17 Skills All Programmers Need to Have (2020 List)

Female programmer looking at computer screen

So, you want to become a programmer — but what does the term mean, exactly? It’s remarkably broad as far as labels go, since individuals with programming skills could work in fields as far-flung from each other as healthcare and game development. 

As new technology is developed, new roles are needed to help bring that technology to life for the people who use it. The options are near-endless: an aspiring programmer could work as a mobile engineer creating smartphone apps, or become a game developer and develop interactive content for a variety of companies, platforms, and consoles. These are, of course, just two examples of the many available career paths open to programmers; countless other programming roles can be built with a sturdy set of foundational coding skills. 

Different career paths and positions for programmers

To risk an understatement, career prospects are good for those in tech. According to recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), employment postings for computer and information technology roles are on track to grow an incredible 12 percent between 2018 and 2028. This growth is, as BLS researchers themselves explain, “much faster than the average for all occupations.” The reason is simple: as information security and cloud computing (i.e., fields concerned with collecting and storing big data) become more prominent in the industry, a higher demand for programming roles will follow. 

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in the sector, you’ll need to dedicate time towards acquiring the knowledge tools required to be successful in a given role — either via a traditional 4-year bachelor’s degree program or through an alternative certification program or boot camp. The latter options may be particularly appealing to those who want to gain specific skills quickly and at a reasonable price point. 

If you find enrolling in a boot camp to be the best option for you, make sure to find a course that teaches the fundamental programming skills you need to score an entry-level job in the field. Let’s dive into those essentials.

A full list of programmer skills

Part 1: Hard Skills

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? At a baseline, all programmers need to have the skills to, well, program. If a programmer doesn’t know how to code or have the basic knowledge necessary to understand a technical problem, they won’t be able to finish the practical section of their job interview, much less complete their daily task list. 

The capabilities listed below are by no means exhaustive, and aspiring programmers should conduct further explorations into which technical coding skills will help them stand out from their peers during the job hunt. And remember, let your curiosity lead you! There’s no such thing as having too much passion for your chosen profession. 

Algorithm Coding

Algorithms are at the heart of computer science. To borrow a definition from Investopedia, “An algorithm is a set of instructions for solving a problem or accomplishing a task. One common example of an algorithm is a recipe, which consists of specific instructions for preparing a dish/meal.”

As odd as it is to think of a programming term through a culinary lens, the metaphor works. Algorithms make it possible to provide step-by-step guidelines for how a program should run and execute a specific technical solution, such as displaying relevant results to a Google query. Algorithms also make it possible to quickly sort and structure data in a way that is ordered and makes sense to viewers — and thus are critical to programming specialists such as data scientists, who need to organize and analyze massive amounts of information daily. 

Understanding how to code, change, and fix an algorithm is fundamental to programming. Once you know how to write a functional algorithm, you will be able to build a host of other skills atop that foundation.

Data Structures 

An understanding of algorithms leads us to our next hard skill: comprehending and using data structures. While an algorithm can order data when it is directed to do so, programmers need to understand how the data is organized in the first place. Data structures allow programmers to store data within specific frameworks and better facilitate communication between back end operations and front end users. 

There are several commonly-used data structures. An array, for example, holds and indexes items of the same data type, such as integers. This simple structure makes arrays ideal for sorting algorithms; they are often used to construct other kinds of data structures. A few of these include linked lists, which organize data in linear, sequentially-linked order, and stacks, which allow programmers to access recently-placed items first, as if they were picking up the first book in a pile. 

If you intend to make a career in programming, you need to have at least a basic understanding of data science and structures. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals; you may find that doing so helps you better understand back end operations.

HTML & CSS 

HTML and CSS are both basic coding languages — often, they are the first two that programmers learn. HTML (HyperText Markup Language) helps organize the content and structure of a web page, while CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) determines the style and presentation of a web page.

These two coding languages are vital to a programmer’s skill set because they guide front end development and empower programmers to turn basic code into beautifully-designed, functional, and accessible web pages. When a consumer clicks a link and is taken to a homepage or digital shop, their trip is the result of front end development. HTML and CSS are crucial to front end development because they provide information and guidelines for how the web page should appear and be structured for navigation. 

Whether you plan to become a front end programmer or not, CSS and HTML are languages that any programmer needs to know.

