How to Become a Computer Programmer
Computer programming is a fast-growing field and one that has become crucial in our technology-driven world. Programmers create the software and operating systems that all computer systems rely on, from desktop PCs to smartphones to laptops and other mobile devices. They also test programs for bugs, fix any errors that may pop up in code, and write updates for existing programs.
Because computer programmers are needed for everything from web design to mobile apps to video games, there are many career options available to anyone experienced in this field. It's an ideal choice for anyone with a strong background in mathematics and the ability to work with the sequential, logical processes that computers depend on.
Computer programming focuses on the use of programming languages, such as C++, Java, or HTML, to create various types of software. It is a more open-ended field, compared to other computer science fields like computer graphics, which focuses on visual arts, graphic images, and video; computer engineering, which focuses on the design and development of technology and hardware; or computer networking, which involves the communication between computers connected via a local area network and the internet.
How to Become a Computer Programmer
If you want to learn computer programming, there are several key steps. Your goals may vary, depending on whether you are looking for a career in web design, operating systems, video games, or mobile apps, but planning out your future is important no matter which path you take.
There are five steps to becoming a programmer:
- Decide which type of training is right for you;
- Choose the best major/degree for your career goals;
- Get an internship in a tech-related field;
- Consider earning certifications;
- Build valuable job experience.
Step 1: Decide Which Type of Training is Best for You
First, consider the best type of training for you. There are several options available, and the best choice will often depend on the individual. Some people learn better in a classroom environment, while others may prefer more direct, hands-on training.
You should consider which of the following options is the best fit for your personal learning style.
A technical institute or trade school can be an alternative way to learn how to become a computer programmer. One of the advantages is that a degree at a technical institute generally only takes two years, instead of the four years required for a college degree. It also saves you money on tuition, since you'll be finished with your education sooner and able to jump right into the workforce.
Another key difference is that a technical institute will focus purely on your computer programming training, without any additional courses outside of your major. A four-year degree, by comparison, requires students to take additional general education courses in literature, history, and the arts. These additional courses give students a more well-rounded education and help provide them with more career options, particularly if you ever decided to change careers later in life. But if you want to pursue a more focused education that stays centered on the specific skills you need to learn computer programming, then a technical institute might be the best choice.
College or University
A traditional college education is the most common choice, and it provides students with the most well-rounded education. It's also the best choice for students who want to continue their education with a master's degree. The higher cost of tuition for a four-year college is offset by the fact that college graduates tend to earn higher salaries. They're also the best choice for students who do well learning in a classroom setting.
Earning a college degree can also offer you more options when it comes to choosing your major, or for adding a minor to your degree. The wider range of options can be helpful for students who aren't sure which path suits them best. Because of the overlap in areas of study, it's often possible to take courses from a variety of related disciplines before settling on the best choice for you.
If you prefer to work from home, you can also learn programming online. An online degree allows you the freedom to fit your coursework into your schedule, which can be ideal for parents or people who are working full time while they go to school. The most important thing to keep in mind when pursuing an online degree is making sure you attend an accredited school to ensure employer acceptance.
Top online schools for computer sciences include Capella University, which offers degrees in Information Technology and Systems Development; and Grand Canyon University, which offers degrees in Computer Programming.
Teaching Yourself Programming
If you're a motivated self-starter, you can also try to learn programming from home. The internet is filled with online tutorials, samples of code in different languages, and other free resources you can use. By following an online how-to guide, you can become a programmer while learning at your own pace and setting your own curriculum.
You might decide to teach yourself programming at home, but that option doesn't work for everyone. Teaching yourself computer programming from home isn't easy. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and hard work.It can be difficult for some people to learn programming skills without the guidance of a teacher. Also, an experienced learning institution is likely to know more about the best steps to take and the most effective way to learn the required skills. You might want to consider a more traditional form of education if you aren't sure you can do it on your own.
Step 2: Choosing a Degree & Major
A well-rounded education is crucial to success in the computer programming field. Consider your career goals and the amount of time you're willing to dedicate to education when deciding which degree level to pursue.
An associate's degree can offer you a basic education in computer programming, and might be enough to get you started in some entry level programming jobs. Most higher-level jobs, however, will require a more advanced degree. You might want to consider getting a two-year degree if you want to get into the workforce sooner, then continue working towards a more advanced degree later on.
- Purdue University Global Associate of Applied Science in Information Technology / Programming & Software Development
- Champlain College Associate of Science in Software Development
A bachelor's degree, a four-year program, is best for most basic programming careers. This degree will give you all of the skills you need to work in a variety of programming fields, and many universities offer a variety of specializations, such as information technology, network administration, or software development. A four-year program will also allow you to acquire a general education in other helpful areas, such as report writing, public speaking, and critical thinking, which can be helpful tools to strengthen your career.
A master's degree is the best choice if you want to maximize your career potential. Getting a master's degree in computer programming will not only give you a wider array of skills, it will also make you more valuable to a potential employer. Programmers with a master's degree generally earn higher salaries, and it will provide you with more career options to choose from. Also, some employers offer tuition reimbursement to help their employees pay for a more advanced degree, so getting your master's degree might be something you decide to pursue after you're already working in the programming field. You will need to have a bachelor's before enrolling in a master's program but your undergraduate education can be in any field, not just computer science.
- Liberty University Master of Science in Information Technology / Software Design & Management
- Jacksonville State University Master of Science in Computer Systems & Software Design
Majors & Minors
In addition to deciding whether to get an associate's, bachelor's, or master's degree, you should consider the specific major you want to pursue. Many colleges and universities offer a variety of related degree options for students to choose from. In addition, you might want to consider adding a minor to help supplement your education with additional skills beyond programming itself.
