What Do Programmers Do, Anyway?

Computer programmers design, develop and test software and ensure software adheres to best practices in performance, reliability and security. Computer programmers can work developing mobile applications, coding video games, programming websites and much more.
Become a Programmer

What do Apple I creator Steve Wozniak, Microsoft inventor Bill Gates and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg all have in common? Before being known as visionaries, entrepreneurs and even millionaires, they were known as something else: computer programmers. But you may wonder what the life of a programmer looks like, and you're not alone.

The simple answer is: Writing computer software. However, if you become a computer programmer, you may find yourself performing a variety of tasks.

But, one thing is certain, as Americans check the weather, crunch numbers, play video games and "like" their friends’ posts on a wider variety of digital devices, the popularity of computer programming has soared.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, a huge majority of Americans – 96% – own a cellphone and 81% own a smartphone. That number was just 35% less than a decade ago when Pew Research conducted its first survey on smartphone ownership, according to the group. The report also found that nearly 75% of Americans own a desktop or laptop computer and about half own an e-reader and half own a tablet computer.

What Does a Programmer Do?

We rely on so many devices, from our smartphones and laptops to our satellite navigation systems and fitness trackers. Computer programmers make sure our mobile, portable and wearable technology works smoothly and reliably.

Computer programmers are responsible for analyzing their clients' needs. Then, they design, develop and test software that meets those needs. Computer programmers will also leverage their expertise to ensure the software is developed in accordance to industry standards and best practices in performance, reliability and security.

They work with other designers and programmers to plan each piece of the application or software and then determine how each part will work together. They primarily write code using a variety of languages, including Python, C++ and Java, that a computer can read.

To make sure everything functions correctly, computer programmers do frequent iterations of design, development, integration of software components, testing and getting feedback from clients.  After an application or program is working smoothly and deployed, computer programmers update and extend the functionality of existing software.

Now that you understand more about some of the job-related tasks they perform, let’s explore what kinds of things computer programmers actually help design and build.

Computer Programming Jobs

Because computer programming is a broad field, there are myriad ways you can use the skills you develop in programming to forge a successful career. Some of the common areas computer programmers work include mobile applications, website development and more.

Mobile App Development

If you’ve ever visited an app store on your mobile phone or tablet, you know that there’s an application for everything – rom boosting business productivity and tracking your run, to teaching your kids the ABCs. By March 2018 there were more than 2.8 million apps in Google's Play Store and another 1.9 million in the Apple Store in November 2020, according to market and consumer data firm Statista.

As reported at its Worldwide Developers Conference 2018, Apple has paid $100 billion to iOS developers since its App Store first opened in July 2008. In 2019, it's estimated that 26.4 million software developers are working on apps globally, according to industry media firm BusinessofApps.

A bachelor's in computer science primes grads to tap into this white-hot market and create apps like Shazam, Words with Friends and Venmo. Students learn skills in software design and modeling, mobile application development and distributed application development.

How to Become a Computer Game Programmer

Computer programmers can also design video, online and mobile games. Each game includes millions of lines of code, complex storylines and well-developed characters.

Derald Wise with the text Derald WiseThe more inviting the game, the more players it attracts, as Derald Wise ’14 '18G learned. While Wise was in the Army, he got the chance to put his programming skills to the test. “The military was starting to use a First Person Shooter video game called ‘Virtual Battle Space 2,’ to help train soldiers and Marines for combat. Though still a relatively new concept, I was offered a job developing scenarios for the military as a game developer,” he said.

While the experience was invaluable, Wise finally realized he needed a degree to further his career. He eventually earned his bachelor's in game design and development. “With this degree, I have been able to get more visibility in the job market, resulting in offers from multiple simulation companies,” he said. 

As Wise’s offers heated up, so did the job market. In 2018, the global gaming market is worth an estimated $137.9 billion, according to Newzoo’s Global Game Market Report.

Computer Programmer Web Developer

Besides using coding skills to create games, computer programmers can use their expertise to develop web sites. 

Web developers are responsible for the overall look and functionality of the sites that people visit, overseeing design as well as technical elements, including speed and how much traffic the site can handle.

Front-end developers use HTML, CSS or JavaScript, to bring a website to life. Back-end developers are less concerned with the user experience design and more intent on making sure that all the moving pieces work as one. Typically, they use PHP, Ruby or Python to create applications that connect the back end of the website to the front end.

Computer programmers usually work within IT departments, but they also have the flexibility to telecommute and do freelance work. You’ll find computer programmers in a multitude of industries, including healthcare, finance, government, defense, retail, science, education, business and entertainment.

Computer Programming Degrees

A bachelor's in computer science allows students to work on real-world problems in computer software design and development. It can be a good way to become a well-rounded programmer. Other options include a bachelor's in game programming and development, which prepares you not only for games and simulations but also for the development of software applications. Finally, there's a bachelor's in information technologies with a software development concentration.

There are graduate programs that can help bring those skills to a higher level, with a master's in information technology with concentrations in software application development or web design.

It’s Easy to Compute Your Future in IT

With the ability to be both creative and analytical, work in a variety of industries and get in on an exploding job market, there's never been a better time to pursue your dream of becoming a computer programmer. Computer programmers are called many things, from programmers and software developers to computer designers, coders and systems analysts.

Remember, the field of computer programming is, at best, no more than 60 years old, so what computer programmers are called and what computer programmers do is continually evolving.

By nature, computer programmers are tech-savvy problem solvers who understand how things work. They usually have well-developed analytical skills, are creative and can maintain their focus and pay attention to even the smallest details.

As Donald Knuth, a pioneer in the field and author of "The Art of Computer Programming" so eloquently sums up, “Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty.”

Dale Stokdyk is a marketer passionate about STEM higher education. Follow him on Twitter @dalestokdyk or connect on LinkedIn.

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