JavaScript 

JavaScript is another obvious curriculum staple for all aspiring programmers. Like HTML and CSS, JavaScript is most commonly used for front end development, though it is also used for back end development. As one writer for Mozilla explains, “every time a web page does more than just sit there and display static information for you to look at — displaying timely content updates, interactive maps, animated 2D/3D graphics, scrolling video jukeboxes, etc. — you can bet that JavaScript is probably involved.” 

When taken together, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript serve as the trifecta of front end programming.

SQL & NoSQL 

Two of the most common types of programming languages that are used to communicate with databases on the back ends of web pages are SQL and NoSQL.

Back end development is the part of the website that visitors do not see; it’s where programmers work on dictating the code that structures the visible part of the website. The back end stores and organizes data so that the visible side of the site continuously works. When users take action on the front end of a website, those actions send information to the back end, which is then translated into information the browser understands and can provide a response to.

SQL, or “Structured Query Language,” is the standard language used to communicate with relational databases. While it may be an older skill (it was developed in the 1980s!), it’s still considered critical for modern developers. In recent years, it’s been heavily used by PC databases because it facilitates access to distributed databases (i.e., those spread out over multiple computer systems). This distribution allows several local users to access the same network simultaneously. SQL also allows for easy storage and organization of relational data

If you want to gain experience in SQL databases, it may help to practice with MySQL. This database is open-source software that people can use for free to work on developing their own systems, applications, and websites.

NoSQL, in contrast, is used to refer to any non-relational database. As technologies have advanced, developers needed to find a way to organize data in a way that wasn’t strictly relational and so allowed for more flexibility. One example of a NoSQL database is MongoDB, which can be used for high-volume data storage and complicated business challenges.

APIs 

An API (Application Programming Interface) is the part of a remote server that receives a user’s requests and sends responses to the rest of the server and website. A programmer can set up a website’s API to complete a user’s request and connect it to an external server without leaving the original site. Having a familiarity with APIs ranks high on any programming skills list because it helps improve a customer’s experience on a website. For example, you might sign up for an event on a website and automatically get a Google Calendar invite even though you never left the original site — all thanks to an API. 

Git  

According to Atlassian, Git is “the most widely used modern version control system in the world.” This system allows programmers to manage and track changes to their source code throughout the process of development. It makes it easy to correct any errors that may occur because every version is saved and can be recalled on demand.

PHP

“Don’t be afraid reading the long list of PHP’s features,” one tech writer for PHP.net advises in an overview of the topic. “You can jump in, in a short time, and start writing simple scripts in a few hours.”

It’s true. PHP, or Hypertext Preprocessor, is a highly learnable, general-purpose scripting language that can be easily embedded into HTML and accentuate front end programming efforts. Unlike JavaScript, PHP is executed entirely on the server-side, rather than the client-side. A user would see the results, of course, but it would be nearly impossible to know what the underlying code was. It’s a fun, learnable skill that holds immense value for front end developers.

Part 2: Soft Skills

Soft skills are those skills that cannot be clearly measured or easily taught and must often be developed through personal experience. Without these soft skills, it can be difficult to excel in your career, even if you have all the coding skills mentioned above. 

Understanding how to communicate and work with others, holding yourself accountable, possessing patience and positivity, while also nurturing curiosity and a strong desire to problem-solve — these are the kinds of soft skills that can help you get ahead in your career and make you stand out to potential employers.

Communication 

Understanding how to successfully communicate with the people you’re working with — your coworkers, your boss, or your clients — is an integral part of a programmer’s skill set. You need to feel comfortable communicating your ideas and advice in meetings and during project collaborations. It’s also helpful to be able to adequately explain the reasons for why you did something or how it works, especially when talking to a client. The ability to communicate effectively is essential for minimizing conflict and getting what you want.

Teamwork 

Sure, asserting the importance of teamwork might be a kindergarten cliche — but that doesn’t make it any less true in the workplace. Being able to productively collaborate within a group is critical for achieving success in development. In 2016, a group of Norwegian academics conducted research into how teamwork quality impacted achievement for software developers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that effective teamwork had a “strongly positive” effect on team members’ learning and work satisfaction. 

When you’re working in a team environment, as most developers do, it doesn’t matter how brilliant you might be as an individual. If you can’t constructively share your ideas and support the ideas of others in turn, neither you nor your team will be able to reach the height of your achievement potential. To be clear, being a cohesive team doesn’t mean that you’re perpetually in agreement; rather, it’s how you apply differing ideas to reach a common goal that makes for great collaboration.

