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Computer Programmer

Significant Points

  • Sixty-seven percent of computer programmers held a college or higher degree in 2004; nearly half held a bachelor’s degree, and about 1 in 5 held a graduate degree.

  • Employment is expected to grow much more slowly than that for other computer specialists.

  • Prospects likely will be best for college graduates with knowledge of a variety of programming languages and tools; those with less formal education or its equivalent in work experience are apt to face strong competition for programming jobs.

Nature of the Work

Computer programmers write, test, and maintain the detailed instructions, called programs, that computers must follow to perform their functions. Programmers also conceive, design, and test logical structures for solving problems by computer. Many technical innovations in programming - advanced computing technologies and sophisticated new languages and programming tools - have redefined the role of a programmer and elevated much of the programming work done today. Job titles and descriptions may vary, depending on the organization. In this occupational statement, computer programmers are individuals whose main job function is programming; this group has a wide range of responsibilities and educational backgrounds.

Computer programs tell the computer what to do - which information to identify and access, how to process it, and what equipment to use. Programs vary widely depending on the type of information to be accessed or generated. For example, the instructions involved in updating financial records are very different from those required to duplicate conditions on an aircraft for pilots training in a flight simulator. Although simple programs can be written in a few hours, programs that use complex mathematical formulas whose solutions can only be approximated or that draw data from many existing systems may require more than a year of work. In most cases, several programmers work together as a team under a senior programmer’s supervision.

Programmers write programs according to the specifications determined primarily by computer software engineers and systems analysts. After the design process is complete, it is the job of the programmer to convert that design into a logical series of instructions that the computer can follow. The programmer codes these instructions in a conventional programming language such as COBOL; an artificial intelligence language such as Prolog; or one of the most advanced object-oriented languages, such as Java, C++, or ACTOR. Different programming languages are used depending on the purpose of the program. COBOL, for example, is commonly used for business applications, whereas Fortran (short for "formula translation") is used in science and engineering. C++ is widely used for both scientific and business applications. Extensible Markup Language (XML) has become a popular programming tool for Web programmers, along with J2EE (Java 2 Platform). Programmers generally know more than one programming language and, because many languages are similar, they often can learn new languages relatively easily. In practice, programmers often are referred to by the language they know, such as Java programmers, or by the type of function they perform or environment in which they work—for example, database programmers, mainframe programmers, or Web programmers.

Many programmers update, repair, modify, and expand existing programs. When making changes to a section of code, called a routine, programmers need to make other users aware of the task that the routine is to perform. They do this by inserting comments in the coded instructions so that others can understand the program. Many programmers use computer-assisted software engineering (CASE) tools to automate much of the coding process. These tools enable a programmer to concentrate on writing the unique parts of the program, because the tools automate various pieces of the program being built. CASE tools generate whole sections of code automatically, rather than line by line. Programmers also use libraries of basic code that can be modified or customized for a specific application. This approach yields more reliable and consistent programs and increases programmers’ productivity by eliminating some routine steps.

Programmers test a program by running it to ensure that the instructions are correct and that the program produces the desired outcome. If errors do occur, the programmer must make the appropriate change and recheck the program until it produces the correct results. This process is called testing and debugging. Programmers may continue to fix these problems throughout the life of a program. Programmers working in a mainframe environment, which involves a large centralized computer, may prepare instructions for a computer operator who will run the program. Programmers also may contribute to a manual for persons who will be using the program.

Computer programmers often are grouped into two broad types - applications programmers and systems programmers. Applications programmers write programs to handle a specific job, such as a program to track inventory within an organization. They also may revise existing packaged software or customize generic applications which are frequently purchased from vendors. Systems programmers, in contrast, write programs to maintain and control computer systems software, such as operating systems, networked systems, and database systems. These workers make changes in the instructions that determine how the network, workstations, and central processing unit of the system handle the various jobs they have been given and how they communicate with peripheral equipment such as terminals, printers, and disk drives. Because of their knowledge of the entire computer system, systems programmers often help applications programmers determine the source of problems that may occur with their programs.

Programmers in software development companies may work directly with experts from various fields to create software—either programs designed for specific clients or packaged software for general use—ranging from games and educational software to programs for desktop publishing and financial planning. Programming of packaged software constitutes one of the most rapidly growing segments of the computer services industry.

In some organizations, particularly small ones, workers commonly known as programmer-analysts are responsible for both the systems analysis and the actual programming work. (A more detailed description of the work of programmer-analysts is presented in computer systems analysts.) Advanced programming languages and new object-oriented programming capabilities are increasing the efficiency and productivity of both programmers and users. The transition from a mainframe environment to one that is based primarily on personal computers (PCs) has blurred the once rigid distinction between the programmer and the user. Increasingly, adept end users are taking over many of the tasks previously performed by programmers. For example, the growing use of packaged software, such as spreadsheet and database management software packages, allows users to write simple programs to access data and perform calculations.

