How to Become a Computer Programmer: Outlining the Education Requirements

Computers are an integral aspect of modern life. Think about it — when was the last time you went a day, or even a few hours, without your phone or laptop? Computers underpin our work and supply access to entertainment; technology lies at the heart of our economy and social landscape.

We need digital tools. So, naturally, we also need people who know how to build, change and improve them. Computer programming is a fantastic career option for tech-savvy professionals. In this article, we’ll walk you through how to become a programmer, the educational requirements and what the job landscape looks like.

Here are the steps to becoming a computer programmer:

  1. Determine what kind of programmer you want to be
  2. Familiarize yourself with the necessary skills
  3. Obtain an education
  4. Develop your application materials
  5. Put yourself out there

We’ll also explain what educational options like a coding bootcamp can do for you as you chart your path. Let’s get started!

Steps to Becoming a Computer Programmer

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably asked yourself: Should I become a computer programmer?

Only you can decide what you want to do. However, if you do choose to become a coder, you can rest assured that the process probably won’t be as complicated or time-consuming as you expect. Below, we’ve listed a few concrete steps you can take to learn coding and prepare yourself for a career in computer programming.

1. Determine what kind of programmer you want to be

“Computer programmer” seems like a self-explanatory description — and during the 1980s, when personal computers were only just entering the consumer market, it might have been. But as our use of computers and digital tools has broadened, so too has the use of the term itself.

Anyone who writes computer code (commonly referred to simply as “code”) is technically a computer programmer. What distinguishes positions is how professionals use and apply the code they write. As an aspiring computer programmer or “coder,” you could opt to go into countless specialties such as web development, application design and data science, among others.

There are specializations within these broad paths, too. Web development, for example, features three major sub-specialties: front end, back end and full stack. The first is primarily concerned with building the parts of a website that the average visitor can see and manipulate, such as text, videos, pictures and menus. The second specialty concerns the back end of a website — the server-side. These professionals work on the underlying databases and structures that give websites their functionality.

As you might have already guessed, full stack professionals have command over the front and back ends of a website. If you aren’t sure exactly where you want to take your programming career, you may want to consider building a foundation in full stack web development skills. It’s a role in high demand; in 2020, over a third (38 percent) of hiring managers (PDF, 2.8 MB) said that recruiting full stack developers was their top priority above finding back end developers and data scientists.

A graph that shows the most in-demand developer roles, according to hiring managers.

Full stack development is a fantastic profession in its own right — but by assembling a versatile coding toolbox, you can also build bridges to other professional paths. By taking a full stack route, you maximize your potential for career exploration while gaining the immediate skills you’ll need for an entry-level coding job.

Make a note of any industries you might want to break into, as well! While coders are often associated with the tech industry, they aren’t restricted to it. Skilled programmers can find jobs in a variety of fields, including retail, transportation, hospitality and healthcare.

Once you’ve established clear educational and career goals, you can start considering how to become a programmer.

2. Familiarize yourself with the necessary skills

Regardless of the position you ultimately want to attain, you’ll need to acquire a few basic skills to make the cut for entry-level programming skills. As you pursue your education and figure out how to become a programmer, the following in-demand coding languages and skills should be at the top of your academic priority list.

Programming Languages

All coders — especially those on the full stack track — need to have command over a few core languages. These include:

JavaScript

JavaScript is a front end scripting language often used by front end programmers to imbue websites with dynamic action. Basic animations, for example, are usually coded in JavaScript, as are buttons and forms. In 2020, it was the top language sought by hiring managers (PDF, 2.8 MB).

Python

Python is a high-level, open-source programming language that was designed to be intuitive and easy to use. It is mostly used in back end programming and data science.

HTML

HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is the foundational language used to design the form and structure of web pages and sites. It is applied primarily in front end development.

CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is often used in tandem with HTML to define a consistent layout and appearance across a site. Once specified within a cascading style sheet, developers can apply specific font styles, colors and other design elements to any page that references that CSS file.

SQL

Structured Query Language, or “SQL,” is a query language used for accessing, modifying and removing data from relational databases. It is often used in the development and management of websites.

NoSQL

NoSQL is a database that, in contrast to SQL, is non-relational. This means that it stores and accesses data using key-value pairs, which are used to access objects’ properties via a dictionary-style interface rather than the traditional rows and columns of a relational database.

