Working as a computer programmer is an occupation that many people find both personally and financially rewarding. It’s a field that intrigues folks who have analytic minds, and the skill translates well to a variety of tasks outside of what is traditionally considered the purvey of a computer programmer.
If you’re looking to get started in this profession, you may be wondering where you would begin. Let’s take a look at how to become a computer programmer.
What Exactly is a Computer Programmer?
It’s wise to learn a bit about the actual definition of the field before you decide to join it. The concept of being a computer programmer can be a little hazy just because there is a lot of overlap with neighboring professions. Coding skills are useful when working as a:
- Web designer
- Mobile app developer
- Data scientist
- Video game designer
- Robotics engineer
Notably, many people who work in those fields elect to develop skills in other backgrounds and then work toward coding. For example, many data scientists start out in fields like accounting and stats, and then they find themselves compelled to get into coding in order to make more advanced projects work.
Generally speaking, when we talk about computer programmers, we’re focused on the specific profession of applications developers. These are the people who create code for many of the applications that power productivity in the modern workforce. In other words, they’re narrowly focused on programming in a way that a robotics engineer wouldn’t be.
A computer programmer also tends to have a much deeper knowledge of the tools they’re working with. Ask someone who only knows how to code enough Java to make an Android app work why they use a particular object-oriented structure. They’re going to struggle to explain the pros and cons of the choice. In most instances, they do it because that’s what their instructors told them to do in school. For a computer programmer, that thin level of knowledge won’t fly.
What Do You Need to Learn to Program?
It may sound simplistic to say it, but most people who go into this profession start out by fiddling around on a desktop computer. Some folks prefer to code on laptops, especially once they move into paid jobs. If you have access to a machine with a keyboard, screen and a mouse, you can probably plug into the internet and start picking up some absolute basics of coding right now.
Overall computing power tends not to be important in the early stages of becoming a computer programmer. That means you generally won’t need the best processor and a killer graphics card. Until you get into computing-intensive tasks, such as machine learning, high-end video game production or business analytics, you mostly need a system you can set up a development environment in.
Should You Become a Computer Programmer?
Deciding to become a computer programmer requires a bit of an honest self-assessment. Folks who learn to code tend to be the ones who enjoy:
- Working through complex problems
- Playing games that have large sets of rules
- Tinkering with devices to see what will happen
- Tweaking an item they own to make them more efficient or effective
Computer programmers also tend to be lifelong learners. The field changes a lot, and you don’t want to be the person who gets left behind because your preferred programming language has largely gone out of style. Similarly, the job market often follows certain trends. In the late 1990s, demand was heavy for basically anyone who could throw a static HTML web page up on the internet. But by the 2010s, someone who wanted to be a web applications developer likely would have to know a dynamic programming language, some in-browser scripting and a database language.
Why Is All of This Important?
A computer programmer is more than a coder. Someone who’s just coding simply needs to get to an end result as fast as possible. A programmer, however, may be asked to find a way to make a program faster and more efficient.
For example, IoT devices, small computers that are used to run code in things like industrial and agricultural sensors, are meant to be tiny and cheap. That also means they don’t have massive amounts of storage, RAM or processing power. When running code on something like a $30 Raspberry Pi single-board computer, there just isn’t the kind of computing overhead necessary to run sloppy code.
If a company is using a Pi as a platform for an in-the-field product, being able to run code with 2Gb of RAM versus 4Gb could yield thousands or even millions of dollars in savings. From the company’s perspective, they need a programmer for this situation, rather than a coder. The job demands someone who can work with the hardware and find a way to take the existing code base and compress it into something lighter and more elegant.
Learning About Architecture and Systems
Okay, you now have a rough idea of what distinguishes a programmer from a coder. Let’s get more specific about two elements that really separate the two skills:
The architectural level is where we think about the insides of the computer. How is memory managed? Why does the system handle arithmetic one way and not another? What is the exact relationship between hardware and software?
From the viewpoint of a coder, the computer just works. From the perspective of a programmer, it works because a certain set of instructions and values were entered into several addresses and executed in order. That may not seem like a lot, but a video card manufacturer that wants to bury its competitor also wants to know that it is employing programmers who can squeeze as many operations per second as possible out of their shiniest new GPU.
At the systems level, we get to know how the code we write is turned into instructions for a machine to follow. How is source code translated into machine code by a compiler? How does the machine schedule around conflicts when it’s asked to do two things at once? A good programmer should have a solid understanding of where the CPU, I/O controllers and memory chips all factor in. Likewise, they should have a clear understanding of what sort of assembly language code is going to come out the other side when they choose between using two structures like a for loop versus a case statement.
Architecture, systems and code all interact, and a good programmer understands why. For example, this understanding allows a programmer to be more thoughtful when they must choose between using an 8-bit string or a 32-bit string to represent a value. They understand that it’s not wise to utilize any more memory space than is absolutely necessary.
You should also become familiar with best coding practices. This includes:
- Creating code others can understand and maintain
- Using a repository system to maintain backups of your code
- Developing general knowledge about all major programming languages
- Learning which languages are most suited to which tasks
What Programming Languages Should You Learn?
The most common programming languages to learn include:
C++ is the grizzled veteran of the serious computing world. It’s a compiled programming language that’s often used to create the interpreters that run other languages. C++ has been around since the 1980s and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Python has a reputation for being easy to learn. At the same time, though, it’s still a computational workhorse. In fact, Python is often a go-to tool for folks creating AIs and machine learning solutions.
PHP is basically the lingua franca of web pages. It’s not intended for computational tasks, but it works great if you just need to get a dynamic website up as fast as possible.
There are many resources for folks who want to start coding. Anyone who takes a deeper interest in architecture and systems should investigate becoming a computer programmer, especially if they find working with complex systems to be exciting. In time, you’ll come to be amazed by just how much there is to learn and how much innovation occurs daily in the field of programming.
Did learning how to become a computer programmer interest you? University of Silicon Valley offers a comprehensive Computer Science & Engineering degree programs taught by entrepreneurs who are in the thick of the industry. In this project-intensive Software Engineering concentration, you’ll not only cover the fundamental concepts of the software development process, but you’ll explore the different ways that complex software systems are changing the world.
University of Silicon Valley is uniquely poised to offer a meaningful and valuable education for 21st century students. We believe in an education that directly correlates with the work you’ll be doing after you graduate. Interested in learning more? Contact Us today.