What Is a Computer Programmer?


Updated July 18, 2024

check mark Reviewed by

Our Integrity Network

ComputerScience.org is committed to delivering content that is objective and actionable. To that end, we have built a network of industry professionals across higher education to review our content and ensure we are providing the most helpful information to our readers.

Drawing on their firsthand industry expertise, our Integrity Network members serve as an additional step in our editing process, helping us confirm our content is accurate and up to date. These contributors:

  • Suggest changes to inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Provide specific, corrective feedback.
  • Identify critical information that writers may have missed.

Integrity Network members typically work full time in their industry profession and review content for ComputerScience.org as a side project. All Integrity Network members are paid members of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Explore our full list of Integrity Network members.

Computer programmers play a key role in the tech industry. Explore this profession and discover how you can thrive in a computer programming career.

ComputerScience.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Credit: Laurence Dutton / E+ / Getty Images

Computer programmers use programming languages to write, test, and maintain code. These essential tech professionals create programs and software that millions of people use every day.

Computer programmers work independently as part of larger software teams. Together with software developers and engineers, programmers create the instructions computers use to execute tasks. A programmer's job also includes finding bugs, eliminating errors, and troubleshooting issues. These professionals need a detail-oriented and creative outlook, along with skills in several programming languages.

As people and organizations rely more on technology, computer programmers can find work across industries. Use our guide to explore this dynamic profession, including key skills, job outlook, and career paths for computer programmers.

History of Computer Programmers

Computer programming was once the domain of professional scientists and technology experts. Today, the field is open to people of all ages and backgrounds.

The origins of programming languages and computers trace back to the early 19th century. Computing pioneers like Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace paved the way for mid-20th-century developers such as John Von Neumann, Grace Hopper, and John W. Backus.

Machine language, compiler languages, and source codes preceded modern computer programming. The computer programming profession grew alongside emerging programming languages like C in 1972, C++ in 1983, and Python in 1991.

Later languages like Java, C#, Swift, and JavaScript fueled software and application development at major companies like Microsoft and Apple. In this environment, computer programmers enjoyed growing opportunities.

What Does a Computer Programmer Do?

Computer programmers use programming languages to write, revise, test, and update code. This code allows computers, software, and applications to carry out tasks.

Because technology pervades diverse sectors, computer programmers also work across industries. After the tech industry, finance, insurance, and manufacturing entities hire the most computer programmers.

Computer programmers often work alone, spending long hours in front of their screens. These professionals also collaborate with software developers and engineers. Writing, testing, and debugging code can take many attempts. Still, computer programmers persevere, and many enjoy a good challenge.

Find out more about key skills that influence success as a computer programmer below.

Key Soft Skills for Computer Programmers

Soft skills often come naturally, allowing computer programmers to effectively and efficiently communicate with colleagues and solve problems. Computer programmers benefit from written and verbal communication skills, creativity and curiosity, and the ability to work both independently and in teams.

  • Communication Skills: Computer programmers must explain complex technical concepts to their colleagues and to people without technical backgrounds.
  • Multitasking: Computer programmers often work on many tasks at once or on parts of a larger project. Programmers must organize their priorities, solve problems as they arise, and carry out several duties at once.
  • Organizational Skills: Organizational skills include the ability to focus, budget mental and physical energy, and manage time effectively.
  • Attention to Detail: Coding errors can cause projects to run over schedule and budget. A detail-oriented attitude helps programmers catch mistakes and write efficient, usable code.

Key Hard Skills for Computer Programmers

Computer programmers develop hard skills to thrive in their positions. Programming languages are necessary skills for computer programmers. These professionals often benefit from knowing several languages. Languages vary in use and relevance. With increased proficiency, programmers may expand their career prospects.

  • Programming Languages: Programmers need to excel in at least one programming language like Python, Java, or C++. Ideally, computer programmers should know multiple languages and understand how and when to use each one.
  • Software Development: Because computer programmers take part in software development, they need to know the development process. Software development involves identifying, designing, and implementing software requirements. From there, computer programmers verify and maintain software.
  • Data Structures and Algorithms: Data structures are formats for organizing, processing, retrieving, and storing data for efficient access. Algorithms are collections of steps to solve specific problems. Computer programmers use algorithms to search, organize, and retrieve data in data structures.
  • Databases: Computer programmers use programming languages to coordinate, maintain, and update information in databases like Oracle and MySQL. They may write, test, and implement code for new databases.

