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Guide to becoming a computer programmer in 2022

Aug 31, 2022 - 19 min read
Tate Dorman
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What exactly is a computer programmer? Computer programmers write code. They write code to design programs. This may sound vague, but computer programming is a vast field with many different specializations. In order to effectively include all of the database managers, web developers, systems analysts, and application devs, it is easier to group them under the umbrella of “computer programmers.”

If you love writing code, computer programming might be for you. In this article we’ll discuss steps it takes to become a computer programmer. We’ll break down each step in detail so you’ll have a better understanding of what the work itself will look like. You may have seen some of our longer guides on finding a job in the tech industry like How to become a full-stack developer or How to become a data engineer. This article will cover similar steps to these guides, but we’ll dive a little deeper into the weeds of each one.

Coders don’t necessarily have to be professionals to be considered computer programmers. There are plenty of hobbyists out there that, according to our definition of computer programming, make the grade. Even so, we’ll focus on the path to finding a computer programming career.

If your aim is to be a hobby programmer, you’ll still need a plan and an education, but you’ll probably have different goals past those points.

We’ll cover:

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Computer programmer vs software engineer

To the uninitiated, computer science and software engineering describe two very similar disciplines. In reality, these two fields are completely different. Computer science is centered around learning general computational principles and applying them to a range of fields like machine learning, database management, and information security. Software engineering on the other hand is engineering oriented and revolves around the practical skills necessary to design, develop, and maintain software systems.

Similarly, the role of a computer programmer and a software engineer are quite different. As previously mentioned, programmers typically work in a more specialized area of the development process. They are responsible for writing code and building software. Software engineers are still very much involved in the development process, but they are more likely to oversee broader areas as well. Software engineers are often responsible for conception of an idea, troubleshooting, and implementation as well as development.

It is important for all programmers to have a solid understanding of mathematics in addition to their ability to read, write, and debug code in multiple programming languages.

Coders and computer programmers occupy a unique position in the job market. It is common for large high-paying organizations to not require a computer programming degree or other bespoke education requirements. As long as you present the hiring team with a resume and portfolio of projects you’ve worked on, and are able to pass a technical interview, many companies don’t care if you don’t have a degree.

Many programmers that love writing code avoid engineering-focused roles as they will spend less time actively coding.

What kind of programmer do you want to be?

There are so many different flavors of programming that if you love to code, it may be daunting to determine what you want to pursue as a career. The best way to find out what you like to try as much as you can.

Just a few types of programmer jobs to look into are:

Each of these disciplines require slightly different skills. Seek out as much as you can with respect to all the different fields, and remember that nothing is set in stone. If, in your education, you find that web development is not what you find interesting and would prefer to spend your time training artificial intelligence and studying neural networks, allow yourself the the time to pivot. The world of computer programming is so diverse that it can be hard to find a niche, but it is very rewarding once you settle.

Is it hard to become a programmer?

The short answer is: no, but it does take a fair bit of work. The path to getting a coveted, high paying programming job is a long one, but one everyone is capable of. Stay tuned, and we’ll walk you through all the steps to employment in detail!

Oftentimes, the idea of a coder or a programmer is thought of as an impenetrable role. One that is impossible to access if you didn’t grow up as a math prodigy. While a strong background in math may expedite the path to becoming a programmer, it is by no means a firm pre-requisite. When examining what people associate with computer science or programming, it is easy to see why it’s lauded as difficult and insulated. If you asked the lay person to explain how YouTube, Google, or Facebook work, most would have a very rough idea, or none at all.

It is not hard to think like a computer, but it does require some adjustment. This article: How to think like a programmer is a great jumping off point if you feel unsure about your ability to jump into the weeds of programming languages and computer science.

How to become a computer programmer

Thrilled by the potential ease of training combined with the possible salary? It’s no secret that programming jobs are highly sought after for this reason. Before you get ahead of yourself, it pays to have a plan. We’ll break down the steps to becoming a computer programmer, so you’ll have a clear idea of what to do and how much time it takes.

It’s worth noting: Everyone’s journey is different. You may plan for one thing, and something else entirely may end up happening. Learn how to embrace the plot twists.

Before you’re able to point yourself in the right direction you’ll need to do some research. You won’t be able to know exactly what type of computer programmer you want to be until you give it a shot. We recommend trying your hand at several disciplines before deciding to tunnel-vision on one particular path.

That said, be investigative. Read job descriptions, blogs, and even reach out to professionals on social media. Sending someone a LinkedIn message saying you’re curious about their job responsibilities and their career path is almost never a bad idea. If you approach someone with a genuine interest in their work, oftentimes they’ll take pleasure in talking to you.

There is a huge variety of job opportunities out there. We’ve compiled a couple lists of jobs that are ideal for those looking to gain experience or those seeking a non-traditional role.

There are plenty of different paths to pursue when it comes to education. Regardless of what you choose, this may be the most important step of the planning process. Every option has tradeoffs in terms of time and money invested.

Let’s break down all your options.

