How to Become a Computer Programmer

What Is Computer Programming?

Our modern world is completely dependent on computers, which is why trained computer programmers will always be in demand. Computer programmers write the code that tells computers, apps, and programs what actions to take. 

Many people get started in this profession through self-study, learning computer languages in high school or coding bootcamps. To earn a good-paying job in this field, a bachelor’s degree may be the best way to go! 

Top earning computer programmers can make over $146,000 a year, with software publishing being the highest-paying sector. However, to save money, some companies rely on overseas talent, so it’s essential to stay competitive by keeping your skills sharp and up-to-date through education and training. 

What Does a Computer Programmer Do?

  • Listen to the employer’s project requirements, then use code to create instructions for computer programs to fulfill those requirements 
  • Write and correct programs written in various computer languages (like Java and C++)
  • Debug programs by carefully reviewing lines of code and methodically testing for problems
  • Revise programs as needed to handle specific new tasks
  • Expand on programs by adding new code to enable extra features and capabilities
  • Utilize logical flowcharts and diagrams to help visualize the operation, then convert the processes into coded language
  • Work closely with stakeholders and team members to ensure problems and goals are understood
  • Advise applicable personnel regarding potential problems or technical limitations
  • Create thorough documentation related to all program development, including changes
  • Write how-to guidance as needed

Computer Programming Salary and Jobs

Computer programmer jobs can be lucrative! The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for computer programmers is $89,190 (as of 2020). The highest-earning 10% of workers make in excess of $146,050. 

A computer programming salary is based on several variables. These salary variables include how much education and how many years of experience the worker has. BLS notes that programmers with at least a bachelor’s or familiarity with multiple languages should have the most prospects when it comes to finding good-paying jobs. 

Other key wage factors include what specialty the programmer works in. For example, Software-as-a-service (SaaS) is a hot trend, so average pay for experts in this area may be higher than in other areas. 

Geographic location is also a factor that influences computer programming salaries. These are the top-paying states for computer programmers:

  • Washington
  • District of Columbia
  • California
  • Virginia
  • Texas

BLS projects an 11% job growth for all computer occupations. Of course, that’s not a guarantee of future jobs, but it is a promising indicator! 

Would You Enjoy Being a Computer Programmer?

What kinds of people enjoy computer programming? Let’s look at some of the critical qualities required! 

Programmers should possess a great detail of concentration, must be very analytical thinkers, and should be super detail-oriented. They also have to be good at troubleshooting, which requires curiosity and investigative skills. 

In general, it’s fair to say that computer programmers are comfortable working alone for long periods of time, absorbed in the language of code. However, they still have plenty of interaction with coworkers and must be collaborative and exhibit strong interpersonal communication skills. 

By its nature, computer programming work is a “behind-the-scenes” endeavor, so some programmers might have a less outgoing personality than others. They are content doing their job outside of the limelight yet take pride in knowing their code is responsible for the successful operation of programs used by thousands (or even millions) of people.  

What Are the Pros and Cons of Being a Computer Programmer?

There are several benefits plus a few drawbacks to being a computer programmer! 

Pros of Computer Programming

  • In general, jobs pay well and can lead to exciting careers and promotions
  • There’s always something new to learn and discover, which helps the job feel fresh! 
  • A programmer’s work can have a significant impact on program users, which gives programmers a nice sense of job satisfaction

Cons of Computer Programming

  • The job can be stressful because there is so much riding on the accuracy of the code in our digital world. 
  • A minor oversight can lead to disastrous consequences that could cost the employer money and reputational status 
  • High competition from overseas programmers who can afford to work for lower wages due to currency exchange rates.

Steps to Become a Computer Programmer

The path to becoming a computer programmer often starts with self-study and high school foundational courses. But to gain true career potential, a bachelor’s degree in computer science (or a related field) is often needed. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach because every employer has their priorities when they’re searching for qualified candidates. Sometimes additional education, certification, or professional experience are necessary to get your dream job! 

Step One: Earn a Degree 

A lot of computer programming degree students decide to get their feet wet by first completing an associate degree to learn the fundamentals. These two-year degrees may qualify workers for certain entry-level positions if they also have work experience, a certification, or demonstrated proficiency in the skills desired by the employer. 

According to O*Net Online, 88% of computer programmers hold a bachelor’s degree. The most common major is computer science. Here are a few topics that computer science students will study:

  • Algorithms
  • Discrete mathematics
  • Computer architecture
  • Networks

Other common degrees include information technology, mathematics, and computer engineering. No matter which major is taken, students should focus on mastering programming languages and getting hands-on practice with job-related tasks. 

