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How to Become a Computer Programmer in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Steps to becoming a computer programmer

Computer programmers are the architects, designers, construction workers and scientists of the digital sphere. Programming is used in an array of career paths related to computer science, information systems, information technology, software engineering, computer science, and computer engineering.

In most cases, students start off by studying an overview of computer science or programming. During a degree or boot camp course, learners cover a range of topics, devices, and applications, and many leave with a clear idea of the specific field they’d like to go into. While developers are responsible for creating software, programmers use code to bring programs to life, install updates, fix bugs, and implement improvements as necessary.

Computer programmers might specialize in mobile applications, game design, automated systems in manufacturing, operating systems, or any other software-reliant niche.

With more people than ever relying on the internet for work, leisure, shopping, and staying organized, there’s never been more demand for coders and programmers. In this article, we’ll explore the routes into careers in jobs such as computer science, software engineering, and web development. Plus, you’ll discover the hard and soft skills required to enter the field, look into top schools and boot camps, and find out more about the job outlook for computer programmers.

How to become a computer programmer

While you don’t strictly need a college qualification to get into computer programming, many prospective employers now prefer candidates who have a four-year degree. In 2013, there was a shortage of computer programmers, which led to the development of many boot camps and degree courses. However, things have changed considerably since then.

In recent years, the emergence of the global marketplace has shifted the landscape. Coding is a universal language and U.S. employers can outsource to other countries where labor is cheaper. As such, domestic computer programmers and software engineers need to go the extra mile to stand out.

Boot camps and associate degrees alone might not be enough to land your dream job as a coder, but they can certainly complement your prior studies and prepare you for a further education in the field. 

This is generally accepted as being the best path to becoming a computer programmer:

  1. Earn a degree 
  2. Choose a specialization, such as information systems, computer systems analysis, or software development
  3. Always keep up-to-date with the latest coding developments

Read on to find out what to expect in the various computer programming degree courses, including an in-depth look at the coursework topics you might encounter.

Associate’s degree

If you’re apprehensive about getting into a career in coding and want to start slowly and carefully, consider studying a two-year associate’s degree. They can also be the perfect entry point for lower-income students who are interested in pursuing an education at community college. If you study hard and score highly, you could get a scholarship onto a bachelor’s degree program, which is generally required for those at the top of their field in computer programming. 

You can even get into an entry-level career as a web developer or database designer with an associate degree, which teaches students to design and code programs with end users in mind. Additionally, you learn how to debug applications to make them run better and gain experience in matching the correct coding language with various project specifications. Students come away with the following knowledge and skills:

  • Design and code programs using C++
  • Test and debug C++ programs
  • Build programs using JavaScript
  • Test and debug Java programs
  • Use command prompts to manage operating systems
  • Design and implement simple algorithms
  • Learn the history of computing technology
  • Understand presentations, software, databases and word processing
  • Apply knowledge of computers in education and business settings    

Bachelor’s degree

If you’re serious about getting into a top career as a computer programmer, a bachelor’s degree is a must. It can serve as a springboard to a master’s degree or prepare you for a job in the field. Bachelor of Science programs delve deep into the mathematical and scientific aspects of computer programming. Computer architecture, software design, algorithms, and discrete math are examples of coursework topics you might study.

A Bachelor of Arts degree in computer science or programming tends to be more general and less technical, although this varies from course to course. In addition to coursework, you usually complete a final project that demonstrates what you’ve learned over the duration of the course. You also meet with an advisor who assesses where you’re at and offers career guidance. Expect to graduate with the following knowledge and skills:

  • Design and implement network protocols
  • Secure communication networks
  • Use digital logic and digital representation
  • Understand computer architecture
  • Use machine learning, machine assembly and programming languages simultaneously
  • Solve problems using mathematics
  • Apply algorithms to fix problems
  • Create math proofs
  • Structure data effectively
  • Use algorithms to create graphs
  • Use algorithms to find optimal objects
  • Create algorithms to search databases and sort lists

Master’s degree

At master’s degree level, you might struggle to find a course as broad as computer programming. By this stage, students have usually zeroed in on a specialty, such as UX development, data science, software engineering, or another related field.