Education type

Typical time investment

Advantages

Disadvantages

Bachelor's degree + Master's degree in CS or related field

4 years + 2 years

  • Potential for senior roles out of school
  • Covers a range of topics
  • Opens the door to specializations
  • Necessitates the most time and money out of all options

Bachelor's degree in CS or related field

4 years

  • Employers often look for a CS diploma
  • Covers a range of topics
  • Requires greater investment of time and money relative to other options

Associate's degree + bachelor's degree in CS or related field

2 years + 2 years

  • Employers often look for a CS diploma
  • Typically easier and cheaper than the traditional 4 year option
  • Requires relatively big investment of time and money, though not as much as some options

Full-time coding bootcamp

12 weeks

  • Hands-on training, and technical skills are emphasized
  • Does not require as much of an investment of time or money
  • Shorter duration means fewer topics can be covered
  • Initial job prospects potentially limited to junior/associate roles– in role advancement required

College/university certificate

1 to 2 years

  • Hands-on training, technical skills, are emphasized
  • Does not require as much of an investment of time or money
  • Shorter duration means fewer topics can be covered
  • Initial job prospects potentially limited to junior/associate roles– in role advancement required

Self-study

12 weeks to multiple years

  • A wealth of choices when it comes to platforms and courses
  • Lets you set your own schedule
  • Demands discipline
  • Time to become job ready is nebulous
  • Initial job prospects potentially limited to junior/associate roles– in role advancement required

Deciding where and how to pursue your education is one of the biggest decisions in your journey. Everyone learns best in different ways, and we all have different capacities for commitment when it comes to time and money. If you’re unsure of where to start and what may be the best for you, a great way to get started is through an online course. There are plenty of free introductory courses that can give you an idea of what your learning process will be like and what it takes to learn computer programming.

You’ll need a different skill set depending on what specialization you end up pursuing, but we’ll go ahead and provide a synopsis of crucial skills for any general computer programmer. We’ll focus on hard skills in this list, so you can have a clear idea of what to seek out and how to fill gaps in your own knowledge.

It is generally a wise idea to try and gain experience concurrent with your education. There are tons of ways to get real world experience building projects as a computer programmer, so we encourage you to get creative with what you pursue.

There are several ways you can get meaningful experience.

  • Join a hackathon
  • Volunteer for a non-profit organization or submit your work to an open-source project
  • Work on personal projects
  • Get an internship

Internships

Getting an internship is definitely the best way to get experience as a computer programmer. Oftentimes, internships are exclusively available for full-time or part-time students working towards a degree. Some internships are open to non-students, but most stipulate that applicants must be working towards a bachelor’s degree or higher. Internships vary in length, but many are three months long and occur over summer break.

Depending on the internship and when you anticipate graduating, you may receive a full-time offer of employment following the internship.

Who it’s for: Full-time or part-time students who can commit to several months of work.

Luckily, there are plenty of other opportunities for non-students as well.

Hackathons

Hackathons are a relatively low commitment form of experience for those looking to spend a weekend coding. Most of the time, hackathons take place over a single day or weekend. They are all typically themed around one specific aspect of software development and design. Since they’re fairly specific in genre, they can be a great way to get some real-world exposure to an area of computer programming that you are interested in.

Who it’s for: Coders who want to try their hand at a competition for one particular specialization or domain of software development, design, or hacking.

Volunteering

Finding an organization to volunteer for can be a great way to network and express your values to potential employers. There are plenty of non-profit organizations out there that would need someone to write code. There is no real set time commitment when it comes to volunteering, as most organizations recognize that their volunteers have multiple things on their plate. The one downside to volunteering is that the structure of your organization is highly likely to change over time. Many volunteers overestimate their ability to fit things into their schedule and volunteer positions can change rapidly. If you’re considering signing up as a volunteer, carefully consider your schedule and reach out to senior members to better understand the expectations of the role.

Who it’s for: Computer programmers who align with the values of a volunteer organization and who wish to gain experience in a related field.

Contributing to an open-source project

Contributing to an open source project may seem daunting at first, but all we have to do is break it down. Helping open source projects out is a great way to develop some strong talking points for your eventual interview. The article Contributing to an open source project goes much more in depth than we will here.

If you’re familiar with GitHub, finding a project that interests you shouldn’t be too hard. After you’ve selected one you can check out the outstanding issues the project currently has. If you feel equipped to address one you can start coding. It is important to refer to any project guidelines and requirements prior to submitting a pull request for your code though.

Personal projects

If you feel like getting creative, a personal project is the perfect place to start. There is endless inspiration to be found anywhere on social media and GitHub.

According to the Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2022, 88% of professional software developers also code as a hobby.

Personal projects can also be a great thing to bring up in a future interview as well. They can help demonstrate to an interviewer what inspires you to code, what you find interesting, and your overall understanding of what you have built. Even if you choose to spend the majority of your time gaining experience through some sort of structured program it is a good idea to make time to work on a side project.

Who it’s for: Any and all with a creative mind and a love of code.