Working Conditions
Programmers generally work in offices in comfortable surroundings. Many programmers may work long hours or weekends to meet deadlines or fix critical problems that occur during off hours. Telecommuting is becoming common for a wide range of computer professionals, including computer programmers. As computer networks expand, more programmers are able to make corrections or fix problems remotely using modems, e-mail, and the Internet to connect to a customer’s computer.

Like other workers who spend long periods in front of a computer terminal typing at a keyboard, programmers are susceptible to eyestrain, back discomfort, and hand and wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Computer programmers held about 455,000 jobs in 2004. Programmers are employed in almost every industry, but the largest concentration is in computer systems design and related services. Large numbers of programmers also work for telecommunications companies, software publishers, financial institutions, insurance carriers, educational institutions, and government agencies.

Many computer programmers are employed on a temporary or contract basis or work as independent consultants, providing companies expertise with new programming languages or specialized areas of application. Rather than hiring programmers as permanent employees and then laying them off after a job is completed, employers can contract with temporary help agencies, with consulting firms, or with programmers themselves. A marketing firm, for example, may require programming services only to write and debug the software necessary to get a new customer database running. Bringing in an independent contractor or consultant with experience in a new or advanced programming language enables the firm to complete the job without having to retrain existing workers. Such jobs may last anywhere from several weeks to a year or longer. There were 25,000 self-employed computer programmers in 2004.


Although there are many training paths available for programmers, mainly because employers’ needs are so varied, the level of education and experience employers seek has been rising due to the growing number of qualified applicants and the specialization involved with most programming tasks. Bachelor’s degrees are commonly required, although some programmers may qualify for certain jobs with 2-year degrees or certificates. The associate degree is a widely used entry-level credential for prospective computer programmers. Most community colleges and many independent technical institutes and proprietary schools offer an associate degree in computer science or a related information technology field.

Employers primarily are interested in programming knowledge, and computer programmers can become certified in a programming language such as C++ or Java. College graduates who are interested in changing careers or developing an area of expertise also may return to a 2-year community college or technical school for additional training. In the absence of a degree, substantial specialized experience or expertise may be needed. Even when hiring programmers with a degree, employers appear to place more emphasis on previous experience.

Some computer programmers hold a college degree in computer science, mathematics, or information systems, whereas others have taken special courses in computer programming to supplement their degree in a field such as accounting, inventory control, or another area of business. As the level of education and training required by employers continues to rise, the proportion of programmers with a college degree should increase in the future. As indicated by the following tabulation, more than two-thirds of computer programmers had a bachelor’s or higher degree in 2004.

High school graduate or less 8.3%
Some college, no degree 14.1
Associate degree 10.2
Bachelor's degree 49.1
Graduate degree 18.3

Required skills vary from job to job, but the demand for various skills generally is driven by changes in technology. Employers using computers for scientific or engineering applications usually prefer college graduates who have degrees in computer or information science, mathematics, engineering, or the physical sciences. Graduate degrees in related fields are required for some jobs. Employers who use computers for business applications prefer to hire people who have had college courses in management information systems and business and who possess strong programming skills. Although knowledge of traditional languages still is important, employers are placing increasing emphasis on newer, object-oriented programming languages and tools such as C++ and Java. Additionally, employers are seeking persons familiar with fourth-generation and fifth-generation languages that involve graphic user interface and systems programming. Employers also prefer applicants who have general business skills and experience related to the operations of the firm. Students can improve their employment prospects by participating in a college work-study program or by undertaking an internship.

Most systems programmers hold a 4-year degree in computer science. Extensive knowledge of a variety of operating systems is essential for such workers. This includes being able to configure an operating system to work with different types of hardware and having the skills needed to adapt the operating system to best meet the needs of a particular organization. Systems programmers also must be able to work with database systems, such as DB2, Oracle, or Sybase.

When hiring programmers, employers look for people with the necessary programming skills who can think logically and pay close attention to detail. The job calls for patience, persistence, and the ability to work on exacting analytical work, especially under pressure. Ingenuity and creativity are particularly important when programmers design solutions and test their work for potential failures. The ability to work with abstract concepts and to do technical analysis is especially important for systems programmers because they work with the software that controls the computer’s operation. Because programmers are expected to work in teams and interact directly with users, employers want programmers who are able to communicate with nontechnical personnel.

Entry-level or junior programmers may work alone on simple assignments after some initial instruction, or they may be assigned to work on a team with more experienced programmers. Either way, beginning programmers generally must work under close supervision. Because technology changes so rapidly, programmers must continuously update their knowledge and skills by taking courses sponsored by their employer or by software vendors, or offered through local community colleges and universities.

Other Qualifications

Certification is a way to demonstrate a level of competence, and may provide a jobseeker with a competitive advantage. In addition to language-specific certificates that a programmer can obtain, product vendors or software firms also offer certification and may require professionals who work with their products to be certified. Voluntary certification also is available through various other organizations.


