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The role of a computer programmer is to write, test, and maintain programs, the detailed instructions that computers follow to perform their complicated functions. Programmers also conceive, create, and test logical structures for solving problems by computer. Several technological innovations in computer programming such as advanced technologies, sophisticated programming tools, and new languages have shaped the role of a programmer and brought new attention to much of today's programming work. Job descriptions and titles often vary, depending on the organization. For the most part, computer programmer refers to professionals whose primary function is programming. This group typically has a wide range of responsibilities and educational backgrounds.
Programs tell computers what to do and which information to identify and access, how to process it, and what computer equipment (such as printers, modems, etc.) to use. The instructions involved in updating financial records, for example, are often very different from those needed to approximate conditions on board an airplane for flight crew training in a flight simulator. Even though simple programs can be written in a few hours (or even a few minutes), software that uses complicated mathematical formulas, whose results can often only be approximated, or that gather data from several existing computer systems can need a year or more of work. Several programmers usually work together as a team under an experienced programmerís supervision.
Computer programmers create programs according to the guidelines and specifications determined by systems analysts and software engineers. After design is completed, it becomes the responsibility of the computer programmer to develop that design into a logical series of instructions that computers are able to follow. The programmer then can code this information in a programming language, such as COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), BASIC, C++, Java, or other similar language. A variety of languages can be used depending on the needs of the application. C++ is widely used for scientific or business applications while COBOL, for example, is commonly used for business applications. As ann older language, Fortran is sometimes used in science and engineering. Programmers working at the enterprise level are required to be proficient in platform-specific languages used in database programming. Programmers often learn many computer languages. Because of similarities between programming languages, new languages can be learned relatively easily.
Most computer programmers are responsible for updating, repairing, modifying, and expanding existing software. When changing a section of programming code, called a routine (or sub-routine), software coders are required to make other users aware of the task that the specific routine performs. This is often done by placing comment tags in the program so that others can understand it better. As an example of how many people collaborate to develop software, Microsoft Windows 2000 contains more than 30 million lines of code! Many programmers use specialized software tools to automate a great deal of the coding process used to develop software. Many of these software tools allows a computer programmer to focus on creating the specialized parts of the program, because these tools automate different pieces of the program being built. These tools generate complete sections of computer code automatically, rather than line-by-line. Computer programmers often use libraries of pre-written code, which can then be customized or modified for a specialized application or need. This can yield more reliable and consistent software and often increases productivity by eliminating some repetitious steps.
Computer programmers are able to test a program by running it to make sure that the instructions are correct and that the program produces the required outcome. When an error occurs, the programmer makes appropriate changes and compiles and runs the program again. This is performed until it produces the desired results (testing and debugging). Programmers often must continue to update and fix problems during the lifetime of a program. Updated programs are called "versions" and are often represented by a number (for example, 1.5 or 2.54). Programmers working with mainframes (a large, centralized computer) prepare instructions for a computer operator who runs the program.
Programmers in software development companies are often required to work directly with experts from various fields to create software. These programs are designed for specific clients or can be packaged software for general use. A great deal of this kind of computer programming takes place while preparing packaged software such as Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat.
In 2002, computer programmers held approximately 499,000 jobs. They are employed in most every industry. The largest concentrations are in the field of computer systems design and in software publishing, which includes companies that write, sell, and market software. Other firms that hire computer programmers include telecommunications companies, manufacturers of computer and electronic equipment, financial institutions, insurance carriers, educational institutions, and government agencies.
Many programmers are employed on a contract or temporary basis or work as independent contractors, as firms demand expertise with new languages. Instead of hiring programmers as permanent employees and then laying them off after the job is done, employers can work with "temp" agencies, consulting firms, or directly with the programmers themselves. A marketing firm may require the services of several programmers only to write and debug the software necessary to get a new customer relationship management system running. They might post the project on a website like ELance that allows many programmers to bid on the job and then the client selects the bid she likes the best. This practice enables companies to utilize people, sometimes from the other side of the globe, who have a specific set of skills as it applies to their needs. Bringing in an independent contractor or consultant with a high level of experience in a new or advanced programming language, for example, enables an company to complete a particular job without having to spend time and money training existing workers. These jobs may last anywhere from just a few days to a year or longer. There were 18,000 computer programmers who were self-employed in 2002.
Statistics: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition, Computer Programmers.
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