Before you can start scoping out jobs to apply for you need to make sure you have an up-to-date resume (or CV), cover letter, and portfolio. Not every job will require you to submit all three, but it is good to have them prepared in the event you come across an attractive job that does.

Resume

There are tons of resources available for how to create a professional resume. If you’re currently enrolled in a school program odds are that you can schedule a personal consultation with career professionals to help guide you through the process. If you want a quick guide to reference, check out this article on how to write a resume specifically for computer programmers.

Quick tip: Instead of writing your resume in a regular word processor, you can stand out while still remaining professional with a design tool like Figma or Canva.

Cover letter

Although not always standard, most jobs will ask for a cover letter. Instead of writing a brand new cover letter for each application, spend a little more time up front to write a cover letter that can serve multiple purposes. Most companies will want similar things out of a cover letter, so you can usually get away with a cover letter that isn’t totally personalized to one organization. If you can write one master template and plug in certain, more specific sections as needed you’ll save time in the long run.

Portfolio

If you have a free GitHub account you can display and maintain your code from your personal and open-source projects in repositories accessible to potential employers. The most important part of a portfolio are the projects you’ve worked on. Many employers will ask with genuine interest about the projects in your portfolio. They want to know why you approached problems in a certain way.

If you want to see some portfolios of other software developers and computer programmers, a GitHub user has graciously compiled a comprehensive list for you to pick through. This repository can be found here: developer-portfolios.

Interview Prep

The final step in preparing for your job search is interview prep. Computer programming interviews are notoriously difficult. Technical interviews are designed to test your technical skills as well as your endurance and composure. Many take all day to complete, and some even ask you technical questions that don’t pertain to your current or prospective roles. If you’ve never completed a full loop technical interview before, you should budget plenty of time to prepare. According to the definitive interview prep roadmap you should set aside three months devoted exclusively to interview preparation.

It’s just as important to be prepared for your behavioral interview as it is to be ready to answer any technical questions.

When you’re ready to start the job search itself, you should make yourself active on professional social media. You can advertise yourself on LinkedIn and begin networking by reaching out to people you’d like to connect with. Alumni groups or even other software developers at companies you’d like to work for are solid places to start. If you choose to connect with active members of an alumni group, there are often Facebook pages or newsletters that document upcoming events you can sign up for.

There are plenty of online job boards to search through. LinkedIn, Indeed, ZipRecruiter, Dice, and Glassdoor are all great places to look for a job. Most allow you to schedule alerts for certain job postings so you can be an early applicant to competitive jobs.

Glassdoor is a great service when it comes to doing research about a particular company or role. Current or past employees can submit anonymous reviews about company culture and display their compensation. This can be a great way to weed out organizations that may not be as appealing as they seem. Knowing what others are paid in comparable roles is a great way to be prepared for the inevitable “what are your salary expectations?” question.

Finding a job may seem simple enough, but it can take a lot of work and time. Keep reading about what it takes to find a developer job you love.

As mentioned previously, there is no single answer for how long it takes to become a programmer. There are several determining factors as to how long your own journey may take.

  • Education: This is the most time consuming step of the path. If you have a computer science degree, it won’t take you nearly as long as those without this foundation.
  • Work experience: If you have professional or internship experience that is translatable to coding, you’re already well on your way.
  • Technical skills: What knowledge of programming languages, mathematics, and computer science do you already have? Some introductory aspects of courses may be a breeze if they’re just a recap for you.
  • Career goals: If you’re aiming for a junior role, you may need to budget less time for the job search than if you’re aiming for a more competitive role, such as a system designer.

So, it may take as little as a few months to as much as six years depending on what level you’re starting at.

It’s important to assess your situation, make a roadmap, and don’t get discouraged! Even the most perfectly crafted plan may fall through at a turn or two.

Again, your individual requirements are largely dependent on your career goals. For example, it is non-negotiable for a front-end developer to have a strong grasp on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. If you intend on working in data science, however, your potential employers will want to know that you are skilled in Excel, Python, data science libraries, and machine learning. As for soft skills, you’ll need to work well on a team, be an effective communicator, and a creative problem solver.

Job outlook: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for computer programming jobs is $96,650.

For a detailed look at requirements for various specialties, check out the following articles:

Get hands on with computer programming today.

Get a personalized learning plan with just a 3 minute survey.

Wrap up and next steps

Hopefully you found this short guide helpful. The path to becoming a computer programmer may seem a little daunting, but if you are able to break it down and focus on one step at a time you’ll become a pro with ease.

Computer programming is such a general field there are plenty of more acute topics to learn. Regardless of what area you find yourself pursuing, you can find interactive tutorials and courses, personalized for your skill level and goals. You can level up your technical skills at your own pace with Educative’s personalized learning plans. Our aim is to help learners achieve their dream career by providing you with step-by-step instructions and battle-tested resources.

No matter what educational path you end up choosing, you can refer to our blogs as instructions for how and where to take your next steps.

Happy learning!


WRITTEN BYTate Dorman

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