Java

Java is a popular programming language used to build web applications. It is object-oriented, which means it develops programs by creating “objects” that contain data and coded procedures. Java is most often used in back end programming.

C#

C# (pronounced “C Sharp”) is an object-oriented programming language that back end programmers often use when creating web applications and Windows programs.

Soft Skills

Developers need to know how to code, of course — but they also need to have a robust set of nontechnical skills. Your “soft” repertoire should be well-stocked with interpersonal skills before you even enter the job pool.

Problem Solving

Development is, at its core, about problem solving. Seeing a program “break” due to a faulty line of code or logical flaw is an all-too-common experience in the programming world. As a professional developer, you’ll need to be patient and persistent enough to tease apart frustrating bugs and find solutions.

Communication

It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are at writing code — if you can’t collaborate with your teammates or explain your efforts to supervisors, you will not be effective at work. All programmers need to have the ability to communicate their thoughts, actions and intentions clearly to technical and non-technical audiences.

Time Management

How well can you structure your schedule? If you plan to become a computer programmer, you must know how to keep yourself accountable and productive at work. Because developers often work in teams, falling behind might not only pose a problem to you — it could hold up your entire department. Learn how to manage your time!

3. Obtain an education

Now you have a better idea of the skills you’ll need to succeed as a computer programmer — but how should you obtain them?

The answer depends on you.

Today, there are three primary academic paths available to aspiring coders: college education, bootcamp learning and self-directed study. But before we discuss the three in detail, we need to talk about you and your situation.

The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all route for those wondering how to become a programmer. The route you choose should suit your unique needs, preferences and goals. The path a tech-savvy high school graduate chooses, for example, might differ from the one a front end coder takes who simply needs to brush up on their back end skills. Before you enroll in an educational program, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much coding knowledge or industry-relevant experience do you have?
  • How much time and money can you commit to your education?
  • What is your schedule availability (full-time, part-time, evening, weekend?)
  • What is your preferred turnaround time for gaining an education and entering the job force?
  • What kind of learner are you (i.e., do you prefer structured, instructor-led learning environments or self-directed ones)?

Once you have your answers, you’ll be better able to determine which of the three educational options will work best for you.

College

Turnaround: 4 years
Cost: $$$
Schedule: Full-time, in-person

A four-year degree is one of the most popular routes into computer programming. According to Stack Overflow’s 2020 Developer report, roughly 75 percent of professional developers have at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those, the majority (61.9 percent) majored in computer science. Other popular fields of study included mechanical engineering, IT, natural science and mathematics.

College learning has its perks. The four-year turnaround offers students the time they need to gain a comprehensive understanding of programming practice and theory. Students can learn within collaborative class environments and have hands-on support from veteran coding instructors. College learners also have the opportunity to tap into their institution’s alumni networks — this could help some motivated students land internships and other professional placements.

However, while college programs may be ideal for learners who can dedicate four years to full-time study, they may not suit those who want to make mid-career pivots, have families to support or simply want to enter the job market quickly. University programs are also expensive; the average annual cost of attending a state college is $9,687. The yearly tuition for the typical private college is even higher: $35,087. College can also come with other costs, like room and board.

If you don’t have the time or money to dedicate to a four-year college degree, you may want to opt for a more flexible academic option.

Coding Bootcamp

Turnaround: 3 to 6 months
Cost: $$
Schedule: Full-time, part-time, in-person, virtual

If you want to learn the skills to become a full stack developer as quickly as possible, then you may want to consider a coding bootcamp. If you go the coding bootcamp route, you can learn functional, job-ready coding skills within just three to six months. These intensive programs feature experienced instructors and collaborative class environments. Bootcamps are often designed with flexibility in mind, and many offer part-time and virtual learning options alongside their full-time programs, which may be more approachable for learners who need to maintain a job or balance their education with familial responsibilities.

These intensive programs are also substantially cheaper than college degrees. According to Course Report’s most recent Market Size Study, average bootcamp tuition was just $13,584 in 2019 — that’s under a third of the tuition cost posed by a four-year degree at the average public college.

