What is computer programming, exactly? A techie’s guide

The 21st-century world runs on computers. And computers run on programs. Understanding computer programming unlocks the power of computing systems — and programming opens career doors.

Computer programs communicate information to computing devices. Computers then carry out tasks based on the program instructions. Simple programs tell computers to run calculations, while complex programs can run video games, analyze big data, or drive a car.

Our guide defines computer programs, explores uses of programming, and looks at the knowledge and skills required for careers in programming. 

What is computer programming?

What is computer programming? Programming, also known as coding, refers to the process of writing instructions for computing devices and systems. A computer program translates those instructions into a language that computers can understand.  

Computer programmers use many different languages to command computers. Popular programming languages include Python, JavaScript, Java, and the C-languages. 

The tech industry relies on computer programming to create innovative new uses for computers. Groundbreaking fields like machine learning and artificial intelligence depend on computer programming.

Computer users interact with programs frequently. Web browsers, for example, are specialized computer programs. These user-facing programs fall into the category of front-end development. In contrast, back-end development creates programs for tasks the user does not see, including server communication. 

How is computer programming used?

Computer programmers created every application that computers run — from photo editing software to word processors and web browsers. Programming languages unlock the power of computing systems. And without computer programming, our computing devices would not function. 

In addition to the uses of programming visible to users, programming languages also manage the hidden side of computing. Programs pull information from databases, implement security procedures to protect private data, and operate memory backup systems.

What computer programmers do

Computer programmers write code in languages like JavaScript, Python, and C++. Depending on their focus area — web development, mobile application development, software engineering, and so on — they use different languages. 

Computer programmers need more than fluency in one or more programming languages. They also need to know how to debug and modify code. Programmers often work in teams. 

The process of creating a program is complex and involves steps such as:

  • Conceptualizing the goal of the application

  • Building a layout of the different parts of the program

  • Writing code

  • Debugging the code and resolving any errors

  • Testing the application 

  • Releasing the program to beta users

Computer programming jobs

Many tech jobs require programming skills. For example, computer programmers, web developers, software developers, and software engineers all use coding skills regularly. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for computer and information technology occupations was $91,250 in May 2020, more than twice the $41,950 median annual wage for all occupations. The best computer science jobs also show growth above the national average.

Other computer programming jobs include:

Becoming a computer programmer

Computer programmers gain coding skills through college programs, coding bootcamps, and self-study. A degree in computer science or programming builds strong

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