A Day in the Life of a Computer Programmer

Computer programmers help ensure efficient and effective software and operating system function. These professionals often work with programming languages, writing and editing code. Computer programmers also carry out system, software, and user acceptance testing. They structure tests, correcting errors and troubleshooting problems as they arise.

Other computer programming responsibilities include upgrading systems, overseeing technical staff, and preparing reports for managers and supervisors.

What Does a Computer Programmer Do?

Computer programmers bring ideas to fruition by writing code, scripts, and programs for mobile and desktop platforms. They coordinate with software designers, web developers, and fellow information technology professionals to develop computer games, write logic directions for appliances, and create translations for machines and applications to carry out human instructions.

Computer programmers may work independently, with teams, or both. They typically enjoy finding solutions to software design and development challenges. Computer programmers must remain conscientious, detail-oriented, and open to new ideas.

Computer programmers ensure the functionality of computer code and scripts by testing software, troubleshooting system errors, analyzing algorithms, and providing technical support. The following list provides more information about key job responsibilities for computer programmers.

Key Job Responsibilities

  • Writing Code, Scripts, And Programs: Computer programmers use programming and scripting languages like Java, Python, Ruby, and JavaScript to write code. They apply program designs, use models, and integrate algorithms to ensure software runs properly and efficiently.
  • Testing Code, Scripts, And Programs: To test code, scripts, and programs, computer programmers check for simple text, review code, and run programs for functionality purposes. Testing also involves working with fellow programmers to determine coding solutions.
  • Updating Applications: Updating and adding to programs includes altering and building new code while making sure the changes work properly.
  • Analyzing Efficiency: Efficient code improves collaboration and keeps memory issues from arising. Along with functional code, computer programmers ensure that their work is clean and effective.
  • Collaborating: Computer programmers work with developers and designers to determine the overall goal, look, and function of a program. Collaboration requires written and verbal communication in meetings and brainstorming sessions throughout the development process.

The Day to Day for a Computer Programmer

Computer programmers spend much of their days behind computers writing code, scripts, and programs. Their code may apply to new software or existing applications. Computer programmers make changes to code and scripts, find solutions, and provide technical support. Common computer programming languages include Python, Java, and C+.

Many computer programmers are self-employed. Others work in office settings at computer systems design companies, financial and insurance institutions, manufacturing businesses, and software publishing firms. Computer programmers may work remotely or participate in face-to-face activities but generally spend 40 hours a week on the job.

Computer programmers work closely with software and application designers, developers, and engineers. They meet with colleagues throughout a typical workday and may present their work to stakeholders to demonstrate progress.

Some duties for computer programmers may be redundant, and others can present frustrating problems. Computer programmers are problem-solvers who create and update programs for software developers and engineers. They must remain dedicated to presenting products that meet users' needs and goals.

Salary and Career Outlook for Computer Programmers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer programmers earned a median annual salary of $93,000 as of 2021. Pay varies by location, position, and education, but increased experience and advanced credentials generally boost earning potential.

The BLS reports that the industries employing the most computer programmers include computer systems design, scientific research, and software publishing. Computer programmers earn the highest salaries in the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry.

This data coincides with where the most computer programmers work. California, a state with a strong technology sector, employs the most computer programmers in the United States and ranks second in annual mean wage according to BLS data from 2021.

Data from Payscale provides insight into how experience level can influence computer programmers' salaries. Entry-level programmers earn an average of about $60,000 annually while midcareer computer programmers earn over $70,000 each year on average.


Annual Median Salary, May 2021

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Where Do Computer Programmers Work?

The states with the highest employment levels for computer programmers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are California, Texas, and New York. California's employment levels align with data about top metropolitan cities for computer programmers. San Jose, San Francisco, and San Diego are among the top six metropolitan areas for the profession in the country.

Metropolitan areas offer the highest levels of employment for computer programmers, largely driven by the strong presence of technology companies in major cities. The California Bay Area provides the most jobs for technology workers in the U.S.

