How to Become a Computer Programmer Fast — Without a Degree in Computer Science

Making a career pivot into computer programming might seem time-consuming at the outset — but it doesn’t need to be.

While it’s true that a conventional four-year degree is one of the most popular paths into computer science, it is not the only path. If you don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to spend four years in full-time study, you don’t need to. Today, there are a variety of academic options that can empower you to become a computer programmer fast, without a degree in computer science.

This overview will help you plot an academic map that works for you. We’ll address how to become a computer programmer and the steps you can take to achieve your educational goals, learn key programming languages, and improve your job outlook. Read on to find out more about what you can do to launch a successful programming career!

1. Define Your Timeline

If you’re wondering how to become a programmer fast, here’s the truth — you could gain the skills to become a professional-grade coder in as little as three months through a coding bootcamp. However, you may need to stretch that timeline to accommodate your schedule or needs.

Before you launch into any formal coursework or classes, take a moment to reflect and ask yourself the following questions.

  • How much coding experience do you have?
  • How much time and money can you put into your education?
  • Do you need to balance your education with a part- or full-time job?
  • What kind of learner are you (i.e., do you need guided instruction or prefer independent study)?

Taking some time to answer these questions before you launch into a course is crucial because it allows you to figure out what you want and need out of your education.

Once you’ve put some thought into what you need as a learner, categorize yourself:

  • Do you want to be a part-time or full-time learner?
  • Are you looking for guided or independent instruction?

These categories can help you select an educational route that suits you best.

For example, if you know that you need a structured learning environment that will deliver a quick turnaround but don’t have the flexibility to commute to full-time, in-person classes, you may want to consider a virtual part-time bootcamp. As we’ll explain in more detail below, a coding bootcamp is an intensive course that can teach beginners the fundamentals of full stack development in as little as three to six months. Bootcamps are known for their flexibility and often offer virtual, part-time, and night class options.

However, if you’re new to programming and not yet sure whether you want to make a career out of it, you may want to set aside a few weekends to explore free online resources on coding. These can offer valuable tutorials on basic coding, provide practice assignments, and offer insights into computer science theory and history.

For example, sites like Khan Academy or freeCodeCamp provide free, self-directed resources that allow you to try your hand at coding. To be clear — these courses won’t provide the intensive, comprehensive background and knowledge that a college or bootcamp would. Still, they can give you a better insight into how coding works and provide exercises to practice basic skills.

The timeline you follow is up to you, but you can become a programmer without a degree in as little as three to six months through a coding bootcamp.

2. Get the Education You Need

If you want to make a quick career change without prior experience in software or web development, a coding bootcamp is probably your best bet. These intensive academic courses are designed to help you gain the foundational skills you need to succeed as an entry-level programmer.

Coding bootcamps vs. undergraduate degrees — what’s the difference?

Wondering what differentiates a coding bootcamp from undergraduate studies? Here’s the lowdown — while four-year college programs are designed to provide students with an extensive theoretical and practical background in computer programming, bootcamps are constructed with more immediate career goals in mind. These short, intensive courses impart the functional skills that learners need to land a job within a few short months, rather than several years.

Course offerings between the two may overlap. Both colleges and bootcamps offer opportunities to develop portfolio projects, for example. They also provide supportive instructor relationships, facilitate collaborative learning environments, and allow learners to make invaluable industry connections with their peers.

Naturally, however, most coding bootcamps don’t have the time or bandwidth to delve into more theoretical concepts. When you start mapping your educational path, you’ll need to decide what matters more to you — learning job-ready skills quickly or getting a more thorough education.

Your answer will probably depend on your circumstances. For example, coding bootcamps are often ideal for working professionals or those making a career pivot, as they are quicker, more flexible, and cheaper than a four-year degree. You can attend coding bootcamps in-person or online and opt into schedules that meet your needs, and many bootcamp providers offer full-time and part-time options that allow you to gain your coding foundation within a three- or six-month turnaround, respectively.

Either route is perfectly valid! It is important to keep in mind that while roughly 75 percent of professional developers have at least a bachelor’s degree, not all do — or even think it’s necessary. According to Stack Overflow’s 2020 Developer survey, just over 15 percent of professional developers have less than four years of formal higher education. But even more (39.6 percent) believe that a formal education is only somewhat or not at all necessary for professional developers.

What do you learn at a coding bootcamp?

While specific offerings vary between courses, learners typically obtain a solid foundation in languages and skills such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, jQuery, database manipulation, server-side development, and web applications. They may also have the opportunity to explore languages like C#, Java, Python, and Go, which bridge software and desktop development.