Employers value bootcamps, too. Research from HackerRank (PDF, 2.8 MB) indicates that the majority of hiring managers feel that bootcamp graduates can learn new languages and technologies quickly (71 percent), have strong practical experience (61 percent), and are eager to take on new responsibilities (52 percent).

A chart that shows the top reasons bootcamp graduates succeed, according to hiring managers.

For all their benefits, however, bootcamps aren’t without their cons. While the quick turnaround can be appealing to learners who want to make an immediate career pivot into web development, it does not allow for the comprehensive coverage that four-year degrees provide. While drastically cheaper than a college education, bootcamp programs do also pose tuition costs that may feel significant to some learners. Many providers, like Berkeley Boot Camps, offer interest-free payment plans to help offset the price for qualified students.

Generally speaking, bootcamps are best for learners who want to make a quick career pivot or industry professionals who need to brush up on their coding skills before seeking a more advanced role.

Self-Directed Study

Turnaround: 1+ years
Cost: $
Schedule: Variable, virtual

If you are a highly motivated learner who prefers to learn independently, you may want to consider building your coding skills via self-directed learning.

Today, it’s technically possible to become a coder solely through free online courses, books and tutorials. This academic route is inexpensive and can be adapted to suit any schedule — but generally speaking, it shouldn’t be taken unless you’re confident that you can keep yourself on track.

Following a self-imposed curriculum isn’t easy. As an independent learner, you don’t have an instructor to provide support nor a formal schedule to keep you accountable. Moreover, employers may not feel as comfortable hiring you if you don’t have an educational institution to vouch for your skills. If you plan to go the self-directed route, you’ll need to stock your portfolio with exceptional projects to “prove” your capabilities.

Additional Resources:

4. Develop your application materials

Once you have your education, you should turn your attention to developing a robust application that showcases your capabilities as a programmer.

In addition to a well-polished resume, you should assemble a portfolio that demonstrates your mastery of in-demand programming languages and technologies. Do not feel obligated to include every project you have ever completed. In fact, doing so can be actively detrimental to your job search — after all, quantity is no substitute for quality.

Instead, curate a few projects that showcase your skills and proficiencies, especially those related to or required by the jobs you’re applying for.

Additional Resources:

5. Put yourself out there

It doesn’t matter how talented you are — if you don’t put yourself out there, no one will know you’re available for hire.

Getting a job will require quite a bit of effort on your part. Networking is a must; making connections with industry professionals via formal events and social networking platforms can give you access to valuable career resources. If you acquired a degree in a relevant field or your alma mater offers a computer programming program, you can also reach out to alumni and career services to expand your professional network and find job openings.

When it comes to applying for open positions, dare to be bold; apply even if you are unsure whether your experience and skills meet the requirements. Interview practice is valuable on its own, and you can also learn a lot about employers and the industry through this process.
It may take some time to hear back from prospective employers, but it is crucial that you keep submitting applications and updating your resume and portfolio.

Lastly, remember that the more you learn, the more valuable you will be in the eyes of future employers — so be sure to keep furthering your education!

Educational Requirements for Computer Programmers

How much formal education does a computer programmer need to get a job? The educational requirements for computer programming are a bit complicated.

While most computer programmers opt for four-year degrees, only 9.7 percent of professional developers view an undergraduate education as “critically important.” In fact, significantly more — 39.5 percent — believe a college degree is only somewhat important or not at all necessary.

Employers hold a similar perspective. One recent report from HackerRank (PDF, 2.8 MB) found that nearly one in three hiring managers has selected bootcamp graduates to fill a role. Of those, 39.2 percent viewed bootcamp graduates as being as qualified for the role as college-educated coders, and 33 percent found bootcampers to be better qualified.

That said, it would be difficult to break into the programming sector without any formal education. People who opt to learn coding through independent study will need a standout professional portfolio, excellent connections or both to find a job in the field.

Aspiring programmers who want to position themselves ahead of the proverbial pack may want to complement their (in)formal education with certifications. Certifications can make you appear more valuable and knowledgeable to potential employers because they provide concrete evidence of your skills.

Additionally, even if you have already secured a programming job, obtaining further certifications can make you more marketable and give you an advantage as you pursue advancement opportunities. While college programs and bootcamps do not offer certifications, they can give you the foundational knowledge you need to obtain one.

Programming Certifications

Getting officially certified in a programming language can help bolster your resume.

