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How to Become a Computer Programmer

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Computer Programmer

What computer programmers do

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), computer programmers perform a number of tasks, but generally they must know how to write programs in various computer languages; upgrade and debug current computer programs; and develop and use computer-assisted software engineering (CASE) tools to write code, utilizing code libraries—collections of independent lines of code—to simplify the process. Their work sometimes overlaps with the software developers with whom they closely work, and then they are essentially performing the work of a developer.

Programmers with general business knowledge may have the opportunity to become computer systems analysts. Those programmers unusually proficient with a language or operating system may become computer software developers or promoted to management. 

Computer programmers mainly work in offices, but because writing code can be done anywhere, many programmers telecommute. They usually work alone but will sometimes be called on to collaborate with other computer specialists on large projects. Most computer programmers work full-time, according to the BLS.

How to become a computer programmer

Those interested in becoming a computer programmer should possess the following qualities: good analytical skills in order to understand complicated instructions for creating code; the ability to concentrate and focus for long periods of time sitting in front of a computer writing code; an attention to detail, since they must closely scrutinize their written code for even the smallest of errors; and strong problem-solving skills, as programmers must regularly check for and fix any mistakes they find (BLS, 2012).

According to the BLS, most computer programmers have a bachelor’s degree. An associate degree may be sufficient for some employers, however. Typically, programmers get a degree in computer science or a related subject and specialize in a few programming languages. Those programmers who work in specific fields, such as healthcare or accounting and auditing, often take classes in those fields in addition to their computer programming degree. Internships can be beneficial as well, as many employers prize relevant work experience.

Computer programmers also often participate in continuing education and professional education to stay abreast of the ever-changing technology.

Certification offers programmers a way to demonstrate their competency in specific programming languages or for dealer-specific products and may provide a job seeker with a helpful advantage. Such certification programs are often available through vendors or software companies and are sometimes required by the companies for which they work.

While the steps will vary, the standard path to becoming a computer programmer includes the following steps:

  • Earn a high-school diploma or GED
  • Enroll and complete a degree program in computer science or a related subject and specialize in a few programming languages at a college or university
  • Apply for employment
  • Gain relevant software certifications

For additional information on IT education, visit the National Workflow Center for Emerging Technologies (NWCET).

No employment is guaranteed as additional qualifications, licenses, training or education may be required for employment.

Career outlook for computer programmers

The BLS projects employment of computer programmers could increase by up to 12 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020. As a result of an increasing number of computer systems being built into electronics and a rise in demand for new software, some job growth should be seen for computer programmers and software developers. Also, there is a  need for new applications to be developed for mobile technology and the health care industry as they continue to expand, which could potentially lead to additional employment opportunities (BLS.gov, 2012).

Per the BLS, 320,100 computer programmers were employed nationally as of May 2011, earning a national annual wage of $72,630 median. The highest-paid 10-percent made up to $115,610 nationally while the lowest-paid 10-percent made up to $41,710 nationally. The following industries employed the most computer programmers as of May 2011: computer systems design and related services, software publishers, management of companies and enterprises, employment services and insurance carriers (BLS.gov, 2012).

Quick Facts: Computer Programmers

*All facts from BLS.gov*

2011 National Median Pay          $72,630 per year
$34.92 per hour  
Entry-Level Education       Bachelor’s degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation   None
On-the-job Training       None
Number of Jobs, 2011          320,100
Job Outlook, 2010-20    12% nationally (About as fast as national average)
Employment Change, 2010-20   43,700



Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Computer Programmers,

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011, 15-1131 Computer Programmers, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes151131.htm

National Workflow Center for Emerging Technologies (NWCET), http://www.nwcet.org/



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