The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) divides code writers into two distinct categories: software engineers and computer programmers. While software engineering is among the fastest growing professions, employment for programmers is expected to decline 3 percent through 2018, according to the BLS. While software engineers design, programmers translate the ideas handed down to them into code and update and fix existing programs. Entry-level pay depends on whether your specific job description includes design duties.
Computer Programmer vs. Software Engineer
Programmer salaries tend to be lower than salaries for software engineers. Keep in mind that when researching fair entry-level wages, it's your job duties that dictate where you should start, not your job title. If your job involves planning and designing software and writing complex algorithms, you're a software engineer by the BLS definition, even if you hold a programmer title at your company. If you're not involved in much of the design work and spend most of your day translating specifications into a computer language, then you're in a programmer's role. Those who work in software development can be called programmers, developers, software engineers or systems analysts, and titles aren't standardized according to responsibilities. Make sure you understand the scope of the job before you to make accurate salary estimates.
Computer Programmer Salaries
According to 2009 data from the BLS, the programmer salary range falls between $19.54 and $54.51 per hour, or $40,640 and $113,380 per year. Junior programmers should expect to earn at the low end of this salary range. On average, programmers make a respectable living, earning a mean hourly wage of $35.91. If you want to maximize your earnings right out of the gate, look for work in a top-paying industry. The BLS reports that computer and peripheral equipment manufacturers and the financial sector pay the highest salaries.
Computer Software Engineers - Applications
The BLS further subdivides software engineers into two categories — application and systems software developers. While systems software developers code the basic platforms necessary to run computers, application developers work on programs designed to run with systems software support. Application software engineers earn anywhere between $26.36 and $63.50 hourly, or $54,840 and $132,080 per year. Expect to earn in the mid-$50,000 range as an entry-level professional. Top-paying firms include companies in the mining industry and computer and peripheral equipment manufacturers.
Computer Software Engineers - Systems Software
Systems software engineers make more than their peers working in application development, earning between $28.65 and $67.28 per hour or $59,600 and $139,930 annually. While you won't be making a six-figure salary at the junior level, a salary in the high-$50,000 to low-$60,000 range is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Look for work in computer and peripheral manufacturing or with a machinery, equipment and supplies merchant wholesaler to earn top dollar.
From Programming to Engineering
If you're fresh out of college and looking for a job, chances are that you'll land employment with more programming than engineering and design tasks. Often, there's room for programmers to take on more design duties as they gain professional experience and learn more about their company's products. If interviewing for programmer-type roles, ask about the potential to take on more design responsibilities in the future.