and ensuring the testing of programs meets acceptance criteria. 

Computer engineering degree

The field of computer engineering combines electronic engineering with computer sciences to build computer systems and other technological devices. Although computer or software engineers may work hand-in-hand or even overlap with the job of a computer programmer, their roles are not interchangeable.

Engineers are essentially responsible for creating the software framework. That information is passed on to programmers who translate the engineer’s directions into instructions (codes) that allow computers to run correctly. 

Read more: How to Get a Bachelor's Degree

Take the next step

You can achieve your goal of becoming a computer programmer and stay current in the profession by taking courses and going through various certification programs.

On Coursera, you can learn from courses like Learn to Program: The Fundamentals offered by the University of Toronto and Code Yourself! An Introduction to Programming through the University of Edinburgh. These are great options to start your career as a computer programmer or just to become familiar with the field so you can decide if it's the right career path for you.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook> Computer and Information Technology> Computer Programmers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/mobile/computer-programmers.htm." Accessed March 8, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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