Great major choices include:
- Programming / Software Development: The classic choice for aspiring computer programmers. A computer programming major focuses on various computer languages and software development.
- Information Systems: Focus is placed on systems administration and information systems, and will teach you everything you need to know about server networking, databases, and web design.
- Computer Science: The most common and expansive, focusing on programming, math, algorithms, and data structures.
- Information Technology: This degree teaches you how to manage data, store it, organize it, analyze it, and display it for users. The data you manage can be anything from account information, statistics, research data, and more, and effective information management can be crucial for the decision-making processes in many companies.
- Information Security: Focus is placed on web and network security and how to protect against various threats, such as viruses and other types of cyber attacks.
Complementary minors include:
- Mathematics: Math is crucial in computer programming, and adding a minor in mathematics can supplement your programming skills and make you a better problem solver.
- Electrical or Computer Engineering: While computer programming focuses on the development of software, learning about engineering can teach you more about the creation of computer hardware. This can give you a broader understanding of computer systems as a whole, and improve your career options.
- Art or Music: If you want to get involved in computer graphics, visual design, or audio and video programming, it's a good idea to supplement your computer skills with knowledge of art and music. This way, you can combine your artistic talents and your programming skills to create stunning digital art, video game graphics, and more.
- Business: A business minor can help you with understanding the purpose behind the programs you develop, such as if you are writing programs for a banking institution or retail company. An understanding of business can also help you move up into management, becoming a supervisor in an IT department.
Step 3: Certifications
Finally, you should consider whether you want to get a certification in programming. You can get certified in a certain computer language, such as C++ or Java, or in certain systems, such as by becoming a Cisco Certified Network Associate or a Microsoft Certified Systems Associate. Certifications may be required by some companies before they'll hire you, while in other cases they will open more doors for you and help you maximize your earning potential. A certificate can also be useful if you want to learn a new, specific skill, such as learning an additional programming language to broaden your skillset.
Step 4: Get an Internship in Technology
An internship can be a great way to build your programming experience and help you succeed in the job market. Many internships are unpaid, but if you are pursuing a computer programming major in a college or university, you can use the internship to earn course credit towards your degree. An internship can also teach you real-world skills that go beyond what you'll receive in your education. This experience will help improve your resume and increase your chances of finding work after your education is complete.
A computer programming internship can be a good opportunity to learn specific programming languages that are used in a certain industry. For example, an internship working with database technologies can be a good way to learn SQL, while working for a web-based company is a good opportunity to learn Java. It can also be a good idea to get an internship at a tech-based company, such as one that specializes in networking, web development, or smartphone apps, rather than a non-tech company like a bank or retail corporation. While non-tech companies still need programmers and are likely to have internships available, you're likely to learn more from a company that specializes in programming and technology.
Step 5: Build Valuable Job Experience
Building your computer programming career starts with developing some early job experience. Most well-paid positions are going to require several years of practical experience, so it's important to start building your resume early.
An internship is one good way to build some experience, and it may also give you an opportunity for a more permanent job once the internship is complete. Another good option for students is on-campus jobs. Many universities hire student workers for various positions, such as IT jobs, web development, and network support. These jobs will offer on-the-job training as a supplement to your computer programming classes, and you'll get practical experience that will help you find a full-time job after you graduate.
Another option for someone with a computer programming degree is to seek out freelance work. Freelancers work with clients on a single project, or a series of individual contracts. You can work from home, communicating with your clients online and providing them with whatever programming services they may need. You may be able to develop a steady client base, or you could use your time freelancing to develop valuable work experience that will help you gain a full-time programming job later on.
Once you've found steady work as a computer programmer, you can improve your career options by continuing your education and updating your certifications. If you start out your career with a bachelor's degree, going back to school to get your master's can help expand your career options or give you a better chance of getting promotions. You may also need to update your certifications, since computer programming is a fast-changing field where new developments happen every day. You may need to learn new programming languages, or you might want to branch out into different fields so that you aren't limited to a single career path.
Computer Programming Careers
If you're still not sure whether you want to become a computer programmer, consider career outlook.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median computer programmer salary was $79,530 in 2015. The top 10% of computer programmers earn over $130,800.
The number of computer programming jobs available in this field is projected to drop by 8% from 2015 to 2024, but there are better opportunities in certain parts of the country compared to others. California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey are the top states for employment in the computer programming field. These states have both the highest number of jobs available and average salaries that are higher than the national average.
This career is a great choice for people with strong skills in math, logic, and problem solving. It many cases, it also allows people to work from home, submitting work online or using the internet to connect to servers that need to be debugged. If you aren't good with numbers and computers, however, or if desk work doesn't appeal to you, this wouldn't be the career path for you.
Once you become a programmer, you might also want to expand your career options by pursuing opportunities in related fields. Each of these fields generally requires a bachelor's degree in computer science, so depending on the type of education you pursue, you may qualify for jobs in these fields as well:
- Software Engineer
- Computer Network Architect
- Computer Systems Analyst
- Database Administrator
- Software Systems Developer
- Web Developer
- Business Administration
- Business Management
- Construction Management
- Hospitality Management
- Human Resources
- International Business
- Management Information Systems
- Nonprofit Management
- Operations & Logistics
- Organizational Leadership
- Project Management
- Public Administration
- Real Estate
- Sports Management
- Technology Management