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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.
What Does a Programmer Do? The Life of a Programmer

This article was updated on Jan. 25, 2024 with additional contributions by Stefano Garzia.

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.

Programmers write software. However, if you become a computer programmer, you may find yourself performing a variety of tasks.

What Do Programmers Actually Do?

Computer programmers make sure mobile, portable and wearable technology works smoothly and reliably. 

Tim Hogg, a technical program facilitator of computer science programs at SNHUThey're 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.

“In today's technology-driven world, a programmer's primary role is to write, test and maintain the instructions (code) that computer software relies on," said Tim Hogg, a technical program facilitator of computer science programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). 

With extensive experience in the field, having served as a technology architect, operations manager, application developer and senior developer, Hogg noted that the programming profession has undergone significant changes. “Previously focused solely on coding, it now encompasses a broader scope, including understanding software design and collaborating closely with professionals from diverse backgrounds,” Hogg said.

A blue and yellow infographic with the text programmers use languages such as: C++, Python, Java and JavascriptComputer programmers work with other designers and programmers to plan each piece of the application or software and then determine how each part will work together.

"Programmers work with various tools, much like other craftsmen with their tools," Hogg said. They use languages like Python, JavaScript, Java and C++, along with tools like Git. And using front-end frameworks such as React and Angular help speed up development, according to Hogg.

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.

Dr. Gary Savard, associate dean of computer science at SNHUDr. Gary Savard, associate dean of computer science at SNHU, highlighted the diverse role of programmers today. "Programmers are responsible for taking the blueprints developed by the software architect, systems engineers, systems analysts and customers and making them reality by implementing their assigned part of the software system," Savard said. 

Savard is an expert in computer science and software engineering, with 30 years of experience in both technical and leadership roles.

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

Today, you probably use a variety of digital devices for tasks like checking the weather, handling data, playing video games and interacting on social media. Computer programming enables these activities, which have become integral parts of life.

By September 2022, there were more than 3.55 million apps in Google's Play Store and another 1.6 million in the Apple Store, according to market and consumer data firm Statista.

It's no wonder there are so many apps available, given just how many people use mobile devices. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, a vast majority of Americans — 97% — own a cellphone and 85% own a smartphone. A decade earlier, when Pew Research conducted its first survey on smartphone ownership, that number was just 35%.

A bachelor's in computer science primes grads to tap into this market and create apps like Minecraft, Venmo and CapCut. Students learn skills in software design and modeling, mobile application development and distributed application development.

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, a 2014 SNHU bachelor's in game design and development graduate

The 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 was worth an estimated $137.9 billion, according to Newzoo’s Global Game Market Report. By 2022, a Grand View Research report said the global gaming market was worth an estimated $217.1 billion.

Game Design programs at SNHU

In SNHU's game design program, campus students don't just learn; they actively participate in real projects, gaining valuable industry experience in their new Inkwell Interactive Game Studio. These hands-on projects, such as building a virtual reality campus tour and a game for Make-a-Wish client, not only enhance their academic experience but also prepare them for future careers, offering them opportunities to work on meaningful projects with real-world impact.

This type of education is called experiential learning, and it's one way to build the experience often needed for even entry-level roles. It includes participating in internships, volunteer work or relevant college projects. 

Online game art and development students at SNHU have participated in a Game Design Challenge where they've had the chance to work on a team to create a first-person shooter or puzzle game. This approach to learning can provide a better understanding of job roles and necessary skills as well as expand networking opportunities.

Web Developer

A blue and yellow infographic with the text programmers work in industries such as: e-commerce, finance, healthcare and technologyBesides using coding skills to create games, computer programmers can use their expertise to develop websites. 

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.

According to BLS, computer programmers usually work in an office setting, but they also have the flexibility to telecommute and do freelance work.

"Promising career opportunities for programmers are abundant in industries such as technology, finance, healthcare and e-commerce," Hogg said. These industries are more and more dependent on software solutions to improve their efficiency, according to Hogg.

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.

Finding a program that prepares you for your career is crucial. The curriculum at SNHU, for instance, encompasses a wide array of vital topics in applied computer science, according to Savard. 

"We teach multiple languages that are commonly used in industry but also give the student a well-rounded education in teamwork and other high-tech tools and concepts that are needed to be successful in software development," he said.

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 also opportunities to earn certificates to advance your degree, such as with a computer programming certificate.

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

Find Your Program

It’s Easy to Compute Your Future in IT

With the ability to be both creative and analytical, and to work across diverse industries and within the evolving job market, it's an opportune moment to follow your passion for computer programming.

An icon of a laptop.

Computer programmers are called many things, from programmers and software developers to computer designers, coders and systems analysts.

Artificial intelligence technology influences programmers across various fields. 

"We are just starting to understand how AI will fit into all aspects of our lives," Savard said. "Spending time to understand how AI is implemented in programming and how it may benefit us in business, medicine and other aspects of our lives will allow a programmer to write their own ticket.”

Due to the fast-changing nature of the industry, it's important for programmers to keep learning even after they finish their college degree. 

“It is recommended for students to stay up on emerging technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence," Hogg said. "Additionally, areas such as cybersecurity, DevOps practices and cloud computing offer promising career prospects.”

Remember, the field of computer programming is, at best, no more than 70 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.

Savard said programming is not a solitary task, but a collaborative and interactive endeavor. "The best programmers work to be solid team members and take the time to learn how each member communicates from their perspective," he said. "... Most programming teams that I have worked on have members from multiple countries and knowing a bit about your teammate's culture makes the team more effective and fun."

Discover more about SNHU's bachelor's in computer science: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Alexa Gustavsen is a content facilitator and writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Based in New Hampshire, she completed her bachelor's in creative writing and English at SNHU’s campus in 2021. Currently, she is pursuing her master's in marketing online at the university. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Stefano Garzia '22 earned his bachelor's degree in communication and chose to pursue his master's in the same field at Southern New Hampshire University. During this journey, he became deeply interested in learning. He loves making digital content and is passionate about telling stories. His work includes creating engaging content for various online platforms. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.