Computer Programmer vs. Software Developer: Decoding the Differences

two tech pros sitting at desk working

You’ve always had a natural understanding of technology that leaves others clueless. It isn’t the first time you’ve thought about joining the tech world for your career, but it is the first time you’ve seriously considered potential job titles.

But comparing the titles of computer programmer versus software developer has you stumped. Both sound like appealing careers, but you don’t have enough in-depth information to really make sense of the difference—or whether there really is any.

To help, we’ll take a closer look at how these roles are defined, what they have in common and how they may differ.

Computer programmer vs. software developer: The role

If you’re a fan of black-and-white, clear-cut distinctions, you’re reading about the wrong topic. In the tech world, there are a lot of blurred lines between the work of computer programmers and software developers—and in many cases, these titles are used interchangeably. That being said, the Bureau of Labor Statistics can help us try to draw the line between the roles as best we can.

The BLS defines computer programmers as the tech professionals who write the code that brings software and apps to life.1 They use a variety of programming languages and test for errors to make sure everything they code functions properly. In this context, you can think of computer programmers as construction workers bringing different specialties together to build a house.

On the other hand, the BLS defines software developers as more like the designers behind an app or software program.1 They’re in charge of the entire development process and are often thinking about how the end user will interact with their software. In the construction analogy, software developers are the architects who create a building plan and bring together the professionals who can execute it.

Computer programmer vs. software developer: Job duties

When it comes to daily job duties, computer programmers are all about code. They spend most of their time creating and testing new code, fixing glitches and streamlining code to simplify the writing and reduce the chance of errors. They work closely with software developers and often share job duties with them.

The BLS’ definition of software developers spends more time on big-picture thinking as they determine how the end user will engage with a program, as well as its functionality and security needs. They design their program and then hand it off to programmers, who develop it. However, software developers still need to have a strong background in coding since they will need to find solutions to problems in design and functionality. Software developers at smaller organizations may write their own code rather than working with computer programmers.

Computer programmer vs. software developer: Work environments

Computer programmers and software developers share a similar work atmosphere. Both professionals may have opportunities to work from home, as much of their work can be accomplished anywhere. Regardless of where they work, computer programmers and software developers will both need to keep in touch with their team to collaborate on projects.

Computer programmer vs. software developer: Skills needed

As you might imagine, both computer programmers and software developers need to be well-versed in several coding languages. Our analysis of computer programmer and software developer job postings found that SQL, Java™, JavaScript™, Microsoft® C# and Python™ are some of the most commonly preferred languages for both roles.1 Additionally, skills like object-oriented programming, database structures, project management and knowledge of development processes are all commonly sought after.

However, these careers aren’t all about technical skills. Transferable skills play a large part in these technology roles. Both roles lean heavily on problem-solving ability, teamwork, planning and communication. No matter the organization—or how they define these roles—you’ll find that neither works on an island. Software development and programming are collaborative work, which means you’ll need to be comfortable collaborating, communicating and working as a team to address issues found throughout the development and planning process.

Computer programmer vs. software developer: Job outlook and salaries

Money isn’t the only consideration when choosing between two careers, but it’s certainly an important factor! The good news is that both roles appear to have strong earning potential. Computer programmers earned a median annual income of $82,240 in 2017, according to the BLS.1 Computer programmers are needed in a wide variety of industries, but those working for software publishers stand to earn the most, with a median wage of more than $97,000. However, job prospects for computer programmers are expected to decline by 7 percent through 2026 due to companies contracting with programmers overseas.1 The BLS notes that job prospects will be best for those who hold a Bachelor’s degree and know a variety of programming languages.

Software developers earned a median annual salary of $101,790 in 2017, with the top 10 percent of earners bringing in more than $164,000.1 Unlike computer programmers, the job outlook for software developers is expected to grow rapidly—a projected 24 percent by 2026, which would equal more than 300,000 new jobs.1 This increase is largely because of the widespread adoption of software programs across industries like healthcare.

Computer programmer vs. software developer: Education and training

Although some computer programmers are self-taught, the BLS reports that the majority hold a Bachelor’s degree.1 Our data agrees, showing that 79 percent of employers are seeking computer programmers with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.3 Programmers are also expected to stay up to date with changes in technology and programming languages after they’ve begun their careers.

A Bachelor’s degree is highly recommended for software developers, with 94 percent of employers wanting to see this qualification in their job candidates.4 The BLS shares that software developers typically earn their degree in computer science, which explores a variety of topics and gives them an essential background in coding. Software developers also need to understand the basics of the industry they work in, such as finance or healthcare, so they can best serve the end user.

Which path will you pursue?

When comparing the roles of computer programmers versus the roles of software developers, you’ll find there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Often, the distinctions between these titles will vary depending on who’s hiring. No matter the title, both of these positions depend heavily on a foundation of computer science skills and know-how. So, would you be a good fit in a software development or in a programming career? Our article, “8 Signs You Should Consider Becoming a Software Developer” can help you decide.

1Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed December 28, 2018] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries, and employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 969,686 computer programmer and software developer job postings, Jan. 09, 2018 – Jan. 08, 2019)
3Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 62,885 computer programmer job postings, Dec. 01, 2017 – Nov. 30, 2018).
4Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 819,744 software developer job postings, Dec. 01, 2017 – Nov. 30, 2018).
Java and Javascript are registered trademarks of Oracle Corporation.
Microsoft C# is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.
Python is a registered trademark of The Python Software Foundation.

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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