If you’re looking for the most general course, computer science provides students with an extensive education in software development, algorithms, and computer architecture. What’s more, you often get the chance to gain experience in the field at master’s level.

In-depth course examples

If you’re wondering whether you need a computer science degree to get a job in the technology field, the answer is complicated. While it’s not a strict requirement as it would be in the medical, engineering, or accountancy industries — a degree puts you at a major advantage in the job market. It also provides you with the foundational knowledge and skills required to perform at a top level. 

Let’s take a look at some of the courses you can expect to study while pursuing an education in computer programming. 

Computer programming 

Programming 101 is one of the most useful and informative topics you’ll cover in the field because it teaches you how to program. Getting your head around these complexities can be challenging without the guidance of an expert tutor, which is why many data scientists and computer programmers now choose to study at university or college. 

On this course, you learn skills such as, if statements, boolean logic, struct creation, loops, class creation, polymorphism, creating interfaces, and more. 

Data structures

Data structures form the backbone of most coding languages, allowing you to store data in a way that complements the program you’re creating. Storing data for optimal time and space performance is an essential skill for all programmers. Graphs, heaps, linked lists, doubly links list, stacks, arrays, trees and self-balancing trees help programmers organize data better and understand how data structures work. 

Students learn how important memory management is, including allocation and clean-up. When it comes to interviews, there’s a good chances data structures will come up, so make sure you pay attention in this class!   

Working with algorithms

Algorithms drive software, machine learning, software engineering, and data science. Something you’ll learn in this class is big O notation, which lets programmers evaluate code and measure code performance. Problems you might cover in this class include the traveling salesman problem and the knapsack problem. When you complete the class, you should have an overview of the most famous algorithms, what they’re used for, and how to implement them.   

Web development

When it comes to applicable tech skills, web development is one of the classes that teach the most. You’ll learn how to build a website, how to send requests from the front end to the back end, and how the back end processes requests and sends a response back to the front end. Languages you’ll learn might include JSON, PHP, JavaScript, JQuery, CSS, and HTML.

What’s more, this type of course usually primes students to be able to quickly understand and learn a new coding language, data format, or framework.    

Introduction to databases

Databases are technological structures that protect, organize, save, and deliver data. Telephone directories and card indices are examples of databases. This class usually focuses on using SQL for running data queries, manipulating data, sharding, and clustering. Some computer programmers’ jobs rely heavily on SQL, whereas others will barely use it.  

Software engineering

Software engineering is one of the broadest subjects you’ll study on a computer programming course. This branch of computer science is concerned with designing and building application software and systems software. Project management methods such as Waterfall and Scrum are key components of this course, in addition to the various types of testing and debugging.

Accessibility and usability are topics you’ll cover in-depth, in addition to learning how to analyze and implement end-user requirements.

Computer architecture

Computer architecture takes you under the hood of the various technological devices that are most widely used in modern society. This means learning about how machine code sends instructions and gets processed by the computer, in addition to using assembly coding languages such as MASM.

MASM is one of the coding languages that are most similar to machine code, while high-level coding languages such as C or Python are more akin to human language.   0

Operating systems

Operating systems such as Windows, Linux, MacOS, iOS, and Android are low-level software platforms that house a computer’s basic functions. On this course, learners gain an understanding of operating system mechanisms, abstractions, and implementations. You also learn about the main components of an operating system, which are the kernel, process management, memory management, security, networking, and file systems and disk access.

Introduction to computer networks

This class teaches students overview of how computers function, with a particular focus on internet protocols such as DNS, SSH, IMAP, IP, TCP, HTTPS, and HTTP. It’s essential for many programmers to have a clear understanding of these protocols, why they were created, and how to implement them. They’re vital when it comes to emails, network requests, and security.

You’ll come away with this course with a comprehension of how the internet functions and how it facilitates global communication. 

Introduction to usability engineering

In this class, you learn how to develop an application and make it accessible. One of the main functions for software is to make life easier for people, but for this to happen, it needs to be usable for everyone. Anyone who designs software must be aware of how to use functions such as text-to-speech and design software that functions using a variety of sensory inputs. This is a general class that doesn’t necessarily cover the specific guidelines for each operating system. 