For skilled workers who keep up to date with the latest technology, the prospects for advancement are good. In large organizations, programmers may be promoted to lead programmer and be given supervisory responsibilities. Some applications programmers may move into systems programming after they gain experience and take courses in systems software. With general business experience, programmers may become programmer-analysts or systems analysts or be promoted to managerial positions. Other programmers, with specialized knowledge and experience with a language or operating system, may work in research and development for multimedia or Internet technology and may even become computer software engineers. As employers increasingly contract with outside firms to do programming jobs, more opportunities should arise for experienced programmers with expertise in a specific area to work as consultants.

Job Outlook
As programming tasks become increasingly sophisticated and additional levels of skill and experience are demanded by employers, graduates of 2-year programs and people with less than a 2-year degree or its equivalent in work experience will face strong competition for programming jobs. Competition for entry-level positions, however, also can affect applicants with a bachelor’s degree. Prospects should be best for college graduates with knowledge of, and experience working with, a variety of programming languages and tools—including C++ and other object-oriented languages such as Java, as well as newer, domain-specific languages that apply to computer networking, database management, and Internet application development. Obtaining vendor-specific or language-specific certification also can provide a competitive edge. Because demand fluctuates with employers’ needs, jobseekers should keep up to date with the latest skills and technologies. Individuals who want to become programmers can enhance their prospects by combining the appropriate formal training with practical work experience.

Employment of programmers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2014. Sophisticated computer software now has the capability to write basic code, eliminating the need for many programmers to do this routine work. The consolidation and centralization of systems and applications, developments in packaged software, advances in programming languages and tools, and the growing ability of users to design, write, and implement more of their own programs mean that more of the programming functions can be transferred from programmers to other types of information workers, such as computer software engineers.

Another factor limiting growth in employment is the outsourcing of these jobs to other countries. Computer programmers can perform their job function from anywhere in the world and can digitally transmit their programs to any location via e-mail. Programmers are at a much higher risk of having their jobs outsourced abroad than are workers involved in more complex and sophisticated information technology functions, such as software engineering, because computer programming has become an international language, requiring little localized or specialized knowledge. Additionally, the work of computer programmers can be routinized, once knowledge of a particular programming language is mastered.

Nevertheless, employers will continue to need programmers who have strong technical skills and who understand an employer’s business and its programming requirements. This means that programmers will have to keep abreast of changing programming languages and techniques. Given the importance of networking and the expansion of client/server, Web-based, and wireless environments, organizations will look for programmers who can support data communications and help implement electronic commerce and intranet strategies. Demand for programmers with strong object-oriented programming capabilities and technical specialization in areas such as client/server programming, wireless applications, multimedia technology, and graphic user interface likely will stem from the expansion of intranets, extranets, and Internet applications. Programmers also will be needed to create and maintain expert systems and embed these technologies in more products. Finally, a growing emphasis on cybersecurity will lead to increased demand for programmers who are familiar with digital security issues and skilled in using appropriate security technology.

Jobs for both systems and applications programmers should be most plentiful in data-processing service firms, software houses, and computer consulting businesses. These types of establishments are part of computer systems design and related services and software publishers, which are projected to be among the fastest growing industries in the economy over the 2004-14 period. As organizations attempt to control costs and keep up with changing technology, they will need programmers to assist in conversions to new computer languages and systems. In addition, numerous job openings will result from the need to replace programmers who leave the labor force or transfer to other occupations such as manager or systems analyst.


Median annual earnings of computer programmers were $62,890 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,580and $81,280 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,470; the highest 10 percent earned more than $99,610. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of computer programmers in May 2004 are shown below:

Software publishers$73,060
Computer systems design and related services67,600
Data processing, hosting, and related services64,540
Insurance carriers62,990
Management of companies and enterprises62,160

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, starting salary offers for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science averaged $50,820 a year in 2005.

According to Robert Half International, a firm providing specialized staffing services, average annual starting salaries in 2005 ranged from $52,500 to $83,250 for applications development programmers/analysts, and from $55,000 to $88,250 for software developers. Average starting salaries for mainframe systems programmers ranged from $50,250 to $67,500 in 2005.

Related Occupations

Other professional workers who deal extensively with data include computer software engineers; computer scientists and database administrators; computer systems analysts; statisticians; mathematicians; engineers; and operations research analysts.

Sources of Additional Information

State employment service offices can provide information about job openings for computer programmers. Municipal chambers of commerce are an additional source of information on an area’s largest employers.

Further information about computer careers is available from:

* Association for Computing Machinery, 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036. Internet:

* Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society, Headquarters Office, 1730 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20036-1992. Internet:

* National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies, 3000 Landerholm Circle SE., Bellevue, WA 98007. Internet:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition, Computer Programmers, on the Internet at (visited July 31, 2006).

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