How to Become a Professional Programmer

Technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives, thanks to devices such as smartphones, smart home appliances, connected cars, and many other being used by billions of people worldwide. All these devices run on software created by programmers, and due to high demand for software engineers, there is a lot of interest in mastering the art of good code.

In fact, software engineering has become a popular and sought-after career choice around the globe. Demand remains robust and this is a long-term trend.

It is tempting to think that you merely have to learn how to code to become a software developer, but like in many other careers, it takes more than a single skill. To be a really successful programmer, there are a few prerequisites you’ll need.

Basic Skills

Becoming a programmer will definitely be easier if you have the right educational background in the basics of computer technology and logic, and mathematics (obviously). If you lack this educational foundation, you can learn things on the go, but that will require more time and more effort on your part.

In addition to having a solid educational background, programmers have to master other skills as well. It may come as a surprise to people who view programmers as eccentric geeks, but communication skills are very important. Programmers are usually portrayed as loners, spending endless days in front of the computer screen, but in reality, any serious programming project involves a lot of communication and teamwork.

Communicating with clients and stakeholders can be a daunting task, but it is crucial in understanding their needs and all aspects of the software project at hand. Due to the sheer amount of written and spoken communication in programming, these skills are very important, even more so if you are outsourcing the work overseas, or working with remote talent in your own neck of the woods.

Problem-solving skills are another integral part of programming, and this is where a background in computer technology and logic comes in very handy. Computers are great at solving simple, repetitive tasks, and it is up to your problem-solving skills to break a complex task down into simple, easy to code steps. Think of software as a puzzle - small parts put together the right way create a bigger picture. If a single one of these small elements doesn’t perform as expected, the “big picture” can unravel in a matter of milliseconds.

Problem solving is a difficult skill to learn, and practice is key here. Therefore, novice developers should get to grips with simple tasks and incrementally raise the bar as they get better.

Debugging

Debugging is a process of removing errors from program code.

Debugging basically involves examining the execution of the code, reviewing the code itself, and it is a very important part of programming. We all make mistakes, and software errors are inevitable. Even if your piece of code is 100% perfect, it will interact with code written by others, or rely on third-party services and components, allowing unforeseen errors to occur. These errors can only be solved by testing and experimentation, i.e. debugging.

Here are some of the common ways of debugging code and examining the execution of a program:

  • Using a debugging tool. Debuggers are software tools which enable the programmer to monitor the execution of a program, stop it, restart it, set breakpoints, and view or change values in memory.
  • Printlining includes making modifications to the program code to add lines that print out (or display) information such as values of the variables.
  • Logging creates a log file with the description of the execution of a program.

The first step in debugging is usually to attempt to reproduce the problem. When the problem is successfully reproduced, the input parameters of the program and values of the variables are analyzed using a debugger tool and breakpoints, until the origin of the problem is pinned down and corrected.

Motivation

While it doesn’t involve much in the way of physical activity, programming can be extremely hard work, especially for developers rushing to meet hard deadlines, as they often work long hours and may experience burnout.

Sure, it is fun when you are having a good day and everything is going your way, but that’s no ordinary day in the life of a software engineer. Bad days can be painfully dull or hectic and frustrating. Programming is a mental exercise, and if you do it the wrong way, you won’t get very far. Maintaining motivation is extremely important in programming, as your mood greatly affects your work. Writers can experience “writer’s block” and developers can easily end up in a similar situation, especially after weeks of hard work, with little progress to show for it.

One way of making it easier and fun for yourself is to get organized before diving into coding. Break the task down into smaller parts, write them down, and start dealing with them, for example: “create an input form”, “validate the user input”, “save the input to the database”. Dealing with small tasks is easier, your work will be more organized, and checking of these small individual tasks from your list will give you a sense of accomplishment. That’s pretty much what the Agile methodology is all about.

Also, ensure that your work environment is distraction-free as much as possible, allowing you to concentrate on your work.

There is no such thing as a rule for motivation, as it’s entirely subjective. Some people find it motivating when they find out that their code is not as good as they expected, and get valuable input allowing them to optimize it. Others are motivated by a little bit of friendly competition, some like to work on satisfying cutting edge solutions, while others are just in it for the money. Find something that works for you and stick with it.

Motivation is very powerful. If you can manage to stay motivated for the task at hand, you will be able to do it better, faster, and enjoy it more along the way. It’s not just about making you feel better at work. A motivated team tends to be more productive and waste fewer man-hours, which means motivation can save you time and money.

