Learn the difference between a computer programmer and a software developer, two technical jobs with different focuses. Explore programmer vs. developer jobs.
When you're interested in working with computers, you have an array of careers to choose from, including a computer programmer or software developer. While both involve technical knowledge and work together on similar projects, the programmer versus developer positions differs in their roles in directing the flow of information from one computer to another via software.
A programmer focuses on writing computer directions known as code and then tests it for errors, while a software developer uses code to plan how to guide the computers to do what the user needs. Software developers and programmers cooperate to create a software application, which might be a database, game, or software package sold directly to the general public.
Learn more about the roles and responsibilities of each of these professions, the types of jobs you can pursue and their salaries, and how to gain the skills you will need to embark on one of these careers.
A programmer is a technically skilled individual who takes the developer’s “blueprints” and directs the computer to carry out one or more aspects of them. The instructions the programmer writes in computer language are called “code.” Different computer systems “understand” different languages, so as a programmer, you will want to be proficient in the language(s) necessary for each job. After coding, the programmer carefully tests the code to ensure the computer does what it is expected to do in that particular realm.
As a skilled technician who writes instructions for computers in coding languages, the programmer does not need to decide what the computer will do. Instead, as a programmer, you will figure out how to get the computer to do what is needed. Programming is like translation. It includes testing to ensure the translation is effective: the computer reading the instructions translated into its language does what the instructions ask it to do.
As a programmer, you will unlikely be expected to manage the overall project, as a developer does, although there can be some overlap between the two jobs at times. You will focus primarily on writing and testing the coded computer instructions.
A developer has broad conceptual responsibility. As a developer, you will begin by communicating with the user to understand the user’s needs. How can computers help the user accomplish the stated goal or solve the stated problem? This is the question for which you will create a solution.
In a larger company, a developer might delegate most or all of the computer instruction writing (coding) to one or more computer programmers. In this case, you would primarily act as a project manager. In a smaller company, you might both conceptualize a solution and do quite some coding necessary to get the computer to carry out the solution.
As a developer, you will steer the computer project throughout its entire cycle: learning the user's needs, devising a plan to get the computer to meet those needs, delegating coding tasks within that plan to one or more programmers, and verifying that the entire system works.
Along the way, you might write and test code as a subset of managing the entire computer project, especially in a smaller company, but your primary job will be to guide the project.
Generally speaking, a developer is responsible for discussing goals with users and then designing a plan for how to accomplish those goals. One programmer, or a team, interprets the plan and writes programs to accomplish the tasks it outlines.
As a computer programmer, you will need strong analytical skills and the capacity to communicate clearly and work effectively in teams. The typical entry-level education is a bachelor’s degree in computer and information technology or a related field such as mathematics, with competence in several programming languages.
A programmer can expect continuing education to update knowledge: learning new languages as necessary and upgrading as known languages evolve. This might involve acquiring certifications specific to products of your employer's vendors. A programmer with business experience might become a computer systems analyst and possibly earn a promotion to a managerial position.
Read more: How to Become a Computer Programmer
As a software developer, you will create applications from conception to completion, meet with users, and direct others. Therefore, you need to have skills that include analytical capabilities, problem-solving aptitude, interpersonal competence, and the capacity to convey instructions well.
A bachelor’s degree in computer and information technology, or a similar field such as engineering or mathematics, is the typical education path for software developers. Some employers favor a master’s degree. With experience, a software developer might become a computer and information systems analyst with greater responsibility in overseeing the software development process.
Computer programmers and software developers often work on the same team. The knowledge required for each role differs, with some overlap.
As a programmer, you will focus entirely on writing computer code. Your knowledge of computer languages will be more extensive than that of a software developer. The developer will take a project that a client requests and let you know what the computer needs to do to get the desired outcome.
Each language you learn is a tool for a different purpose. An artisan must master a set of tools that suits their purpose: a cabinet maker, for example, will use a different set of tools than a potter. Think about what types of projects interest you. Are you more interested in elements of design, statistical analysis, game and app development, storage and the cloud, the internet of things, or something else?
Strayer University recommends mastering the following languages to become an adept computer programmer:
HTML and CSS
Each of these languages has its advantages. Python is one of the world’s most popular languages, adaptable to numerous settings with solid community support. R supports data analysis.
As a developer, you will oversee the entirety of a project, find creative ways of accomplishing what the user wants, and act as a go-between among users and programmers. Your job will be a broader, more conceptual one than a programmer—although you need competence in some computer languages.
According to Maryville University, you will want to know four core languages as a software developer: Java, Python, C++, and Scala. The language you use will depend on the type of project you are overseeing. C++ is a popular choice for working with an operating system. Java, Python, and C++ all support app development.