Does coding boot camp qualify you to become a programmer?

Another option for individuals who are interesting in pursuing a career in computer programming is to study at boot camp. These courses are usually around 12 weeks long and cost approximately $12,000 to complete, making them much faster and cheaper than a college degree. In most cases, you’ll need to take time out from work to focus on your studies, and there’s no guarantee of a job at the other end.

If you have background knowledge and/or experience in computer engineering and you’re looking to level-up your expertise, boot camp is perfect. It could even see you finishing the course with the ability to command a higher salary.

However, if you have no previous understanding of coding and want to get a foot in the door of the industry, a degree program will give you more career options and the opportunity to earn a higher annual wage. Nonetheless, boot camp alone could see you landing an entry-level position as a web developer or UX designer, earning around $70,000 per year. 

Skills needed to be a computer programmer

While programming involves an array of tricky and technical-sounding skills such as math, coding, and understanding algorithms, you don’t need to be a genius to get into the field. Many of the professionals who thrive within this industry are tech-savvy problem-solvers who want to find the most efficient and effective ways to perform various functions. 

Book smarts are a bonus, but determination, hard work and tenacity will get you even further. Provided you’re willing to put in the time and effort required to succeed as a computer programmer, you’ll climb up the career ladder and land your dream computer science job in no time. Read on to find out about the specific hard skills required to become a top-performing programmer as well as the personality traits and soft skills possessed by industry leaders.

Top computer programmer personality traits

It’s not easy to pin down specific traits that the most successful computer programmers and software engineers possess without a large, unbiased dataset to analyze. However, there are some traits that anyone in the industry could hone to improve their standing, such as:

  • Logic: If you’re the sort of person who gets caught up in nuances of meaning and enjoys subjectivity, data science might not be for you. On the other hand, if you’re all about finding the fastest route to a solution with the fewest steps, it definitely is. Logic underpins syntax, debugging, design, and coding. Being able to think logically and keep it simple are essential in this job.  
  • Creativity: One of the reasons programming appeals to so many people in because it’s one of the rare mainstream job roles where maths are creativity are encouraged. Solving programming tasks is a lot like solving puzzles and the best programmers are creative about maximizing performance and profitability from the software they manipulate.
  • Self-motivated: Coding is the perfect career for individualists who love getting left to get on with a job. In many software development or computer programmer roles, you might be the only person with relevant expertise. As such, you won’t have anyone to check over your work or direct you in your role — you’re in charge of fixing the problems given to you to solve.
  • Passionate: Coding requires hard work and dedication, which means passionate programmers often perform the best. Trawling through code, looking for bugs and opportunities for improvement can take hours, and the more passionate you are about computers and software, the easier this will feel.
  • Patience: Last but not least is patience. In fact, it might be the most important trait for someone entering this field. Sometimes, the job of a programmer is comparable to finding a needle in a haystack. It’s tricky to be passionate about learning some of the minutiae of coding — so you need to have patience to carry you through.  

Soft skills 

In addition to the above personality traits, developing the following soft skills will hold you in good stead for an interview and role as a computer programmer:

Communication: As a programmer, you’ll work with IT experts, managers, ground workers and pretty much everyone in between if you’re in a small company or startup. As such, you need to be able to communicate complex tech ideas in simple language than non-expert can understand.

Organization: Effectively managing space and time are essential components of a programmer’s job. You’ll need to know how much physical and mental energy to apply to each task as well as be able to focus for extended periods.

Attention to detail: This is an absolute must when it comes to any aspect of computer science. The more detail-oriented you are, the faster and more effectively you’ll be able to problem-solve.

Progress: If you’re the sort of person who thrives on constantly updating and tweaking your knowledge so you’re at the forefront of your field, programming is for you. Code and software development are constantly upgrading and evolving, so you’ll need to have a passion for progress to succeed in the field.

Multitasking: With larger projects, there’s a good chance you’ll be juggling several complex tasks one any given day. New problems will pop up unexpectedly all the time, and you’ll need to roll with the punches and keep your priorities in order no matter what.

