The ultimate guide to becoming a programmer

If you’re interested in a career in programming, here’s your guide to getting started

What do Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Google co-founder Larry Page and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg all have in common? Each of them has worked as a programmer. 

For those unfamiliar with the occupation, programmers are the people behind the scenes who ensure the tech you use daily works. Of course, there’s much more to it than that. 

Here, we’ll help you understand what a programmer does, what skills you need to become a programmer, what job opportunities are available and where to find programming jobs. 

What does a programmer do?

Saying programmers design, develop and test software is simplifying the role. A better explanation is programmers work alongside software developers to write the code for software applications and operating systems. Programmers write code in a variety of programming languages, including Python, Ruby, Java and others. 

Once a piece of software is complete, programmers ensure everything functions as expected through multiple rounds of testing and getting feedback from other programmers, clients and team members. 

Once a piece of software or application has passed testing and is deployed, programmers take a step back and provide updates to the software as needed. 

Quick facts about working as a programmer:

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for programmers in 2019 was $86,550 per year.
  • Programmers held about 250,300 jobs in 2018.
  • 38% of programmers worked in computer systems design in 2018.
  • Programmers usually work alone, making this a great job for introverts.

What type of programmer do you want to be?

Keep in mind, programming is a broad field. To be successful, you must decide what type of programmer to be. Think very carefully about what subfield interests you most and the skills you’d like to learn along the way.

Common types of programmers:

  • Computer programmers write and edit code for software and ensure the programs run error-free. Computer programmers are great problem solvers who can troubleshoot and resolve errors. 
  • Programmer analysts perform the jobs of systems analysts and computer programmers by designing, developing and implementing software and computer systems. 
  • Web developers can work as on the front end or back end of a website. Front-end developers write code dictating what a website looks like. Back-end developers write web apps that provide the framework on which the website runs.
  • Mobile app developers work with computer analysts and software engineers to create and develop mobile apps. Mobile app developers also test apps before publication to ensure they function as expected.

Do you need a college degree to be a programmer?

While it’s common for a programmer to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a similar subject, some employers will hire a programmer with an associate’s degree or no degree at all. 

For you, the aspiring programmer, this means deciding how to secure the knowledge, skills and experience you need to land the job you want. 

Paths to becoming a programmer:

  • If you decide to go the college route, there are plenty of options. Several colleges and universities offer computer science programs that’ll give you the foundation you need to become a successful programmer. 
  • If you’re interested in pursuing a formal education but aren’t ready to make a four-year commitment, consider pursuing an associate’s degree at your local community college. Many community colleges offer IT certificate programs too.
  • If college just isn’t in the cards for you, there are plenty of websites and organizations offering online training. Websites like MIT OpenCourseWare, LinkedIn Learning, Udemy and Codeacademy all offer online programming courses.

Learn a programming language

If you’re going to be a programmer, you must learn a programming language. Each programming language uses a unique set of keywords and distinct syntax for organizing program instructions. 

There are hundreds of programming languages, so it’s important to decide which is most suitable for your career goals.

Well-known programming languages:

  • Java is one of the most versatile programming languages. For programming beginners, Java is a great language to find out if programming is right for you.
  • JavaScript is essential to front-end web development and creating interactive webpages that dynamically display content to visitors. It’s used by some of the internet’s most popular sites and is a good place to start if you’re interested in becoming a web developer.
  • Python is another versatile and widely used programming language. Python is used in software development, web development and technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence.
  • CSS/HTML are separate programming languages but are often paired together. Learn HTML and CSS together to create appealing, skillfully designed webpages.
  • Swift is a programming language used to develop macOS, iOS, watchOS and tvOS applications. If you’re interested in developing software or apps for Apple products, start with Swift.
  • Ruby is a programming language commonly used in web development and is the basis for the Ruby on Rails web application framework. Ruby is also useful in data analysis, prototyping and proof of concepts.

Applying for programming jobs

You’ve earned a degree or learned a commonly used programming language, now you want to apply for a programming job. Once your resume is in order, your cover letter is drafted and you know what type of programming job you’d like to pursue, it’s time to search the job boards.

Best jobs boards for programmers

  • Indeed is one of the best-known job boards. You can search by location, keyword and even salary to find a programming job.
  • Geekwork lets you filter jobs by tags, making it even easier to find the type of programming job you have in mind.
  • GitHub Jobs is a bare-bones job board, but its Hot Searches feature makes it easy to find programming jobs based on the programming language you know best.
  • Stack Overflow features jobs for programmers of all levels. Search by the tech you like, perks you would enjoy at work and the compensation you expect.
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