Guide to College Majors in Computer Programming

What is Computer Programming?

Earning a college degree in computer programming can open up a wide range of career opportunities for individuals interested in the ever-growing field of technology. Computer programmers remain on the forefront of the technology industry, designing, repairing, maintaining programs, and writing code for all kinds of businesses and organizations.

Computer programmers often referred to as software programmers, systems programmers, Web programmers, database programmers, mainframe programmers, programmer analysts, business programmers, or scientific programmers must learn a variety of tasks in order to do their job effectively. These tasks require a comprehensive knowledge of computers, computer systems and programs, and computer programming languages.

Writing code is probably the most important job of the computer programmer. This requires the programmer to learn one or more programming languages--languages that computers can understand. These languages vary in application and complexity, with some languages suited to writing business programs (COBOL) and others suited to writing scientific programs (Fortran). Still other more complex languages are suited to both of these tasks and a variety of others. These more complex languages, such as C++ and Java, tend to be the most popular programming languages due to their versatility.

The most common computer languages being used today include:

  • C++
  • Visual C+++
  • Visual Basic
  • Java
  • Perl
  • HTML
  • Ada
  • Graphic and User Interface (GUI)
  • PowerBuilder
  • Fortran
  • COBOL
  • CASE tools

Many computer programmers learn more than a couple of programming languages in order to make themselves more versatile and appealing to potential employers or clients. Since programming languages also tend to emerge from earlier versions of similar languages, they are usually very easy for computer programmers to learn quickly.

Aside from writing code for new programs, computer programmers also repair, modify, expand, and update older, already written programs. They are then responsible for making sure other users know of the changes in the programming. They communicate these changes by inserting comments in the code.

Computer programming used to mean that the programmer had to write out every line of code. Nowadays, this is no longer the case. Many programs exist that will automatically write large chunks of code, allowing the programmer to concentrate on the more complex and specific aspects of the program being written. There are also libraries of customizable pre-written code available to computer programmers, allowing them to make more consistent programs in a shorter amount of time.

After writing the program, the computer programmer must test it. They do this by running the program and looking for errors. If an error message comes up, it means the computer does not understand some part of the code, and so cannot perform the task the programmer has instructed it to perform. The programmer must then go back into the code and attempt to fix the problem. This process is repeated until all of the "bugs" are worked out of the program. The process of testing and debugging a program can continue well after the program is released, so the programmer may be testing and debugging a program for as long as the program is in use.

Computer programming is, in many ways, all about communication. People communicate to the programmer what they want the program to do, then the programmer must communicate that information to the computer in a language it will understand. Once the computer understands the information, the computer programmer must then explain to people how to use the program effectively. Computer programmers must be able to translate this information into layman's terms in order to explain to non-programmers how the program operates, whether they are writing a user's manual for the program or teaching individuals how to operate the program.

Two Types of Computer Programmers

There are two broad categories of computer programmers: applications programmers and systems programmers. The type of computer programmer the student wishes to become will determine many of the courses they will take while studying for their degree in Computer Programming, so it is important to understand the difference between the two.

Applications programmers concentrate on creating programs that will perform a specific task in a specific environment. For instance, they might create a program that will help a library track what books it has in stock, how many are out on loan, and when they are expected back. These programmers would also play an important role in teaching the library's staff how to use this program effectively, as well as providing technical support should problems arise or errors occur within the program.

Being an applications programmer is not just about creating new programs, however. It may also involve upgrading old programs or customizing existing programs to function more effectively in a specific situation. This requires the applications programmer to think creatively in order to adapt a program to a specific use and then translate that creative thinking into a logical sequence that computers will be able to understand. Applications programmers can work for large software companies, businesses requiring specific programming needs, or as freelance consultants.

Systems programmers deal with creating operating system software programs, such as Windows or Mac OS. They also create system programs that maintain networks and databases. Systems programmers must have a broad understanding of how all of the parts of the computer interact in order to create a program that will regulate how these parts communicate. System software is constantly being improved upon, and systems programmers are always analyzing how effectively the CPU and network are handling the tasks they have been given.

Systems programmers must also make sure that the system software is effectively regulating and communicating with the various hardware that is used by the applications, such as disk drives, printers, modems, and other terminals. They will often write supplemental code so that the computer can communicate with a new piece of technology. Because of this broad, holistic knowledge of computer systems, systems programmers are often called in as consultants by applications programmers in order to determine if their programs are going to be compatible with certain systems.

Is a Major in Computer Programming Right for You?

A major in computer programming can prepare students to develop programs that will solve problems, convert data, store and retrieve information, and help individuals communicate via computers. Computer designers do this by converting specific parameters into various programming languages. In other words, computer programmers act as translators between people and computers, writing the specifications of a desired program in a language that the computer can understand.

Computer programming degree programs can help the student gather the knowledge they need in order to integrate and apply various aspects of symbolic logic, computer capability, and programming languages in order to create a cohesive software package. These degree programs teach the student how to bring a computer program into existence, constructing the program, testing the program, and debugging the program.

Education is becoming increasingly important in the field of computer programming. This is due to the fact that many PC users have taken it upon themselves to learn programming languages for writing simpler code and programs. This means that programmers are no longer needed for relatively simple tasks and fixes, but are needed instead for creating and maintaining more complex programs. While those with some experience in the field and an Associate degree can still find a job, those who hold a bachelor's degree may be able to find a job much more easily. In fact, over half of the nearly 500,000 computer programmers working in America today hold a bachelor's degree or higher.

If you are interested in how computer programs work and have often wished that you could design your own computer programs, you may want to consider applying to a college degree program in computer programming. Computer programming can be a rewarding major that can lead to many future career prospects.

