Programmer vs. Developer: Cracking the Code Behind Commonly Confused Career Paths

Boxing gloves with symbols for programmers and developers

Between the programmers, computer scientists, web developers, designers and various IT specialists, there’s no denying the plentiful options for careers in tech. They all play an essential role in creating and maintaining our digital landscape – but who does what exactly?

We’re narrowing our focus to dissect the differences between two commonly confused careers: programmers and developers. The titles may seem interchangeable, but as you’ll soon discover, there are definite distinctions between the two.

Let us clarify your programmer versus developer confusion – read ahead to see what these exciting careers are all about!

Programmer vs. developer: The basics

Before we can get to the fine details of programmers and developers, it’s important to know who they are and what they do. Simply put, computer programmers write the code that is used to create software programs or websites, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They write code in a variety of programming languages like C++ and Java.

Even though programmers write the code that helps create programs or websites, they don’t typically design or create the programs or websites themselves. That duty typically falls on the web developers, according to the BLS. The developers design and create the actual websites, while the programmers are responsible for writing the code for that website, which serve as the instructions that a computer can follow.

As you can see, there is a fine line between the everyday duties of a programmer and developer. But they often work closely together, and some programmers may even be responsible for designing a program too. This overlap also exists with developers, with some developers being responsible for writing code for the websites they create.

What’s important to remember for developers is that their main job is designing how the website will look, how it will perform and the content for the website. For programmers, the majority of their work is actually writing the code.

Programmer vs. developer: Job duties

In addition to writing code for programs and websites, programmers also modify and test the code to make sure the website is operating correctly, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). In order to do so, they conduct trial runs of the programs to ensure they produce the desired information and outcome. The BLS also states some programmers will build and use special tools like computer-assisted software engineering (CASE) that will write code automatically for them.

While programmers and developers work on similar projects, developers spend their days meeting with clients or management to discuss the need of websites. They work with team members to determine the content of the site and monitor the website traffic when the site is finished and active.

Programmer vs. developer: Skills needed

Despite the similarities in what they do, different skills are needed to work as a programmer versus a developer. We used real-time job analysis software to examine hundreds of thousands of programmer and developer job postings from the past year.

The data revealed the top technical skills employers are seeking for each field:

Top skills for programmers1 Top skills for developers2
JAVAWeb application development
.Net ProgrammingHTML5
Microsoft C#Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP)

As you can see, there is a slight overlap in skills, but there are different proficiencies employers prefer for each position. Both require a large amount of technical skill, but there are some transferable skills that are important as well.

Both developers and programmers must be detail oriented and be able concentrate for long periods of time. Not only do long periods of time refer to long work days at a desk in front of a computer, but programmers and developers can be assigned projects that take up to a year or more to complete!

The most successful programmers are extremely analytical and employ impeccable troubleshooting skills. Developers typically interact with other team members more frequently on projects. Because of this, collaboration and customer-service skills are ideal. The development side also requires more creativity and innovation, while programming is quite disciplined and methodical.

Programmer vs. developer: Careers & salary

Is there really anything different between programmers and developers in their careers? The answer is yes! Many developers actually begin their career as programmers, meaning once they become a developer they carry forward the essentials of writing code.

Still, programmers are indispensable because they have a deeper knowledge of code and algorithms. Developers might be familiar with one code, but programmers are typically expected to be experts at several different codes.

The analysis mentioned above helped us identify the top job titles for each field. This will give you a taste of what you can expect:

Top job titles for each field

Top job titles for programmers1 Top job titles for developers2
Programming analystFront end developer
Systems programmerPHP developer
SAS programmerUser interface (UI) developer
.Net programmerUser experience (UX) designer
Mainframe developerWeb applications developer

Now that you can picture yourself working in one of these positions, you’re probably wondering about the earning potential. The good news is that both programmers and developers earn quite a bit higher than the national average, which the BLS reports at $35,540 in 2014.3

The median annual salary for computer programmers in 2014 was $77,550, according to the BLS. On the other hand, the BLS reports the 2014 median salary for web developers at $63,490. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, considering computer occupations in general offer notoriously high earning potential.

Have you cracked the code?

The next time you think about careers in computer science or IT, consider the programmer versus developer comparison. Are you more of a team player who appreciates having creative freedom on a project, or do you prefer to work alone and follow a structured plan to produce a precise product? Either way, there’s a place for you in the world of technology!

If it’s programming that piques your interest, check out this article to see if you have what it takes: Is Computer Programming Hard? Not if You Have these 7 Characteristics.

If you feel you’re destined to work in development, this article is the perfect next step: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Web Developer.


1 (analysis of 146,351 computer programming job postings, Jan. 01, 2015 – Dec. 31, 2015)
2 (analysis of 189,304 web developer job postings, Jan. 01, 2015 – Dec. 31, 2015)
3 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.

About the author

Aaron Lawrence

Aaron is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. His interest in writing articles for students stems from his passion for poetry and fiction and the belief that all words can educate.

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