On top of that, programmers have to keep track of the latest industry trends and developments. They have to refresh their skills on a regular basis, master new technologies, frameworks, and methodologies. Developers have to constantly hone their skills and adapt new ones. They can’t afford to stop learning, which requires a fair amount of motivation in itself.

Working in a Team

Like all other activities, programming can also be a social exercise. If you are a software developer, it is very likely that you have already worked in a team, and if you have not, you probably will at some point. Every team is comprised of different people with different habits, different skills, different personalities, levels of motivation, and different levels of technical proficiency.

Almost all serious programming projects are handled by teams rather than individuals. Team structure and organization can be defined in many different ways. Two common team structures are the Chief programmer team and the egoless programming concept.

A Chief programmer team has a defined structure - it is organized and lead by the Chief programmer, while the other team members have strictly defined roles. This structure is good for straightforward tasks, emphasizing work in a disciplined way, with a clear “lead” at the top of the pyramid, but cooperation and communication are limited.

The Egoless programming concept defines a decentralized team, where leadership rotates between team members. The entire team participates in setting goals, minimizing the constraints of hierarchy and status, and enabling free exchange of ideas and improvements. The downside? Lack of effective control can result in lower productivity and efficiency.

Traditionally, programming projects are divided into smaller tasks, and one development team member is responsible for the task that is assigned to him, i.e. they assume “ownership” of that particular part of the project.

Pair programming is a newer programming technique in which two programmers work together at one computer unit. One of them writes the code, while the other one reviews each line of code, and they swap roles frequently. Pair programming has many benefits over the traditional single programmer method. A pair of programmers produce code with fewer bugs, they find solutions to problems, work faster and provide more design alternatives.

Productivity can also be higher, as programmers working in pairs are not going to check social networks, personal e-mails, or surf the web during office hours. However, pair programming can also be ineffective in some situations, for example, if one programmer is less experienced than the other, or if the pair of programmers constantly argues and does not function as a team.

Source code control systems, or versioning systems, are an essential tool for teams of programmers. These systems keep track of all changes to the source code, where all change sets can be described and given meaning. Changes to the code can also be undone, making sure the functionality of the code is not lost by allowing developers to revert to a previous source code version.

Project Management

In the early days of computing, the software industry grew quickly due to the relatively low cost of software development compared to hardware production. At that time, it also became clear that efficient software development project management was the key to success.

The ability to manage and balance the three main factors in software development determines the success of the project. These factors are: Features, Resources and Time, and they are inseparable.

Features represent all of the options and functionality of the software being developed, and they are directly linked to the amount of work that needs to be done.

Resources are the tools for accomplishing the task, like people, computers, training, and all of these mostly equate to money. More resources will cost more money.

And, of course, time represents the available time to project completion.

Efficient project management is a fine balancing act between the aforementioned factors. If you add more features to the project, for example, you will need more resources and/or more time to finish it, and you may encounter feature creep.

Adding new developers to an overdue project in order to speed things up can often result in even slower work. The main reason is that new team members need some time to fully on board and become productive. This time is called ramp up time, and it involves introducing the new team member to the work already done and the project goals and details, which in the end also takes time from the development team.

Project management should be handled by a person with programming skills, so he or she would have a good understanding of the tasks and individual skills of all team members. Project management tasks include dividing the project into tasks and assigning them to team members, scheduling the project and defining code standards. It is also a good idea to use specialized project management software in project management tasks, such as Kanban boards in Agile development.

Conclusion

Please keep in mind that this is merely a brief overview of a very broad topic. The sad truth is that there is no easy way of becoming a professional software developer.

Aspiring developers may face countless additional challenges along the way, depending on their skill-set, choice of industry, personal affinities, and so on. If you’re after easy money, software engineering is not a career for you.

However, demand for software engineers, designers, and tech talent, in general, remains strong. The industry needs a constant stream of talent, which means skilled and experienced software engineers can charge a lot of money for their services. It’s easy to see why countless people around the globe are interested in becoming programmers.

This also means that developers entering the market can face stiff competition. If they lack references and experience, they might be compelled to accept jobs that don’t pay much, in the hope of gaining on-the-job experience. However, this should not dissuade you from pursuing a career in software engineering.

The industry recognizes talent. If you have the right stuff, your skills won’t go unnoticed, and you could advance quickly.

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