Patience 

Patience is a virtue — and the lack of it is an anathema in the workplace. While it’s easy to become frustrated when you’re debugging a particularly clunky bit of code or working with people who just aren’t up to speed on a project, you need to have the wherewithal to maintain your composure during a project. If you don’t, you may end up becoming part of the problem; rather than working with you, others may feel hurt and avoid asking you for your input. In the long term, this may slow project progress and negatively impact team cohesion and even your career. 

It is worth noting that falling into a pattern of impatience can be detrimental to your health, too. According to Live Science, “People who frequently become impatient and angry are in a constant state of stress. The body reacts to that stress by releasing hormones such as adrenaline or cortisol which help the body respond to a stressful situation.” This reaction, one health writer for the platform explains, can have a dramatic impact on your cardiovascular health in the long run. Making the effort to maintain your patience will be beneficial — for your team and yourself. 

Accountability 

If you want to be an exemplary employee and stand out, accountability needs to be one of your top programming skills. You might not always have a manager who holds you accountable, so being able to keep yourself responsible speaks to your work ethic and will help you produce high-quality work on a consistent basis. 

Accountability also means taking ownership for your mistakes and learning from them. By acknowledging your mistakes, you demonstrate a sense of humility and provide your team with the opportunity to identify the issue, find a solution, and avoid making the same mistake in the future.

Positivity 

Everyone knows that one person who’s always complaining, day in and day out. That kind of attitude can be a real drain — and not just in an emotional way. 

The American Psychological Association estimates that workplace stress shaves an incredible $500 billion off of the U.S. economy and leads to roughly 550 million lost workdays every year. Other research has demonstrated that between 60 to 80 percent of workplace accidents can be traced back to at-work stress. Then, of course, is the human toll — one writer for the Harvard Business Review notes that work stress has been firmly linked to major cardiovascular disease and increased mortality risks. 

These numbers demonstrate the importance of maintaining positivity. We all want to work with positive people. Even when your job is getting stressful and you feel frustrated, maintaining a level of positivity makes it easier to work through the tough times — both for you and your team. Approach problems and conflicts in a respectful, positive way to make finding a common solution that much more likely. There are going to be times when holding onto a positive attitude will be difficult. Still, it’s a testament to your professionalism as a programmer if you’re able to remain cool-headed and not allow outside negativity to impact your work.

Problem-Solving 

Uncertainty is a fact of life. No matter how knowledgeable you are or how skilled you become as a programmer, you will eventually find yourself faced with a task that stumps you. Your frustrations could stem from a particularly gnarly piece of code or a feature request that, for the life of you, you haven’t a clue how to build. You’ll be confused and annoyed — but if you’re willing to work through the problem, you’ll eventually overcome the pattern. 

Problem-solving skills are just as important for programmers as technical ability. As Dominique Simoneau-Ritchie, the Director of Engineering at Lever, wrote for Hacker Noon, “The more senior you are, the more you’ll be expected to take on complex, poorly defined problems, often with very little context. The true secret to increasing your impact is learning how to tackle a problem of any size and breaking it into manageable pieces that you can successfully solve.”

A large portion of being a successful programmer is understanding how to solve problems within the software you’re programming. No matter where you work or what you do, you will encounter problems. Knowing how to approach them and find a solution is a vital skill.

Curiosity 

Last but not least, curiosity is a fundamental part of being a good developer.

“The best developers tend to be naturally curious people who love to learn,” CodeFights CEO Tigran Sloyan writes for Tech Beacon. “This proclivity drives them to constantly improve and explore new and better ways of doing things.”

Without curiosity, a programmer might fall into a rut and not bother to stay atop new tools and ideas. This lack of interest can be deadly to a developer’s career, given the fast-paced advancement that characterizes any tech-related field. If you aren’t on the cutting edge, you’ll almost certainly be left behind. Maintain your curiosity; push yourself to learn new skills, even if your employer isn’t asking you to do so. Plus, you never know — continuing your education might make you a more marketable professional. 

Now that you know more about some of the hard and soft skills required for a career in programming, you can make a more informed decision about choosing it as a career. There are many opportunities for programmers now, and those opportunities are slated to grow in the upcoming years.

Consider where you would prefer to specialize, such as front or back end development, full stack development, app development, or in one of the many other areas that programmers are utilized. Then, turn to your educational options. You can work toward a more traditional degree or opt for a more specialized education like a coding boot camp. Or, you could choose a combination of educational approaches. Continue researching your options in programming to learn what the best fit is for you.

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