Cost of living considerations can greatly influence where computer programmers look for jobs. Major metropolitan areas like the California Bay Area are some of the most costly places in the country to live. New York and California rank among the top three most expensive states in the country.

BLS reporting also indicates that the top non-metropolitan areas for computer programmers are Alaska, Montana, and Texas. Because the highest-paying industries for computer programmers are petroleum and coal product manufacturers and chemical manufacturers, this could make a non-urban setting more appealing to individuals in the role.

How to Become a Computer Programmer

Most computer programmers hold bachelor's degrees in information technology, computer science, computer engineering, or related fields. A bachelor's degree typically spans four years. Some computer programmers may find work with an associate degree, certificate, or diploma. These options usually take two years or less to complete.

Bootcamps provide another resource for aspiring programmers. These short programs can stand alone or supplement a bachelor's degree.

Certifications offered through professional organizations and technology companies can help programmers prove their knowledge and skills. Other factors in becoming a computer programmer include experience and personal interests.

Read a detailed description of the steps required to enter the computer programming field. Learn about computer programmers' daily duties and responsibilities. Discover in-depth information about degrees that prepare students to pursue computer programming careers. Take a closer look at curricula, requirements, and outcomes for bachelor's degrees in computer programming. Find out what students learn in a master's degree in computer programming. Explore bootcamps that focus on computer programming knowledge and skills.

Similar Specializations and Career Paths

Computer programmers can pursue positions as support specialists, software engineers, systems analysts, and network architects. Education and experience requirements vary by role.

Associate degrees allow programmers to pursue positions as web developers. A bachelor's may qualify these professionals to work as systems managers and administrators.

Master's degrees in computer-related disciplines may let professionals work as information technology researchers and achieve senior roles in business, government. Doctorates in the field can lead to jobs in academia.

The list below highlights more positions for people with computer programming skills.

  • Web Developer: Web developers write, test, and manage code. These professionals update sites, troubleshoot issues, and make sure websites function correctly. Front-end development involves a website's visual components and interactive elements. Back-end development includes the functional aspects of a website that users do not see. Full-stack developers work on both front and back ends.
  • Software Developer: Software developers create and build software used in operating systems and applications. They write code, test and correct errors, and make improvements. These developers also create models for programs and applications and analyze software data to improve efficiency and output.
  • Computer Information Researcher: Computer information researchers identify new paths in computing. They also explore emerging tools and technologies. Working with scientists and engineers, computer information researchers help develop innovations and solve problems in the field.
  • Information Security Analyst: These professionals help keep information and computer systems safe. Their duties include installing protective software, checking for security threats, and responding to security breaches. Information security analysts update existing software, implement security improvement strategies, and research emerging security trends.
  • Software Engineer: Software engineers design, build, and maintain operating systems, applications, and programs. Alongside programmers, analysts, and developers, software engineers determine software design, capabilities, and performance outcomes. They document issues and provide feedback to colleagues about software usability and functionality.
Career Required Education Required Experience Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2021-2031)

Web developer





Software developer

Bachelor's degree




Computer information researcher

Master's degree




Information security analyst

Bachelor's degree




Software engineer

Bachelor's degree




Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Outlook for Computer Programmers

While computer programmers' average salaries are higher than the national average wage, this field does not boast a positive career outlook. Jobs in this field are quickly automating or moving abroad. Similar professionals like computer systems analysts and web developers are also taking on a larger share of the work once reserved specifically for computer programmers.

In the face of this decline, aspiring computer programmers may be able to apply their skills in the growing fields of information security or software development.

Employment Outlook for Computer Programmers, 2021-2031


Source: BLS

How Much Does a Computer Programmer Make?

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer programmers earned a median annual salary of $93,000 in 2021.

Factors that can influence earning potential include geographic location, experience, and career specialization. For example, average salaries are higher for programmers in major metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, according to the BLS.

Median Annual Salary of Computer Programmers, 2021


Source: BLS

Computer Programmer Salary by Experience

As in most professions, computer programmers tend to earn higher salaries as they accrue experience. Computer programmers with ten or more years on the job earn average salaries almost 30% higher than their entry-level colleagues.

Computer Programmer Salary by Education

Most technology careers require extensive field knowledge. Computer programming is no different, and in this profession, programming degree-holders may command higher salaries and land jobs more easily than their coworkers without degrees.