It’s worth noting here that there is a distinction between web development and computer programming. As a web developer, you’ll use coding languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to design and build web applications that run in a browser (i.e., websites, online stores, blogs). The definition for computer programmers is much broader — the term can be used to describe anyone who writes or edits a software or web application.

Because bootcamps focus on getting learners into the workforce quickly, they tend to focus specifically on skills relevant to web development, rather than programming as a whole. Four-year degrees have more time to delve into subjects beyond web-specific development.

That said, even those who have a long-term interest in exploring different tracks (e.g., software engineering) within programming may benefit from enrolling in a coding bootcamp. By attending such a career-focused course, these learners will have the chance to gain valuable entry-level skills, find a job, gain experience, and start accumulating new skills while on the job.

3. Choose Your Specialization and Path

Not all programmers have the same job description. As you begin plotting your career path, you may want to take your preferred career track into consideration. If you do, you’ll be able to better tailor your education to support your chosen specialization.

Generally speaking, entry-level web developers can choose between three primary tracks: front end development, back end development, and full stack development.

According to Stack Overflow, over half (55.2 percent) of surveyed developers identify themselves as back end professionals, just over a third (37.1 percent) call themselves front end programmers, and 54.9 percent identify as full stack coders.

Let’s break these roles down into more detail.

Front end development

Front end development focuses on the aspects of a website that users can see and interact with (i.e., the front end). These professionals design, build, and manage all of a website’s client-facing features — such as menus, color schemes, content, and interactive features. Front end developers often become experts in CSS, HTML, and JavaScript, which they use to bring website designs to life.

Back end development

Back end development focuses on the part of a website that a visitor doesn’t see — also referred to as the server-side. They ensure that complex web applications work, manage database interaction, and maximize website speed. Back end developers often use languages such as Java, Ruby on Rails, and Python to develop responsive, fast web applications.

Full stack development

As you can probably guess, full stack development encompasses both front and back end development — it provides an excellent platform for those looking to start a programming career without a degree in computer science.

If you’re planning on attending a coding bootcamp, you may want to choose a course that focuses on full stack programming. If you can obtain a strong foundation in the basics of both the highly visual, interactive aspects of front end development and the key underlying skills of back end development, you’ll be able to expand your reach during the job search and, once employed, further your skills through practical experience.

4. Build Your Portfolio

Every aspiring professional needs a portfolio. A resume is all well and good — but if employers want an illustration of your skills and capabilities, they’ll ask for your portfolio.

A portfolio is a curated collection of your best work that you present during job interviews and applications; it provides a practical demonstration of your skills and proves that you have command over the languages you claim to know.

Computer programmers accumulate their first portfolio projects during their education. For example, at a coding bootcamp, you will work on several class assignments that can be polished up and saved in your portfolio. You can make your portfolio even stronger by building additional projects and websites on your own.

Contributing to open-source projects is another great way to expand your coding portfolio. If you join an open-source platform — Github is a popular go-to choice for beginners — you’ll have the opportunity to network with developers working on the type of projects that interest you. When you join in open-source coding projects, make a point to connect with the communities, conferences, and events associated with them! These can be great spaces for networking and furthering your education.

Additional Resources:

5. Expand Your Skills With Certifications, Internships, and Job Experience

The job market is unquestionably competitive. If you want to pad your resume before throwing your hat in the ring, you may want to consider taking on an internship or volunteering your skills at a nonprofit.

A tech internship can be a great way to put some of the coding skills you learned at bootcamp into practice while you’re on the hunt for your first full-time coding job. Even if you are employed full-time, a part-time internship can give you job experience and excellent references that will elevate you during your job search.

Volunteering your technical skills with a nonprofit organization or cause you care about is another great way to expand your portfolio, garner job experience, and accumulate references. It’s important to note here that, yes, you can learn programming when you’re older. You can make a career change to computer programming at any time in your life, and volunteer projects and internships are available to people of all ages and backgrounds.

You may also want to consider earning certifications in in-demand languages such as Java or C++. Certifications can help to open doors in the future and maximize your potential earnings. Even better — you can pursue these certifications at any time during your programming career. While coding bootcamps do not necessarily offer certification, they do give you the foundation you need to pursue certifications later in your career.

Additional Resources:

Overview of In-Demand Programming Skills & Languages

There are many different skills and sub-skills within the broader fields of programming, web development, and software development. Once your foundational skills are in place, you may want to expand your skill set to include in-demand programming languages that attract employers’ attention and interest.

According to research published by HackerRank (PDF, 2.8 MB), the language most sought by hiring managers in 2020 was JavaScript, closely followed by Python and Java. Be strategic when choosing the languages you learn first!

A chart that ranks the most popular developer languages, according to hiring managers.

Here are some of the top skills you can learn via a coding bootcamp. All will be instrumental in helping you to become a programmer without a degree.

