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A Day in the Life of a Computer Programmer

By Steven Bryan

When asked to describe his typical work day, computer programmer Peter Gibbons, the everyman hero of the movie Office Space, said that he tends to space out a few hours each day, and, in a given week, he probably does "about 15 minutes of real, actual work." In reality, computer programmers spend quite a bit of time working on assignments, as well as addressing the business needs of clients and associates.

Preparing for a programming career

When considering a career as a computer programmer, a four-year degree from an accredited school is essential to opening doors for you after graduation. During your time in the classroom, it is important to take classes that teach the following skills:

  • Computer languages
    Perl, Java and other languages are an essential part of any computer programming curriculum. The actual language itself is not as important as the programming concepts you learn in class, however. At the end of the semester, you should be able to debug and troubleshoot programs, which is what most employers hire new programmers to do.
  • Excellent writing and public speaking skills
    Computer programmers need to speak and write in languages other than COBOL or Java. During the work day, you will find yourself in meetings, on conference calls with clients and sending emails to the departments that you support within your company. Good written and oral communication skills make you stand out when compared to your colleagues. In business correspondence, do not, under any circumstances, use Internet abbreviations or "Netspeak" (i.e. CU L8R).
  • Advanced algebra and calculus
    Excellent math skills come into play in many computer programming jobs. In the finance industry, for instance, you will have to read, understand and correct mathematical formulas within programs that calculate average stock prices.

Meetings, code reviews and last-minute requests

Unlike Peter Gibbons, who could stare at his desk several times a day, employers demand quite a bit from computer programmers. During a typical work day, you will be asked to do the following things:

  • Read and organize your e-mail
    You can give your business users exactly what they requested in a program, but once they use it for a few days, they inevitably will ask for additional changes and functions. Each day, you will wade through a mountain of e-mail, prioritizing the requests.
  • Drop everything and run in case of a system failure
    When a crucial system fails during the middle of the day, the team leaders typically grab every computer resource available and have them work on the problem.
  • Attend and contribute during meetings
    If you aren't meeting with your team lead, you'll be on a conference call to discuss a system change or speaking with a new client about his or her code requirements.
  • Conduct code reviews
    Before any new software moves from the testing phase into production, most companies require a code review by other programmers. Everyone sits in one conference room with copies of the new program, looking for any flaws or errors that were overlooked during testing.
  • Carrying out last-minute requests
    You may have your bag packed for the day when your boss comes by with an assignment that must be completed by the next morning. In these "do or die" situations, you raid the soda machine, order take-out food and work on the programs until they are done.

Working as a computer programmer for some companies is almost like being a doctor, especially if you are on "pager rotation." The IT department gives their most experienced programmers a pager, which they have to carry at least twice a month. Computer systems run 24 hours a day, and, if something happens in the middle of the night, you may have to get out of bed and fix the problem. In cases like these, the longer the system is down, the more money it costs the company.

Working as a computer programmer gets more and more challenging after you earn your degree, not easier. Still, it is a rewarding, essential career for those willing to make the sacrifices needed for success.

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