Advanced degrees in computer science or a math-related master's degree can position computer programmers for leadership or management roles. According to the BLS, attending a bootcamp or earning an industry-recognized certification can also help programmers advance in their careers.

Discover which education path is right for you

Average Salary for Computer Programmers by Location

Computer programmers in urban regions typically earn higher average wages than their rural counterparts. However, these locations also feature some of the highest costs of living in the nation.

For instance, World Population Review's cost of living index reveals Washington, California, and Massachusetts — some of the states that pay the highest average computer programmer salaries — all have higher-than-average costs of living. Although computer programmers in these states earn more, they also spend more on housing, groceries, transportation, healthcare, and other costs.

As work-from-home options continue to grow, new computer programmers may be able to live in lower-cost regions such as New Hampshire, Montana, or Kentucky while working for employers based in larger cities.

Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Computer Programmers, 2021
State Average Annual Wage Percent Above the Median Annual Wage

San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA



San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA



Dalton, GA



Boulder, CO



Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-VA-MD-WV



Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Computer Programmers, 2021
State Number of Computer Programmers Employed Average Annual Wage










Washington, D.C.






Source: BLS

Resources for Computer Programmers

Resources for computer programmers include books and other publications, websites, and professional organizations. These resources can help programmers learn about their profession, keep up with trends, and connect with other professionals in the field.

Professional Organizations for Computer Programmers

Computer programmers can access a variety of resources online, often through professional associations. Joining computer programming-related groups can help like-minded students, practitioners, and scholars build networks, collaborate, and communicate.

These organizations' publications, advocacy initiatives, job listings, and continuing education programs give members access to the most current information in the field. Membership with a professional association can boost candidates' resumes, attesting to their abilities and presence in the larger computer programming community.

  • Association for Computing Machinery: ACM unites computing professionals, educators, and scholars from around the world. The association promotes leadership and high standards within the field. ACM affiliates with student and professional chapters, offering education opportunities, a learning center, public policy updates, and publication resources. Members gain access to ACM's career and job center, the organization's 37 specialty groups, and hands-on volunteering opportunities.
  • IEEE Computer Society: Dedicated to providing information and inspiration in computer science and engineering, the IEEE Computer Society houses an extensive digital library. The organization also provides educational programs, news, and research updates. Researchers, practitioners, students, and industry members enjoy access to career resources and recognition, professional networking opportunities, and forums for collaboration and innovation.
  • Association for Women in Computing: AWC, founded in 1978, advances the role of women in computing professions. Featuring chapters around the country and individual memberships, AWC adheres to the Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals' code of ethics. Members receive professional networking, continuing education, and mentorship resources.
  • Computing Research Association: With more than 200 computing research organizations as members, CRA works with the larger research community to promote change and innovation in the field and in society as a whole. CRA enhances computing research in industry, government, and education by providing data and policy updates, information on research initiatives, conferences, workshops, and career resources.
  • International Association of Web Professionals: IWA establishes educational and certification standards for web professionals through 100 chapters representing more than 300,000 members worldwide. Certificate programs include site design, server administration, and database specialization. IWA also provides industry updates for web professionals.

Questions About Careers in Computer Programming

  • What is computer programming?

    Computer programming is the building and testing of code and programs. Computer programming also includes updating existing programs, identifying and correcting errors, and troubleshooting issues that arise.

  • What skills do you need as a computer programmer?

    Computer programmers need to know one or more programming languages. These professionals also need mathematical ability, good problem-solving skills, and a detail-oriented attitude. Skilled computer programmers have a strong understanding of data structures, algorithms, and the software development process.

  • Are there disadvantages to being a computer programmer?

    Computer programming can be frustrating when code does not work. Some people can feel isolated in this position, as many computer programmers work alone. Computer programming requires patience, good communication skills, and creativity.

  • Can I have a career in computer programming without a degree?

    Yes, you can have a computer programmer career without a degree. However, most employers prefer at least a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related discipline. Coding bootcamps provide one path to becoming a computer programmer without earning a degree.

Page last reviewed on Nov 15, 2022

Recommended Reading

Take the next step toward your future.

Discover programs you’re interested in and take charge of your education.