Some common characteristics of people who graduate from degree programs in computer programming include:

  • Computer literacy
  • Communication skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Troubleshooting
  • High level of organization
  • Logical thinking
  • Reading comprehension
  • Writing skills
  • Deductive reasoning
  • Electronics knowledge
  • Patience
  • Mathematics skills

Online computer program degrees are available from accredited online colleges, universities, and distance learning programs. This makes it much more realistic for the working professional or individual trying to raise a family to get the education that will help them advance in their profession or start a career in a new profession. Most classes offered by these programs have extremely flexible schedules and are specifically designed for people who cannot attend a traditional college or university because of other obligations.

Preparing to Enter a Degree Program in Computer Programming

There are many things students can do in order to prepare to enter a degree program in computer programming. If students are planning to attend a traditional four-year college, then it is important to make sure their high school classes meet the requirements of that college or university. Most colleges and universities require at least four years of English, three years of mathematics, and two years of science and social studies.

Before applying to a degree program in computer programming, make sure that you take any and all computer courses that are offered by your high school. Some schools have after-school programs for those interested in computers. These classes can give you a familiarity with computers that may be necessary even when studying beginning programming at the college level.

If at all possible, try to gain some work experience prior to attending a degree program in computer programming. This could be anything from working at your high schools tech support desk to getting an after-school job at the local computer outlet. These jobs can give you a familiarity with the environment computer programmers work in and with the equipment that computer programmers use all the time.

Career Education in Computer Programming

There are many levels of education in the field of computer programming, from online degrees to bachelor's degrees, associate's degrees to master's degrees. Most employers, however, are looking to hire people with at least a bachelor's degree. Needless to say, the more education and experience you have, the more likely you are to find a job or to advance within a company. That said, there also exist many options for those who work in other fields but wish to gain some computer programming experience in order to perform their jobs more effectively.

Certificates in Computer Programming

It is possible to specialize in many aspects of computer programming without having to go through an entire degree program. While a complete degree program may produce a more effective and thorough programmer, many people do not need that sort of expertise in order to reach their career goals.

Certificate programs in computer programming are available for those who wish to learn a programming language in order to design a Web site or write a simple program for their business. It is important to research and study which program is right for your needs and appropriate to your skill level before enrolling in a certificate program. It is possible to learn programming languages such as Java, HTML, C++, Visual BASIC, and others by enrolling in a certificate program in computer programming.

Associate Degrees in Computer Programming

Associate degrees in computer programming are available from many community colleges or universities, as well as through online or distance learning degree programs. An associate degree can qualify you for an entry-level position in the computer programming industry. Be aware, however, that as competition increases for computer programming jobs, an associate degree may not be sufficient for you to get ahead in the industry.

It is comforting to know, however, that it is relatively easy to transfer credits from an associate degree program to a bachelor's degree program, in computer programming should you decide to continue your education later on in your career. This degree can be very useful for gaining an entry-level position that will give you the work experience you might need in order to excel in your future education.

Bachelor's Degrees in Computer Programming

The bachelor's degree program in computer programming is the most popular level of degree program in this particular field. In fact, over half of the professionals working in the field hold at least a bachelor's degree. Bachelor degree programs in Computer Programming are usually four-year programs, combining programming language training with a liberal arts education.

About half of the bachelor's degree curriculum typically consists of general education in the fields of math, English, science, and social studies. Most of these courses take place during the first two years of schooling, with the last two years dedicated more firmly to the student's computer programming training. The bachelor's degree is required in order to apply for admission into a master's degree program in computer programming.

The student should emerge from a bachelor's degree program in computer programming with experience in several different programming languages, most commonly Java, HTML, and C++. They should also gain knowledge of how computer systems work in various settings, including databases, mainframes, personal computers, and networks. This general computer knowledge can contribute to a larger understanding of the role of written code in the computer industry as a whole.

What Can You Do with a College Degree in Computer Programming?

Computer programmers have a wide variety of career choices. They can work for large corporations, small businesses, or be their own boss by working on a freelance basis. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer programmers earned a median salary of $68,080 in 2007.

Most computer programmers begin by writing code for a software company. However, as they gain experience, they can be promoted to Lead Programmer, a position involving the management of several other programmers working on designing a specific application for the company.

Experienced programmers can often find lucrative work as consultants, either on a freelance basis or for a larger consulting firm. These experienced programmers analyze software for companies in order to determine if it will function the way it is supposed to. They may also be called in to find a specific problem, the source of which has eluded the programmers designing the software.

Common Computer Programming Careers

Some common job titles for computer programmers include:

  • Systems analyst
  • Lead programmer
  • Applications programmer
  • Systems programmer
  • Web programmer
  • Applications consultant
  • Systems consultant
  • Java programmer
  • Database programmer
  • Mainframe programmer

This list of job titles is only a fraction of the number of job opportunities available to individuals with a college degree in computer programming. The industry of computer programming is expanding and education is becoming more important to employers who are now forced to keep a programmer on staff because of how much their company has come to rely on computers. In fact, the modern world has come to rely on computers. It has therefore also come to rely on the people who write the programs for those computers.

Certification and Licensure

In order to ensure that computer programmers are being competently trained and emerging from school with the knowledge they need, the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP) was established. Individuals with four years of work experience or two years of work experience and a college degree may take a core exam and two other exams in specialized areas in order to acquire the title of Certified Computer Professional (CCP). If the person seeking certification does not have the required experience, they may take a different exam in order to acquire the title of Associate Computer Professional (ACP).

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