What does it take?: Part 2
© Douglas E. Welch 1997
Last week we started a discussion of the different computer careers
that are available and how to make a choice between them. This
week we take up the role of the programmer.
Who Can Break the Code?
Despite the stereotypes that abound about computer programmers,
at the very heart is a person, doing their job day after day,
just like anyone else. Just like every job, though, there are
specific requirements that dictate whether someone will be successful,
Programmers are to every company what engineers are to construction
companies. They have the ability to develop something from nothing
using only the power of their own mind and a few, relatively simple
tools. Where construction workers create skyscrapers, programmers
create systems of amazing complexity. Just like the building though,
these systems give others a place to work.
Programming requires focus of thought and energy. You have to
be able to concentrate for long periods of time and go without
interacting with the people around you. This is not the right
career choice for a gregarious person who really enjoys being
around and working with other people. Even in projects where there
are multiple programmers, the interaction between them can be
Where do programmers work?
Programming, like other computer careers, takes place in nearly
every company on the planet. The type of company you work for
will dictate the type of work you do. If you join a software manufacturer,
you will be developing software for public consumption. You will
often work with groups of programmers to develop small parts of
larger projects that you could never write alone. You will not
have control over all aspects of the project, only your small
On the other hand, if you are programming for a corporation that
is in a business other than computers, you will be developing
custom systems that match the specific needs of the company. You
will often be developing projects entirely on your own. You will
be conceiving the project, designing it and implementing it. While
this can be very satisfying, it can also be very stressful. Another
challenge is that these programs don't have the "brag factor"
of a commercial product. There aren't a lot of people who are
interested in a new system to amortize mutual funds outside of
your company. You need to be able to provide your own validation
outside of the praise of others.
Getting it right
One guideline for all programmers is to never tie yourself to
one computer language or system. While we often develop our specialties
over time we should never abandon the search for new tools, new
languages and new opportunities. You never want to find yourself
in the situation of being an expert in a computer language that
is slowly dying. If you program in C++, learn about SQL database
programming. If you program in SmallTalk, learn C++. If you develop
programs for the World Wide Web, investigate Perl. Never let yourself
stagnate, even if you are majorly programming in one particular
language. Don't become a dinosaur.
If you have decided that programming might be a place for you,
investigate your opportunities carefully. Do you want to work
within a large project group turning out the latest and greatest
commercial software, or are you happier being the master of your
own domain and developing software that is important to one particular
company or group? There is no right or wrong decision beyond what
is best for you.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. While he cannot answer every letter directly,
he welcomes questions and suggestions. Douglas can reached via
email at email@example.com or http://home.earthlink.net/~dewelch/