Computer programmers have an aura about them. Like the auto mechanics and rocket scientists of decades past, they create complicated technology and their handiwork is ubiquitous. They speak in the Latin of the current time -- computer code, a family of languages most people cannot even fathom. It takes a lot of skill and reliability to become a professional programmer, but those who make the cut earn a very decent living. This holds true for freelancers as well as more-traditional workers.
About 334,000 people worked as computer programmers in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 5 percent of them were self-employed -- usually as freelancers. This number grew rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century, with many employment prospects. Freelancing gives programmers greater freedom to take on the workloads and types of projects they prefer, and the irregular, project-focused demand for computer-programming services makes freelancing a viable alternative to traditional employment.
Most computer programmers dwell in the upper half of the lower-middle class. The BLS does not report income statistics for freelance computer programmers in particular, but computer programmers as a whole -- including freelancers, employees and entrepreneurs -- earned a median hourly wage of $34.32 in 2010. They had a median annual income of about $71,000. The lowest 10 percent earned $41,000 or less. The highest 10 percent earned $114,000 or more.
Computer programmers have a wide income distribution because of the diverse nature of computer-programming work. A basic computer programmer may only charge $20 an hour, while a high-end expert with heavily demanded skills and big-name clients can command $200 an hour. Freelancers can dramatically increase their marketability by diversifying their skill set, becoming proficient in more programming languages and software frameworks.
As personal computers, smart phones and other computing devices become more integral in society, computer programmers will continue to enjoy demand for their services. The BLS projects overall computer-programmer employment figures to decline slightly between 2008 and 2018, but advises that job prospects for programmers will nevertheless remain strong as existing computer programmers leave the workforce, change industries or earn promotions into the managerial ranks.