HTML and CSS

Hypertext markup language (HTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS) are essential, even foundational, skills for new developers. These languages define most websites’ structure and appearance and are the basis for front end web development. HTML and CSS serve as the “building blocks” of development and are thus integral to the construction of basic and advanced websites alike. These languages are also a great starting point from which to explore more complex languages and skills.

JavaScript

JavaScript, which is also used for mobile apps and game development alongside web development, allows you to create dynamic websites that respond to user interaction. The web we know today would be nearly unimaginable without the widespread use of JavaScript.

The language is also highly usable, with a wide range of resources and communities that can help you master its syntax. Employers find JavaScript valuable, too; according to HackerRank, the language was the most sought-after by hiring managers in 2020.

Python

Python is a crucial skill for back end web development. It allows you to use multiple styles when creating programs, and it was used to develop some of the most widely used websites and software tools, including Google Search and YouTube.

Python is relatively easy to learn and use, with a detailed library for common tasks and commands and a high level of interactivity, which allows you to test your code as you go. Python is a great language to have in your coding toolbox, especially if you intend to take a full stack track. You can pursue Python at a coding bootcamp or extend your skills with independent courses and online tutorials.

PHP

PHP is a language designed to empower front end developers to craft website pages easily and quickly. As a scripting language, PHP code can be readily inserted into the HTML of a web page; once processed by the server, the code is translated into HTML and “read” by the browser. Because PHP draws its syntax from several other languages — including C, Java, and Perl — it’s often a quick study for developers.

SQL, NoSQL, and database manipulation

Understanding how to manage and manipulate databases is essential to building fast, responsive web applications.

SQL (Structured Query Language) is a query language used by back end developers to add, access, modify, and delete information in relational databases. NoSQL, as the name suggests, is not SQL: developers use it to access or change the information in non-relational databases. Both are valid languages; the one you use simply depends on the kind of database you (or your employer) happens to be utilizing.

Computer Programmer Salaries & Job Outlook — In New York & the US

If you want to know how to become a programmer without a degree, it might be because you are looking for a career with significant upside, job growth, and strong salary potential. Web development is a career on the rise, and there is an undoubtedly strong demand for coders nationwide.

Across the country, computer programmers have a median salary of $86,550 each year. While computer programming job growth is expected to fall nationally as well as in New York, this doesn’t mean the tech industry is in a downturn or that coding is not a promising career choice.

On the contrary, professionals should look to more niche areas of the field. For example, web development jobs are expected to grow by 8% between 2019 and 2029, much faster than average. In New York, web development jobs are also on the rise, with a bright outlook for the future and expectations of much stronger than average growth.

Not sure you want to work in New York? Not a problem! Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work was already a significant trend in the tech industry. Now, as a growing number of jobs are considering making remote work a long-term plan rather than a temporary solution, location is less of a restrictive factor than it once was in pursuing a coding career. You may move from an online coding bootcamp to an online coding job, especially as remote work becomes even more prominent in the field.

Keep in mind as you’re searching that small companies (those with under 50 employees) are most likely to hire developers without a degree (PDF, 2.8 MB). Tailor your search to maximize your chances!

A graph that shows the highest level of education developers have completed, depending on company size.

Related Careers

All this said, web development isn’t the only career that skilled computer programmers can enter. When you start with a strong basis in computer programming and coding, you can extend your career into a wide range of different industries. When you develop fluency in a specific programming language like Java, C#, or Python, you may opt to move into software development for desktop applications or mobile apps. You could also become a software tester, using your coding skills to test and analyze programs created by other coders.

One of the most promising areas in today’s tech industry deals with data science and database manipulation. If you hone your capabilities in data manipulation, you will be well-placed to explore countless high-potential roles — from database administration in healthcare to the frontiers of Big Data analysis and manipulation. Cybersecurity is another emerging field, with coders developing security apps, working in penetration testing, and otherwise providing their employers with extra security and peace of mind.

Should You Become a Programmer? Common Myths Dispelled

Let’s get one point straight: anyone can become a coder.

Countless unfounded myths persist in the tech field. Some people may worry that they can only enter the tech field as a young person; others may think that programming is just too hard; still others may think that because they don’t have a computer science degree, they won’t be able to get a job.

None of these myths are true. Programming and web development can be a high-potential and accessible career choice for people who have a wide range of experiences and career backgrounds.

Successful tech careers start at any age — and with hard work, dedication, and a structured, intensive educational course like a coding bootcamp, you can gain the skills and the background you need to excel as a coder even without a degree.

Web development is an exciting field with tremendous career potential. Columbia Engineering Coding Boot Camp is an excellent place for you to get started and immerse yourself in the foundations of coding and prepare to start your career.

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