So you think you want to be a coder? You've weighed the variables, worked out how you like to function, and now you have one final query to execute: Is coding actually a good career? Well, read on to find out.
If you still need the basics on how to code, be sure to check out our beginner's guide to coding and programming (opens in new tab). We also have a guide on the value of coding bootcamps (opens in new tab), if you're considering doing a crash course in computer programming.
You'll need something to code on too, and that's where our best laptops for coding guide comes in. Now, let's dive in and look at the ones and zeros of starting a career in coding.
How much could I earn as a coder?
Salary information can be difficult to pin down for a number of reasons. Companies are often reluctant to share salary bands, and salaries can vary wildly between different job titles, countries, states, and even cities. The company you’re working for will also make a big difference, with some of the top tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple paying well above the average.
Coding jobs can vary in title and responsibilities. One of the most common coding jobs that you’ll hear about is software engineer. Software engineers are developers who design, build and maintain computer software.
The average salary for a software engineer in the United States is $111,745 per year, according to job seeking website Indeed (opens in new tab), while Glassdoor (opens in new tab) has it at $107,116 per year. These numbers are an average across the whole country though.
A lot of the larger tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft pay well above this average. We did some digging on the Microsoft Careers (opens in new tab) site and at time of writing, Microsoft is advertising a software engineer role at its Redmond site that pays between USD $76,400 - $151,800 per year. This role is listed as IC2, which can be considered an entry-level position. There is a similar software engineer role listed as an IC3, which offers USD $94,300 - $182,600. There is also a more senior role listed at IC5 level, which pays USD $133,600 - $256,800 per year.
Some companies, particularly new start-ups, pay low base salaries but give employees stock options. The idea is that by owning a small chunk of the company, you could be in line for an enormous payday if the company blows up. However, outcomes like this are obviously hard to predict. Taking a share option in a small company could be how you make your millions. But remember, most start-ups end in failure.
Location is also a huge factor. All of those Microsoft roles that we listed above have a qualifier attached to them, stating that if the role is based in San Francisco or New York City, then they have their own salary band. That IC2 software engineer job’s salary jumps to $100,300 - $165,400 per year in these cities, while the IC5 position jumps up to $173,200 - $282,200 per year.
Do I need to live in San Francisco, London or another big city?
One of the appeals of a coding career is that, in theory, it can be done wherever there is an internet connection. Why work in a gray office in an industrial estate when you could be sitting by the beach, on a tropical island, tapping out code between Zoom calls?
Well, there are still advantages to living in a city — particularly a large, tech-oriented city such as San Francisco, New York or London. First and foremost, big cities are where most tech firms are located, and most tech jobs still have some office-working requirements (see below).
There are also informal benefits that come with living in a tech hub, particularly early in your career. You can attend tech events where you'll be able to sharpen your skills, and you can go for in-person drinks with colleagues in the same industry. And in an industry where companies are created and destroyed seemingly overnight, it is important to build a strong network of contacts. In coding, you're very unlikely to work at the same company for more than a few years — and your next job might just come from that person you know socially, from industry drinks.
What's the work/life balance like?
It’s hard to describe the work/life balance of an entire field, but there is some evidence we can point to. For example, because writing code is a desk job, it is well positioned to take advantage of post-pandemic remote working, which could mean you can expect more flexible working hours and conditions, and spend more time with your family. But this isn't a given.
There has been a shift back toward office work in some of the largest tech firms since 2020. Today, Microsoft requires its staff to work from the office 50% of the time, while Google and Apple now expect their workers in the office three days per week. So being a coder doesn't necessarily mean that you can work remotely forever.
Another work/life pressure to consider is the concept of "crunch." It's the situation when in order to ship a product or feature by a given deadline, managers put pressure and expectation on employees to work extremely long hours — upwards of 60 to 80 hours per week — to get what they’re building over the line. Though this has become most notorious in the video games industry, the rest of the tech industry is not immune.
There's also the reality of how the tech industry is structured. Many tech start-ups raise money from investors to fund themselves for, say, a year, with the goal at the end of the process being to "exit" — either to a stock market IPO or acquisition from a much larger company, earning the initial founders a big payout. There can be lucrative rewards, but there's a strong incentive and structural pressure toward working extremely hard. If you work for a start-up, expect long hours.
Is the industry full of sexist tech bros?
I'll leave the value judgment up to you, but the reality is that the tech industry is still heavily skewed toward men. According to the website Women in Tech, just 26% of the U.K. tech workforce are women, and figures are similar in the U.S. But there's only one way to change that: The industry needs more women.
Am I going to be replaced by AI?
The problem with planning a career in the modern, digital world is that it's very hard to predict what might happen in the future. A job in tech is not necessarily a job for life. And as we've seen in recent months, the emergence of generative AI could upset job prospects for even highly skilled workers such as coders.
What is likely to change is the actual job of coding: Instead of starting from a blinking cursor in a blank window, you'll have an AI companion such as GitHub Copilot, which will allow you to work in a similar way to how a mathematician uses a calculator. This change could make your job more interesting. Instead of having to write lines and lines of boring, basic code, AI will take care of that for you. And that will leave you with the more interesting challenges beyond the AI's current capabilities.
So will AI take away your coding job? It's hard to say for sure, but it seems likely that knowing how to code will still be an important skill in the future economy — not least because you could be helping to build the mind-blowing AI tools of tomorrow.
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James O’Malley is a freelance technology writer and data wrangler. He was previously editor of Gizmodo UK, and over the years has written for everywhere from Wired, Engineering & Technology, TechRadar, Which? Computing, and PC Pro. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations and takes every opportunity to flex his coding muscles.
AI will replace coders completely at some point. Learn a trade. AI will never be a nurse, plumber, diesel mechanic, carpenter, or HVAC tech.Reply