Coding and programming are often touted by career advisers as ways to future-proof your job.
In movies, these tech pros are portrayed by keyboarding-clanking, socially reclusive geniuses who have the divine gift of speaking the language of computers and work in tech hubs like San Francisco. The message being: You either get it, or you don’t.
The reality is much more nuanced.
It doesn’t help that the terms “coding” and “programming” are often used interchangeably. There are a few key differences, and knowing them is crucial in understanding the career prospects in the field — and how coding will inevitably affect most of our professional lives in the future.
Coding vs Programming: What Are the Differences?
In the simplest terms, coding is the act of writing computer languages. The most popular ones include: Java, HTML, Python, C++ and Ruby on Rails.
Like spoken language, the basics of code are fairly easy to pick up — just as a beginning French student can repeat basic words and sentences. But, like French students, coders aren’t fluent yet.
Programming, on the other hand, is the bigger picture. Programmers certainly know how to code, but they also understand the context and environment the code is in. Think French novelist versus French student. The novelist is creating the setting, the plot and the characters, while the student is applying the basic rules of grammar to form sentences.
“Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square,” says Arshad Wala, a distinguished faculty member at General Assembly, a school that trains working professionals in data, design, programming and digital marketing.
How to Become a Programmer or Coder
There are several ways to break into computer programming: self-directed study, coding bootcamps and formal college education. Each method comes with its own perks.
Coursera and other online education platforms offer free coding courses that cover the basics and can be completed on any schedule at any time, and there are several free coding apps to keep your skills fresh.
The “hacker mentality” is still accepted in the industry, Wala says, meaning companies don’t really care how the coder was educated — all that matters is that they can write code.
Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is not a square.
But it’s hard to learn a language alone. That’s where boot camps like General Assembly come in. Boot camps offer hands-on training in a classroom environment and are usually taught by working professionals in the field. There are campuses across the country with programs designed to equip students with the basic skills to get a new job ASAP. Some programs last as little as 10 days and are fast-tracks to landing coding gigs.
To become a programmer, however, it usually takes seniority as a coder or a college degree in computer programming or computer sciences.
“You either got to prove yourself,” Wala says, “or come in with some formal education.”
That’s because the responsibilities for a programmer are higher-stakes. In addition to writing some code, programmers take a more managerial approach in planning an application, program, website or feature as a whole. They may also determine which programming language a project requires, which would affect what kind of coders are needed.
Career Prospects for Coders and Programmers
For the time being, both programming and coding jobs are hot and the salaries are high.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics latest data, computer programmers are making much more than the average American: $45,640 more. Computer programmers make a median salary of $84,280.
Coders aren’t in that league, but they can earn a good living with little formal education. Even the lowest paid coders earn more than $48,000 — well above the national median income of $38,640.
On the job front, programming opportunities are expanding outside Silicon Valley. While California still has the highest employment levels, Texas was a close second, beating out New York. Illinois and Florida also made the top five.
“You go back 15 years, it was San Francisco,” Wala says. “But it’s truly everywhere… and that’s the exciting part.”
Job prospects will be best for programmers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher and knowledge of a variety of programming languages. – Bureau of Labor Statistics
If you’re considering a career as a coder, there are some coming trends to consider before applying to the nearest coding bootcamp.
Namely: automation and saturation.
By 2026, programming industry employment is slated to decrease by 7%. And the hammer is going to fall harder on coders than programmers.
Wala foresees code becoming a part of our everyday lives, sort of like typing and other basic computer skills.
In the not-too-distant past, typists were well-paying jobs. People used to list their words per minute on resumes. But as almost every school in the nation incorporated typing classes into the curriculum, the job became unnecessary. The same goes for coding.
Add in the coming wave of computer-automated coding, and the 7-point drop in employment becomes the tip of the iceberg.
“You should all learn coding, but this as a career is going to be dead,” he says. “The focus on coding [as a job] should be secondary.”
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.