Step Two: Earn Additional Experience

Certain employers demand at least some work experience in a relevant position. This is the classic problem many applicants face since they cannot gain experience without a job, nor a job without any experience! 

One solution to this Catch-22 is to complete an internship while in college. Internships are an amazing way to get hands-on job experience that looks good on a resume. Sometimes internships can even lead to a job with the same company. 

Coding bootcamps are another great solution. They’re typically a shorter certification course, which teaches you basic fundamentals of the language you’ve chosen to learn.

You can also gain experience through volunteering or by taking related jobs where you get to work with experienced computer programmers. 

Step Three: Complete a Graduate Degree

Computer science master’s degree students will dive deeper into computer architecture, operating systems, networking, algorithms, and ways to leverage existing software. 

Completing a master’s degree is an excellent way to get ahead if it teaches you skills you’ll use on the job. However, sometimes computer programmers find themselves working for an employer who doesn’t have a lot of promotion opportunities for grad-level workers. Make sure you know what job you want to qualify for before enrolling in a master’s degree program. You might even have to switch employers in order to advance your career! 

Step Four: Become Certified

Achieving a particular certification can often be enough to make you eligible for more pay. It all depends on the employer and the position. Programmers have the option of obtaining certification in programming languages and tools, including:

There are many routes to certification, depending on which language you want to study. Several technical schools, community colleges, and high-ranked universities offer convenient certification options. 

In fact, many computer programming certifications can be completed entirely online. You can also sign up for three to six-month coding bootcamps or certification programs through platforms like this massive open online course provider, edX

How Long Does it Take to Become a Computer Programmer?

Computer programmers often start through self-study, which can last months or even years. Many also take programming throughout high school to hone their skills. 

However, as far as higher education goes, on average, it takes four years for a full-time college student to complete their computer programming degree — usually a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related area of study. Part-time students may take six to eight years, depending on their academic course load. 

Most schools have career centers to assist students with job seeking after graduation. Taking advantage of these services can significantly reduce the time it takes to find employment. 

Computer programming certification programs are substantially shorter, lasting three to six months, depending in part on how much you already know about the subject matter. These certifications are optional but can boost your credentials for specific jobs. Because they require intense study, it may be best to complete certifications before or after a bachelor’s degree, if desired.

Best Computer Programming Degree Programs

For bachelor of science degrees, future computer programmers usually major in one of these degree programs:

  • Computer science
  • Computer engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Information systems security
  • Information technology
  • Mathematics

While there are some advantages to studying a major outside your chosen profession, it’s usually better to focus on the most relevant subject matter. That is why computer science is generally the preferred major that employers like to see in an applicant. If you opt to major in one of the related fields, be sure to take plenty of classes that will specifically apply to the job you’re going after. 

Universities.com’s Top Schools for Computer Programmers

There are hundreds of universities around the country offering stellar computer programming degree programs. To save you some research time, we’ve put together a list of our top picks based on value, quality, and flexibility. Most offer both bachelor’s and master’s degree options, as well as online programs. 

University of Maryland – College Park – UMD’s Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering is recognized as a hub for technology, collaboration, and discovery. Its computer science programs regularly rank among the best in the nation. Along with bachelor’s and master’s options, it also features a Combined BS/MS Program that allows students to complete both in less time. 

Clemson University – South Carolina’s Clemson University is ranked in the top 10 “supercomputing campuses.” Its acclaimed Computer Science department features nationally recognized faculty within its graduate and undergrad programs. The program’s alumni have gone on to lucrative jobs at:

  • Amazon
  • Google
  • IBM
  • Apple
  • Microsoft
  • Boeing
  • Deloitte
  • And more!

DePaul University – Located in Chicago, Illinois, DePaul is home to the esteemed College of Computing and Digital Media. The college offers undergraduate degrees in computer science and information technology, plus graduate degrees in computer science, information systems, software engineering, and many others. Most programs can be completed online or in person. 

Temple University – Founded in 1884, Philadelphia’s Temple University is a highly-ranked school with a fun and active Greek life. Its popular College of Science and Technology offers BA, BS, and MS degrees in Computer Science, as well as an “accelerated +1” option to complete two degrees in less time. There’s also an online MS in Information Science and Technology. 

Kansas State University – With a focus on family values, K-State fosters a diverse and welcoming student community. Its world-class department of computer science has five undergraduate degree options and on-campus or online MS programs. The latest offering is a BA/BS in Integrated Computer Science allowing students to combine studies outside the computer science world to add cultural and ethical knowledge. 

