Computer Programmers

     Computer programmers held about 568,000 jobs in 1996. Programmers are employed
in almost every industry but the largest amount is in the computer and data
processing industry that includes companies that write and sell software. Allot
of programmers can also be found working for companies that provide engineering
and management services, manufacturers of computer and office equipment,
financial institutions, insurance carriers, educational institutions, and
government agencies. A growing number of computer programmers are employed on a
temporary, a contract basis, or work as independent workers because allot of
companies demand expertise with newer programming languages or more 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, consulting firms, or directly with programmers
themselves. A marketing company may only need the services of several
programmers to write and debug the software necessary to get a new database
management system running. This practice also enables companies to bring in
people with a specific set of skills. Bringing in an independent contractor with
a certain level of experience in a new or advanced programming language enables
an establishment to complete a particular job without having to retrain their
workers. Such jobs may last anywhere from several weeks to a year or longer.

There were 20,000 self-employed computer programmers in 1996 and this number is
expected to increase. Programmers usually work in offices. Although they usually
work about 40 hours a week, programmers may work longer hours or weekends in
order to meet deadlines or fix critical problems that occur during off hours.

Programmers can access a system directly, but from remote locations, to make
corrections or fix problems. Like other workers that spend a long time in front
of a computer terminal typing at a keyboard, they are susceptible to eyestrain,
back discomfort, and hand and wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or
cumulative trauma disorder. Computer programs tell the computer what to do such
as 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. Although simple programs can be written in a few hours, programs
that use complex mathematical formulas or that draw data from many existing
systems, require more than a year of work. Allot of programmers work together as
a team under a senior programmer's supervision. Programmers write specific
programs by breaking down each step into a logical series of instructions the
computer can follow. They then code these instructions in a conventional
programming language, such as C and FORTRAN. An artificial intelligence
language, such as LISP or Prolog; or one of the more advanced function-oriented
or object-oriented languages, such as UML, Java, C++, Visual Basic, or Ada.

Programmers usually know more than one programming language and since many
languages are alike, they can often learn new languages relatively easily. In
practice, the language they know or the type of environment they generally work
in such as mainframe programmer, object-oriented programmer, or Internet or

World Wide Web programmer often refers to programmers. In many large
organizations, programmers follow descriptions that have been prepared by
software engineers or systems analysts. These descriptions list the input
required the steps the computer must follow to process data, and the desired
arrangement of the output. Many programmers are involved in updating, repairing,
modifying and expanding existing programs. When making changes to a section of
code programmers need to make other users aware of the task the routine is to
perform. They do this by using comments in the coded instructions so others can
understand the program. Innovations such as Computer-Aided Software Engineering
(CASE) 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. This also stops more reliable and consistent programs and
increases programmers' productivity by eliminating some of the routine steps.

Programmers often are grouped into two types: Applications programmers and
systems programmers. Applications programmers usually are oriented toward
business, engineering, or science. They write software to handle specific jobs
within an organization, such as a program used in an inventory control system.

They may also work alone to revise existing packaged software. Systems
programmers maintain and control the use of computer systems software. These
workers make changes in the sets of instructions that determine how the network,
workstations, and central processing unit of the system handles 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, financial planning, and spreadsheets. Much
of this type of programming is in the preparation of packaged software, which
comprises one of the most rapidly growing segments of the computer services
industry. The average earnings of programmers who worked full time in 1996 were
about $40,100 a year. The middle 50 percent earned between about $30,700 and
$52,000 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,700; the highest 10
percent earned more than $65,200. Starting salary offers for graduates with a
bachelor's degree in the area of computer programming averaged about $35,167 a
year in private industry in 1997, according to the National Association of

Colleges and Employers. Programmers working in the West and Northeast earned
somewhat more than those working in the South and Midwest. On average, systems
programmers earn more than applications programmers. A survey of workplaces in

160 metropolitan areas reported that beginning programmers had average annual
earnings of about $27,000 in 1995. Experienced mid-level programmers with some
supervisory responsibilities had average annual earnings of about $40,000.

Median annual earnings for programmers at the supervisory or team leader level
were about $55,000. According to Robert Half International Inc. starting
salaries ranged from $32,500 to $39,000 for programmers and $47,500 to $60,000
for systems programmers in large establishments in 1997. Starting salaries for
programmers in small establishments ranged from $28,000 to $37,000. In the

Federal Government, the entrance salary for programmers with a college degree or
qualifying experience was about $19,520 a year in early 1997; for those with a
superior academic record, $24,180. The majority of computer programmers, almost

60 percent, had a bachelor's degree or higher in 1996. Of these, some hold a BA
or BS in computer science, mathematics, or information systems while others have
taken special courses in computer programming to supplement their study in
fields such as accounting, inventory control, or other business areas. As the
level of education and training required by employers continue to rise, this
percentage should increase in the future. Skills needed vary from job to job and
the demand for various skills is generally driven by changes in technology.

Employers using computers for scientific or engineering applications generally
prefer college graduates who have degrees in computer or information science,
mathematics, engineering, or the physical sciences. Graduate degrees in related
fields may be required for some jobs. Employers who use computers for business
applications prefer to hire people who have had college courses in management
information systems (MIS) and business, and who possess strong programming
skills. Although knowledge of traditional languages such as FORTRAN, COBOL, or C
is still important, increasing emphasis is placed on more advanced
object-oriented languages and tools such as CASE tools, C++, Visual C++, Ada,

Smalltalk, Visual Basic, PowerBuilder, and Java as well as 4th and 5th
generation languages, graphic user interface (GUI) and systems programming.

Employers prefer general business skills and experience related to the
operations of the firm as well. Most systems programmers hold a 4-year degree in
computer science. Extensive knowledge of a variety of operating systems is
essential. This includes being able to configure the operating system to work
with different types of hardware, and adapting the operating system to best meet
the needs of the particular organization. They must also 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 imagination are also particularly important when
programmers design solutions and test their work for potential failures. The
ability to work with abstract concepts and do technical analysis is especially
important for systems programmers because they work with the software that
controls the computer's operation. Since programmers are expected to work in
teams and interact directly with users, employers want programmers who are able
to communicate with non-technical personnel. Beginning programmers may work
alone on simple assignments after some initial instruction, or 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 training by taking courses sponsored by their
employer or software vendors. For skilled workers who keep up to date with the
latest technology, the prospects for advancement are good. In large
organizations, they 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 a managerial position. Other programmers,
with specialized knowledge and experience with a language or operating system,
may work in research and development areas such as multimedia or Internet
technology. As employers increasingly contract out programming jobs, more
opportunities should arise for experienced programmers with expertise in a
specific area to work as consultants. Technical or professional certification is
becoming more common as a way for employers to ensure a level of competency or
quality in all areas. Many product vendors offer certification or may even
require certification of technicians and professionals who work with their
products. The number of voluntary certificate or certification programs is also
growing and this type of certification is available through organizations such
as the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP). ICCP
confers the designation Certified Computing Professional (CCP) to those who have
at least 4 years of experience or 2 years of experience and a college degree. To
qualify, individuals must pass a core examination plus exams in two specialty
areas, or an exam in one specialty area and two computing languages. Those with
little or no experience may be tested for certification as an Associate Computer

Professional (ACP). Certification is not mandatory, buy it may give a job seeker
a competitive advantage.