Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and Profiles » Computer Programmer Job Description

Types of Computer Programmers

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Computers have changed the way people live their lives. Nowadays, people use computers for everything from paying bills to finding library books, from chatting with friends to shopping. Many people use computers so often that they could not imagine life without them. These high-tech machines are definitely important, yet on their own computers are practically useless. They rely on programs, or software, to give them detailed instructions. Computer programmers write the programs that tell computers what to do. Because of the software that programmers create, computers are able to perform many different tasks.

Programmers may work for small companies or for huge corporations such as Apple Computer, IBM, or Microsoft. They may work for hospitals, schools and universities, insurance companies, airports, retail stores, manufacturing firms, and the government. There are programmers in just about every industry.

No matter what company they work for or what industry they are in, most computer programmers work as either systems programmers or applications programmers. All of them create software, but the difference is the type of software they create. Systems programmers create operating systems, which act as the computer’s brain. Applications programmers create software that allows computers to do a variety of different tasks. There are many more people who work as applications programmers than systems programmers. At Microsoft, for example, nearly eighty-five hundred of the company’s twelve thousand programmers create applications software, and the rest work as systems programmers.

Creating a Computer’s Brain

The operating systems that programmers create are very important because most computers cannot work without them. Operating systems control basic computer tasks, such as recognizing commands from the keyboard and mouse, sending information to the monitor, and storing information on the hard drive. Jack Baty, a programmer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, describes the systems programmer’s role: “Everything starts with them. Systems programmers are the guys who are ‘closest to the metal,’ the ones who work at the most basic level of the computer. They build the platform, and the software depends on it to run. You can have the fanciest, coolest software on the market, but without an operating system to run it, that software can’t do anything.”1

The most popular operating system in the world is Microsoft Windows. Of the millions of desktop computers in use, more than 90 percent run on Windows. About 5 percent of them use an operating system called Mac OS, which is designed for Apple’s Macintosh computers. These operating systems were created by teams of systems programmers.

Another operating system is called Linux. Unlike Mac OS and Windows, Linux was not developed by a large team of programmers. Instead, it was the creation of a college student named Linus Torvalds. In 1991, when Torvalds was a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, he developed Linux. Since then, it has continued to grow in popularity, and Torvalds has become one of the best-known systems programmers in the world. Linux was even used by producers of the movie Titanic. The operating system powered the film’s computer-generated special effects, which were a big part of its success at the box office.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Like systems programmers, applications programmers create software that gives instructions to computers. The difference, however, is that applications software is used to accomplish tasks other than just running the computer system. It allows people to use computers for many different things. For example, Quicken is a type of applications software that helps people keep track of their money. Microsoft Word is used to create written documents. Two other types of applications software are PageMaker, which is used for design work, and TurboTax, which is used to calculate income taxes.

Applications programmers also create programs that meet special needs. They develop software that controls the heat, lighting, and elevators in office buildings, as well as the software that operates telephone systems. For cars, programmers create software that controls the transmission, ignition timing, air bags, and automatic door locks. Programmers even write software for televisions, DVD players, and microwave ovens. No matter where computers are located or what different jobs they perform, the software that runs them was developed by applications programmers.

Programming for Flight

Just as applications software makes computers work on the ground, it keeps traffic moving in the skies. If it were not for applications programmers, all the traffic in the air would come to a halt. Programmers create software that makes passenger reservations and issues tickets. They also create software that monitors luggage so it arrives on time at the correct destination. Applications software operates radar equipment in airplanes and on the ground. It also enables air traffic controllers to guide planes toward a safe landing. Software can even help monitor weather conditions, because changes in weather can disrupt flight schedules. In many airports around the country, computer software provides precise weather information up to thirty minutes before a storm hits. This allows air traffic controllers to reroute pilots, if necessary, so they can avoid flying through bad weather.

Some programmers develop software that controls and monitors activities for space exploration. For example, a team of programmers created software for the space shuttle. The software controls everything the shuttle does, from the time it leaves the ground until it is in orbit. It controls the speed of the engines to make sure the spacecraft does not accelerate too fast. It keeps track of where the shuttle is and tells the rocket boosters when to fall away. It keeps the shuttle on course and makes corrections when necessary. After the shuttle is in space for about ten minutes, the software directs it and tells it exactly where to go. When it is in the right position in space, the software tells the main engines to shut down, and the shuttle begins its orbit.

Fun, Games, and the Worldwide Web

Another kind of applications programmer is one whose job revolves around playing. Hundreds of companies hire programmers to design computer games. One of these companies is Shiny Entertainment in Laguna Beach, California. Shiny’s founder, David Perry, is a programmer who has created computer games since he was seventeen years old. Perry has programmed nearly forty games, and some of them have become quite famous. Several of his most popular games include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Terminator, Global Gladiators, Disney’s Aladdin, Jungle Book, and Earthworm Jim.

Programmers also create software that people can use to build websites. One of the top Web software companies is San Francisco’s Macromedia, which employs hundreds of computer programmers. Macromedia programmers created Dreamweaver, a popular type of software that is used by website designers all over the world. Programmers also developed software such as Flash, Fireworks, and Shockwave. These programs enhance websites with flashy colors, sound effects, music, and moving pictures.

1 Jack Baty, interview with author, October 15, 2002.

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