Database Certifications

Obtaining a certification from notable companies like IBM or Microsoft can impress future employers and be useful if you plan to go into data science.

Like a formal four-year degree, certifications aren’t strictly necessary for aspiring computer programmers — but they won’t hurt your job hunt, either.

Securing an Entry-Level Position

If you want to get hired as a computer programmer, you need to have demonstrable programming knowledge and skills as well as a tailored resume, sufficient portfolio and solid references. Drawing on your professional network will be instrumental in the job search process; your industry connections can easily lead to new opportunities. Plus, if your colleagues know you’re looking for an entry-level position, they can put in a good word for you or share news of new job openings.

As you work toward obtaining a suitable education, keep an eye out for job listings. Even if you are not ready to apply to specific positions, you can get a good idea of what employers want to see in applicants. This will allow you to better exhibit your skills and appear more competitive as a candidate when you are prepared to step into the job pool.

The California and U.S. Job Outlook for Computer Programmers

The job outlook for coders is somewhat complicated. The national projection for computer programming jobs is currently decreasing; this trend is also occurring in California. On the other hand, careers in web development, which draw upon programming skills, are projected to grow in California and nationally over the next decade. These trends may not manifest in the same way across all states, but generally, web development is a growing industry.

The growing trend of remote work is likely to impact computer programming job opportunities, especially on a regional basis. Remote employment is projected to equalize the playing field, open more jobs to a broader talent pool and make geographic location less important. This development also means that, across the nation, programming, development and other comparable fields will experience less discrepancy in terms of salary and employment.

All in all: you should feel optimistic about your odds of landing a well-paying programming job, no matter where you happen to live.

Related Degrees and Bootcamps

Not sure you want to stay on the programming track forever? No problem! The skills you’ll build as a developer are transferable to countless similar and adjacent professions. Below, we’ve listed a few related career paths to consider.

Cybersecurity

With the advent of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and cloud computing, privacy and security have become a top priority for individual consumers and corporations alike.

Cybersecurity is a fast-growing industry with high potential. Consider this — in 2019, the cybersecurity market was valued at nearly $66.86 billion. By 2030, researchers expect the market to top $182.32 billion. Demand for cybersecurity professionals has skyrocketed; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for information security analysts are expected to increase a full 31 percent between 2019 and 2029. This is significantly more than the mere 5 percent average.

Learning how to identify, prevent and counter cyber attacks as well as conduct critical analysis, configure virtual network machines and assess system and network vulnerabilities are all capabilities that could orient you for career success. You can learn these skills — and more — in a cybersecurity bootcamp.

Software Development

Software developers work in a variety of industries and on a wealth of projects, dedicating their time to tasks that run the gamut from writing and editing code to designing and optimizing app functions.

These professionals are relevant in nearly every part of the digital world; software developers work on almost every programming vertical, from building mobile apps and video games to social media sites and film production. It’s thus unsurprising, given our ever-increasing reliance on digital tools, that software developer roles are expected to increase by 22 percent between 2019 and 2029.

If these responsibilities sound enticing, consider learning how to become a software developer.

Data Science and Analytics

For those who are more mathematically or scientifically minded, data science and analytics may be the career path for you. The demand for skilled scientists and analysts is high in nearly every industry, notably healthcare, government, human resources and financial services.

Data science is arguably more challenging, especially for individuals who lack prior experience with programming, mathematics or other scientific fields, so you may need to pursue a data analytics bootcamp or other educational options such as an online master’s degree in data science before transitioning to this career path!

Should I Become a Programmer?

In short — yes! Computer programming is a fulfilling path that can lead to success in a variety of industries, fields and roles. While the outlook for computer programmers is on a mild decline, the need for skilled programmers, as well as web developers, information security experts and other related professionals, is on a sharp rise. Gaining core full stack skills can set you up for success and allow you to explore high-potential careers in tech.

Of course, becoming a programmer isn’t always easy; it requires hard work and dedication. But that effort can pay off handsomely, allowing you to grow and thrive in a rewarding profession.

If you are considering becoming a computer programmer, consider enrolling in Berkeley Coding Boot Camp. This intensive program is a great place to immerse yourself in the foundations of programming and help you lay a sturdy foundation for your future coding career.

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