Computer programming: what it is and what you need to know to learn it

Computer programming, also often referred to as simply “coding,” has become an increasingly popular career in recent decades. While the technology sector in the United States has blossomed and produced some of the economy’s largest companies, it has largely grown thanks to a small army of programmers, which includes individuals like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

Although programming may seem complicated, it is actually the process of dictating instructions and solving problems. And the ability to do so, at least in front of a computer screen, has been a relatively scarce skill for the last 50 years or so.

This is what has driven the growth in the tech industry and interest in programming. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salaries for programmers, in 2022, were just under $100,000.

Programming has become increasingly competitive but can still be a viable career option for many, but it all starts with gaining a fundamental understanding of what it is and what it entails.

What is computer programming?

Computer programming involves using a programming language to write programs, which are a set of instructions that determine what a computer should do. “A computer doesn’t do anything by itself, you have to instruct it to do what you want,” says Grace Lewis, first vice president of the IEEE Computer Society.

“The essence of programming is telling a computer to perform some task on your behalf,” he says. “If a certain situation arises, calculate it in a certain way,” he adds, since programmers need to anticipate the decision points a computer will encounter while performing a task and need instructions on how to navigate.

Other experts define programming or coding in much the same way. An effective programmer “must be able to tell the computer what to do, to perform an action or response to a user’s input,” says Dr. Sriram Mohan, Ph.D., head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at software at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

It might sound technical and complicated, but Lewis says we perform similar actions all day without realizing it or, at least, without recording it in a programming language.

“Planning is a lot like driving,” he says, explaining that as you drive down the road, you make decisions about how fast to go, when to brake, which turns to take, and more. These are the types of instructions that can be written into a program that a computer references to complete a particular task.

Therefore, learning to code can be similar to learning to drive. “If you take the driving course, at some point you become good enough to take the driving test and pass – programming is the same way, you learn the basics,” says Lewis.

How does programming work?

Programming works by deciding what task a programmer wants a computer to perform, then writing the specific instructions (i.e., a program) to perform that task, and doing so in a programming language. A programming language is one that a computer understands.

Depending on the specific task, programmers can choose one language or another, and the languages ​​have different levels of difficulty. Some are “high-level” languages, which may be easier for humans to understand because they are more like the English language. Others may be “low level,” closer to the binary language (zeros and ones) that computers communicate with, but which are further from English.

But in programming terms, a programmer decides what he wants the computer to do and uses a programming language to write a program to perform the task. The details can vary significantly from program to program, but what programming boils down to is the act of writing detailed instructions to perform a task in a language that the computer can interpret.

What are the different types of programming languages?

There are several types of programming languages ​​(besides high-level and low-level categories) used to write various programs. Within these types, there are also numerous specific languages.

The languages ​​that are ultimately used for one task or another depend on several factors, including how granular a program needs to be, the context in which it is used (for example, a use in a specific industry or within a specific company) and even the skills of a programmer. personal preferences. But more importantly, “It depends on the company and the industry he’s in,” says Dr. Mohan.

There are three main types of programming languages: procedural, functional, and object-oriented.

Procedural languages

Procedural programming languages ​​do more or less what they sound like: they follow a procedure. “A procedural language is how you give instructions to a computer or define instructions,” says Dr. Mohan. And that generally means using some sort of step-by-step approach to writing a program. Therefore, a programmer might write a series of instructions to be followed in sequence for the computer to complete a certain task.

Some common procedural languages ​​include C, Java, and C++.

Functional languages

Functional languages ​​are more complex than procedural languages, as they connect several mathematical functions to build a program. This can require a higher level skill set than using a procedural language, in many cases. “In functional programming, you need to use a technique called ‘recursion,’ and it can be a complicated concept,” says Arjun Chandrasekhar, assistant professor of computer science at Southwestern University. Recursion involves reducing or simplifying a problem to its simplest form, and yes, it can be difficult to understand.

For programmers who may be more mathematically inclined, using a functional language may seem more natural. Common functional languages ​​include Haskell and Python.

Object-oriented languages

Object-oriented programming languages ​​use “objects” rather than functions or procedural instructions to create programs. It’s yet another abstract concept to think about, but simply put, object-oriented languages ​​or programming use “classes” and “objects” within their code to construct or create programs. These can then interact with each other to create programs.

Unfortunately, it only gets more abstract from there for those without a programming background. Some examples of object-oriented languages ​​include C#, Ruby, and Rust.

While all of this may seem intimidating and overwhelming, especially to someone who doesn’t have a technology background but is interested in programming, experts say that everyone, even the most experienced programmers, has had to start from scratch at some point.

With that in mind, it’s best to try not to get discouraged and, if you’re interested in a career in programming, go for it and see if you like it, Lewis says. “Like everything, you have to try things.”

Frequent questions

What do computer programmers do?

Computer programmers use programming languages ​​to write programs, which act as instructions for a computer to follow and complete a specific task. In effect, programmers translate English into code, which a computer can interpret to perform a certain function.

Do programmers get paid well?

Computer programmers tend to be paid relatively well compared to many other professions in the United States. In 2022, median annual salaries were just under $100,000, while median household income that year was about $75,000.

How difficult is it to program?

Programming will be difficult for some people and less difficult for others, depending on a number of factors. However, experts say people with a knack for problem solving and math may find it easier than others.

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