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Computer Programmers Seek Security in Changing Times

If you think of a language, not a vitamin, when you think of the letter C, you're probably a budding computer programmer. Computer programmers write software and programs for computers. And there is lots of work available for them.

Jerri Barrett is director of marketing at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She says that even during times of economic concern and recession, this is still a good field to enter.

"Computer science is an excellent field to enter currently," says Barrett. "The number of jobs is still projected to increase over the next 10 years, according to the Department of Labor, and there is a wide variety of options.

"Some people have been discouraged from taking computer science," she continues, "either by the image portrayed in the media of the loner living in their cubicle or by the stories that all the jobs are being outsourced to India. In fact, there are still plenty of exciting and challenging jobs in computing."

Outsourcing is one of the biggest issues facing computer programmers. Outsourcing occurs when a company based in the United States hires workers overseas instead of the place where the company is based.

This is done to save money, because companies can pay people in other countries much less than they have to pay workers in North America. But some people on the inside say outsourcing isn't as big a threat as others would have you believe.

"Outsourcing has its limitations," says computer programmer Remy Saville. "Large corporations already have enough problems due to time-zone differences with some people working on the East Coast and others on the West Coast. Put somebody on the other side of the planet and you've really made the problems worse.

"Add in that English is never their first language and you've significantly compounded the communication problem. All things equal, a corporation will never ever outsource when they could have people on site instead."

"People were a lot more worried about the idea of outsourcing tech jobs a few years ago," says Rikki Kite. Kite is the editor of a computer-programming magazine.

"Now the expectation is that you want and need the ability to work with people around the world, but working smarter is more important than working cheaper."

The number of people taking computer-programming and related courses in universities and colleges has dropped. It's possible that people are afraid they will end up unemployed.

"I can only speculate on why enrollment is down. Maybe girls don't want to go in because it is mostly nerds and guys don't want to go in because the girls aren't there?" says Saville. "There is definitely work."

Despite the fact that fewer people are now pursuing a computer-related degree, getting computer-related jobs can be still be tough due to the large number of former graduates trying to get jobs.

What's a budding computer programmer to do to separate themselves from the pack? Saville believes that learning different programming languages on your own time is a good start.

"Be proactive," he says. "If you learned C in school, teach yourself Java. If you use Visual Basic at work, teach yourself C#. If you learned Java or C# at school, teach yourself C++. Drive the changes at your company to take advantage of new technology. Demonstrate you're able to provide benefits to your employer as times change."

And as times change, computer programmers will feel it. Saville doesn't deny that computer programmers get affected during the tough times, but no more so than those in other careers. In fact, he says computer programmers weather the storm a bit better.

"[Losing work because of the economy] is in no way unique to programmers; people building cars or selling mortgages are also out of work," he says. "On the up side, I can guarantee people with a computer science degree are going to bounce back better than most others from this very unfortunate situation."

Kite agrees with Saville's assessment that computer programmers deal with economic downturns better than most.

"I've noticed that when programmers are out of work," she says, "they tend to use that time wisely by volunteering, which helps them network and adds to their resume, or they focus on adding to their skill set."

So, this all sounds pretty good -- despite the gloomy outlook that some have about this career, it seems like those in the know are saying it's a good place to be. But are you wondering how to get there in the first place? Saville offers a couple of tips on getting known as a programmer.

"If you can approach a potential employer and show them that in addition to your degree that everybody else has, you've made some simple but reasonably useful applications, you've just given yourself a huge leg up over your competition," he says.

"Also, seeing something through to the end is much more difficult than people who start a bunch of different little projects realize.

"Another great opportunity to stand out is to make some open-source contributions. [Open source is a method of programming where the source, or programming code, is made available to anyone.] There are thousands of great open-source projects. Start using one and find something that personally bugs you about it and then fix it."

Like a lot of careers, the range of what someone can make as a computer programmer varies wildly. It depends on education and your employer. Kite says people generally don't become computer programmers to get rich -- it can happen, though!

"They do it because it's exciting and interesting and creative," she says. "However, there's the potential to earn a lot of money in this field. I think I speak for many people working in technology-related careers when I say it's much more important to love what you do than to pull a six-figure salary. Of course, if you're really lucky, you get both!"

One thing to keep in mind when pursuing your programming dreams: go to a school with a good reputation. Computer programming jobs are getting harder and harder. With technology and software getting more complex all the time, you really have to know your stuff to excel. And the best way to start is with a solid education. And don't forget to apply for internships!

"Go to a proper school for a real degree," says Saville. "Don't get tricked into going to a video game course or something like that. It takes a while to learn to program. They can't teach you any quicker. They will gladly take your money and leave you unemployable, though."

Barrett agrees that education is key to getting -- and staying -- ahead as a computer programmer.

"The best way to ensure job security is to get a good education and go for an advanced degree in computer science," she says. "A PhD is worth it in computer science -- it opens many doors."


Linux Pro Magazine
A computer programming magazine specializing in Linux

Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
Resources for women in the field

Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals
Check out the Frequently Asked Questions section about certification

Computer Programming Channel
Learn how various programming languages, relational databases and algorithms work

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