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This will sound naive in today's high-tech world, but what do programmers really do? What are the main kinds of programming jobs?

Insider Advice from
Robert Lewis
IT Catalysts

I'll try to answer this as basically as possible, and also answer the related question, "What do computer programmers actually do in an average work week?"

A computer programmer writes programs that run on computers. The actual work depends on the type of programmer.

Maintenance programmers have to spend a lot of effort learning someone else's code in order to either fix it or make minor changes to it. Probably that code isn't well-enough documented or commented, so they have to figure it out the hard way. 

Developers work on teams that build new systems. They write new programs from scratch according to an overall design somebody handed to them, probably without explaining it very well.

These days, most professional programmers spend most of their effort integrating systems written by other people with all of the systems already in place in their companies. That means they have to spend a lot of time becoming experts in both the new software and all of the existing systems, in order to design and build the necessary interfaces. The commercial system is probably very well-documented, which means the programmer has to figure out which page of which book contains the single piece of information needed right now.

The legacy systems (programs that have been around a long time but still need to be maintained)? See above.

As far as how time is spent: It's about equally divided between attending meetings, writing code, and complaining about Microsoft.

Depending on how his particular IS (Information Systems) department operates, a programmer spends quite a bit of time interacting either directly with end-users to find out what they need, or with systems analysts who act as interpreters. 

The good news: When you're all done you get to look at something that's really complicated and say, "I built that."

Robert Lewis is president of IT Catalysts and specializes in information systems effectiveness and the linkages between technology and business strategy. In addition to writing the award-winning IS Survival Guide column for InfoWorld, he is the author of Leading IT: The toughest job in the world (IS Survivor Publishing, 2004) and Bare Bones Project Managment (IS Survivor Publishing, 2006), Telecommunications for Every Business (Bonus Books, 1992), and co-author of Selling on the 'Net, (with Herschell Gordon Lewis, National Textbook Company, 1996).

NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not a professional service. Ask The Headhunter and the author of the advice are not responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.


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