The job outlook for both programmers and developers is currently quite promising. Jobs in both fields are plentiful, and both can find work in a wide range of industries. Salaries for both can approach or exceed $100,000 per year.
You can find work as a computer programmer or developer within an information technology (IT) company. Yet since computers are so integrated into the modern workforce, as a programmer, you will not be limited to IT businesses. You can seek work in a wide array of industries, including:
Finance: Banks, credit processing, and lending companies hire programmers.
Health care: Programmers write and test code for health data processing software.
Agriculture: Computer programmers write code to discern the best methods for farming techniques, such as increasing crop yield.
Design: Computer programmers can be a vital part of a design team, translating design elements into language the computer can apply.
Retail: Companies rely heavily on online sales; computer programmers make these sales websites run efficiently.
Gaming: Computer programmers code games so that the designers achieve what they plan and the users have a positive experience.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the average salary of a computer programmer in 2021 was $93,000, ranging from $45,560 to $155,240 . The BLS expects the number of job openings for computer programmers in the US to decline by about 10 percent from 2020 to 2030—yet that will still mean approximately 9,700 programming job openings per year .
Read more: Computer Programmer Salary: Your 2022 Guide
Software developers help users get computers to do things for them. As a software developer, you might choose to focus on one of these three main categories of development jobs :
Front-end developer jobs focus on how the user interacts with the computer. Front-end developers create web apps and websites, attending to user interface (UI) design, user experience (UX), and UI frameworks.
Back-end developers focus on the aspect of development most remote from the user. This back end—consisting of a server, an application, and a database—is the foundation upon which the user-facing front end rests.
Full stack developers run the gamut of both front-end and back-end development.
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Specific jobs developers have included the following:
Mobile developers create apps for mobile devices.
Game developers create games with user enjoyment in mind.
Data scientists generate programs to analyze data, such as statistical analysis, data visualization, and predictive modeling.
DevOps developers both develop applications and monitor their operations.
Test developers test the quality of software systems.
Embedded developers work with software on consumer devices other than computers.
According to the BLS, the median annual salary of a software developer is a bit higher than a computer programmer. The average annual salary is $110,140, with a range of $65,210 to $170,100 . The job outlook for this profession is much brighter than for computer programmers, with an expected growth rate of 22 percent from 2020 to 2030 . This is much faster than average for all occupations, translating to roughly 189,200 job openings annually in the US from 2020 to 2030.
To explore a career in IT, first get a sense of the landscape. You can find YouTube videos, podcasts, and internet forums to investigate what kinds of IT jobs exist and what might be a good fit for you.
Next, polish your skills through education and experience. This can involve coursework to gain relevant certification, volunteer work, and personal projects. Consider a course like the Google IT Support Professional Certificate.
Alert your network of friends, family, and colleagues that you’re seeking an IT career. They might have direct links to jobs or connect you with others who do. Remember to publish your skills and interest on job network sites such as LinkedIn.
Finally, polish your interview skills, and apply for entry-level positions. If you think you can do the job, go ahead and apply, even if your qualifications on paper are not a perfect fit. A potential employer might see your capabilities during an interview that are difficult to capture on paper.
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If computer programming is the type of IT job that interests you, first evaluate your current skills and experience. Through the kind of exploration described above, narrow down the specific aspect of programming that interests you. That will empower you to set a goal for a specific type of programming job in a particular industry. Knowing your goal will lead you to discover what kind of education you will need to get there: a certification or an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Remain connected with your network, and seek entry-level jobs in your desired area. Plan to continue to update your knowledge and skills throughout your career.
To be a software developer, begin by learning a programming language. Developers know and use languages such as Java, Python, C++, and Scala.
Next, consider your goals: Does a specific industry appeal to you, such as health care or gaming? You might need background knowledge in that industry to help you get started.
Evaluate courses, certificates, and degrees relevant to your area of interest. If seeking a bachelor’s degree, you might want to major in computer science or information technology and minor in a subject relevant to the industry that interests you.
Consider choosing a personal project related to the type of development work you want. Find project opportunities through Coursera’s project network and elsewhere on the internet.
Stay connected to your network and if they are not hiring software developers, they might know others who are.
To take the next step on your journey toward becoming a computer programmer, software developer, or other IT professional, think about taking a course or earning a certificate.
The get started on your journey, consider taking Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python) offered through the University of Michigan. If becoming a developer is your goal, you can earn a certificate from IBM by completing the IBM Full Stack Software Developer Professional Certificate program through Coursera.
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US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Computer Programmers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-programmers.htm#tab-5." Accessed July 13, 2022.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Computer Programmers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-programmers.htm#tab-6." Accessed July 13, 2022.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm#tab-5." Accessed July 13, 2022.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm#tab-6." Accessed July 13, 2022.
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.