Minnesota State University-Mankato – Located 85 miles from Minneapolis and St. Paul, MSU Mankato sprawls across 303 scenic acres and hosts a wide variety of student organizations, activities, and athletics options. The College of Science, Engineering & Technology offers numerous degree options for students, including a cutting-edge BS in Computer Science and Master’s in Information Technology.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock – A thriving metropolitan research university, UA Little Rock has a small, tight-knit student population, allowing for a great faculty-to-student ratio. The Department of Computer Science makes its home inside a modern $40 million facility featuring high-performance computing clusters. The Department of Computer Science offers several exciting options, including a BS with a video game programming focus. 

Rowan University – Rowan is a small historical New Jersey school blending the past, present, and future. The computer science department offers BS and MS in Computer Science options, plus related degree programs. Students learn together in the department’s Computational Research Lab, designed to promote creative collaboration. The new Thrive initiative helps students tackle challenges and maintain well-being and focus. 

Metropolitan State University – Nestled on a beautiful St. Paul campus in Minneapolis, Metropolitan State University is a relatively new institution created to serve non-traditional students in the Twin Cities area. As its mission expanded, the university has grown to support over 10,000 students. The College of Sciences oversees many award-winning programs, including BS and MS degrees in Computer Science. 

University of Cincinnati-Main Campus – Founded in 1819, UC is the second-largest university in Ohio and part of the state university system. Backed by a $1.40 billion endowment, UC has ample funding for research, top-notch faculty, and outstanding student services. The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offers an array of options, including BS, MS, and MEng degrees in Computer Science. 

Where Can I Learn More About How to Become a Computer Programmer?

  • Association for Computing Machinery – ACM is a global, 100,000+ member organization with hundreds of chapters and is associated with dozens of Special Interest Groups. 
  • CompTIA – A vendor-neutral organization known for education and training, CompTIA promotes the growth of the global IT ecosystem and its ~75 million workers. 
  • IEEE Computer Society – The go-to resource for Computer Scientists and Engineers, IEEE’s Computer Society helps individuals via conferences, learning opportunities, publications and libraries, and international standard-setting.
  • Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals – ICCP hosts events, provides education and certification opportunities, and offers best practice and other helpful resources to employers and employees within the information workforce.

FAQ

What are some computer programming jobs I can get with a computer programming degree?

A computer programming degree opens opportunities for careers such as software or mobile app developer, web development for creative types, and systems analyst or Big Data engineering for analytical thinkers. 

Does a computer programmer need a license or master’s degree?

No, you can get started with a bachelor’s or, in some cases, just an associate degree or certification. You don’t need a license or a master’s degree to be a computer programmer.

What are the requirements to be a computer programmer?

Computer programmers typically hold a bachelor’s degree in computer and information technology, computer science, or a related field. It’s sometimes possible to get hired without those as long as you have sufficient experience in program languages or a related certification. 

Does coding require math?

Yes, coding can require math to build an understanding of the foundations of programming. Math is also helpful for developing analytical thinking and attention to detail.

Can I get a programming job with a certificate?

It depends. Employers view certificates as an institution-provided assessment of your aptitude and knowledge in specific areas of programming, so for some jobs, that is enough to qualify.

Is there a high demand for computer programmers?

There is a continuous demand for programmers in general. A bachelor’s degree or higher plus certifications can help you stay competitive. Learning multiple programming languages can increase your odds of landing jobs.

What are the disadvantages of being a computer programmer?

Programming is a demanding, sometimes stressful field. Those who want to succeed must constantly improve their programming language knowledge to stay relevant and compete against other coders locally and abroad.

Is a programming job stressful?

Computer programming can be stressful due to the importance of accuracy. Many work long hours to meet deadlines, which can cause unhealthy lifestyles such as sitting for too long, insufficient exercise, excessive caffeine consumption, or poor diet habits.

What is the average computer programmer salary?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for computer programmers is $89,190 as of May 2020. Software publishing is the industry that paid the highest for programmers, with a median annual wage of $103,710.

Can programming make you rich?

The word “rich” is relative. However, computer programmers may enjoy higher than average salaries, but programming jobs usually won’t make you an easy millionaire. Most rich programmers took entrepreneurial routes, building their own companies. 

Do coders work long hours?

Programmers usually work at least 40 hour weeks. Weekend and late-night sessions may be necessary to fix technical issues or update websites, but the nature of the job may allow them to work remotely.

Matt Cates

Matt is a retired Air Force veteran and former courtesy faculty at Oregon State University's AFROTC department. As a freelance copywriter and content creator, he's written for over 250+ companies around the world. Matt specializes in career and higher education topics, with the aim of helping students find the best college programs for their career goals.