Hard skills

Hard skills are crucial when it comes to working as a computer programmer, but keep in mind that they’re the easiest skills to learn. Provided you dedicate yourself to your studies and work tirelessly to grasp concepts and put them into practice, you’ll be able to develop the technical expertise required for the role. Some of the major proficiencies you’ll learn in preparation for becoming a computer scientist include:

  • Linux
  • Java
  • Python
  • JavaScript
  • C#
  • C++
  • Ruby
  • ASP.NET
  • SQL
  • Rust
  • PHP
  • HTML
  • Perl
  • Visual Basic
  • Data structures
  • Databases
  • Algorithms
  • Numeracy
  • IT
  • Source control

Education needed to become a computer programmer

To become a computer programmer, you’ll need to study a course in computer science, IT, or computer engineering. While you can go to boot camp or get an associate’s degree, at least a four-year bachelor’s is generally preferred by most employers. Below is a list of the top five coding boot camps and the top five schools for studying programming languages, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Top five coding boot camps

Top five schools for computer programmers

Job outlook for computer programmers

The job outlook for computer programmers and software engineers is a complicated picture. A few years ago, the role was underserved and there simply weren’t enough programmers to cover demand. Now the world is truly connected by the internet and remote working has taken off, many employers turn to countries where labor is cheaper to hire computer scientists. As such, demand for U.S.-based programmers has fallen somewhat, and is expected to recede a further 9% between 2019 and 2029.

On the flip side, top companies from all over the world who are looking for the best of the best are likely to seek talent from the United States. Plus, many start-ups and small companies want an in-house computer scientist to perform a variety of functions.

Provided you dedicate yourself to consistently upskilling and hone your soft skills as well as your hard skills, you’ll be able to get a job with excellent security and a hefty wage packet. The mean annual salary is $95,540, which is well above the national average.

How to prepare for a programmer interview

Now you’re fully qualified and you’re looking for a role in the field of computer programming. Pay attention to these tips for interview preparation to give yourself the best chance of making an excellent first impression.

Preparation

Congratulations on being invited for an interview! You should be super proud. Now it’s time to get ready for the interview. Conduct thorough research on the company and prepare plenty of questions to ask about any information you couldn’t find. Make sure your portfolio is tidy and showcases the very best of your coding work — it doesn’t matter if it’s only coursework at the moment, your potential employer will want to see how you work.

Finally, make sure you’re looking smart and arrive at least 10 minutes early. If you’ve never been to the location before, make the effort to do a test-run in advance. That way, on the day, you won’t have the last-minute stress of trying to find the location. 

Interview question examples

To stand out, you should focus on being a confident, top-level communicator with all the skills required for the job description. Show that you’ll be an asset to the team and not just someone who’s there to crunch numbers and solve problems. Some of the interview questions you’ll probably encounter include:

  • Why are you interested in this organization?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • How will you add value to the company?
  • Give an example of a time you handled conflict
  • How do you work as part of a team?
  • Can you work well under pressure? 

Practical skills test

There’s a good chance the interviewer will put your skills to the test during your interview. They might ask you to perform the following tasks:

  • Describe how you’d solve a particular problem
  • Rewrite code in another coding language
  • Detect bugs and resolve them in a coding script
  • Provide a quick-time analysis of the time and space required to perform a task 

Computer programming occupations 

Computer programming is a general term that covers various roles within the computer science field. Programmers use code, which is a set of commands that tell computers how to perform tasks, to solve problems, build software, design apps, and more.

Practically every industry now relies on software to some extent, so the specific niche you work within is entirely down to your own preference. You could work in accounting, acoustic engineering, hospitality systems, dating app development, music software creation, and everything in-between.

Being able to understand and use programing language has utility in many branches of computer science, including:

  • Computer programmer
  • Software engineer
  • Database developer
  • Cloud engineer
  • Data scientist
  • Machine learning engineer
  • Deep learning engineer
  • Mobile game developer
  • Mobile app developer
  • Full stack developer
  • Front end developer
  • Back end developer
  • UX developer

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