Computer Science vs Programming: What’s the Difference?

Programming is writing code in a computer language. Computer science is far broader, involving more advanced technical concepts & skills. Learn more with Rice.

Programmers collaborating to execute Computer Science project plan

While they might seem similar, there is a meaningful difference between computer science and computer programming. Computer science offers a holistic understanding of all aspects of modern, interconnected computers and large-scale, complex systems (for example, a personalized machine learning algorithm), while programming is a smaller facet of that broad computer science landscape, further fragmented into individual coding languages like Python, Java or HTML. Computer science is broad and holistic, while programming occurs in the execution or implementation stage.

While both can be valuable areas of focus, you need to understand the primary differences between computer science vs computer programming in order to align your educational pursuits to achieve your career goals.

What is Computer Programming?

We increasingly live in a world governed by complex computer and software systems, a world where programming is at the heart of industry and scientific discovery, as well as a basic skill for everyday life. In short, programming is the act of communicating instructions to different levels of computing devices (for example, hardware or software) so they can carry out tasks intended by the programmer (or coder).

These days, any computing device or system relies upon layers upon layers of complex code, all interfacing with one another like workers across a global supply chain. For example, there are different levels of programming languages:

  • High-level (or high abstraction) programming languages are closest to the software and user interface layer
  • Low-level (or low abstraction) programming languages are closest to the binary code (1's and 0's) understood by machines

There are also different categories or classifications of programming languages, including functional programming vs. object-oriented programming and front-end vs. back-end. Computer scientists are trained in holistic systems and use different paradigms, allowing them to problem solve more effectively--thinking beyond a single approach or syntax of one programming language.

According to some estimates, there are over 700+ programming languages in existence, although only about a dozen are used most frequently today in business and government for front-end applications (website, mobile app and game development) or back-end development (web servers, databases and integrations). Computer programming means writing code in computer languages like HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Python, Java, C#, and others, then testing that code to validate it delivers the correct instructions for a network of interconnected computers to perform tasks according to specification. While it’s generally accepted that the first computer language was designed in 1883 to support number computations, the first widely used programming language (Assembly Language) was created in 1949.

Those who specialize in programming and coding translate human instructions into a machine-based language. While computer scientists and software engineers decide what the instructions should be, a team of programmers collaboratively executes that vision.

How is Computer Programming Different from Computer Science?

Many programmers and software developers can only implement the programs that other computer scientists conceive of, limiting how much they can drive innovation in their field. Advanced computer scientists have the foundational knowledge that allows them to apply their skills (including programming) to almost anything. For example, software engineers with advanced computer science knowledge and skills may be more equipped to solve a complex technical product management problem because of the training in "whole systems" thinking. Compare the differences between a Line Cook and a Michelin-Star Chef in a restaurant: a Line Cook can follow a recipe and execute it well, but the Chef will create new recipes, pioneer new techniques, and continue to refine and perfect those recipes over time.

Computer science professionals have an appreciation of whole systems and processes, with multidisciplinary skills that allow them to understand and design large scale, complex computational systems and innovative products. Found across the tech, IT and information security landscape, they're also responsible for maintaining secure network operations, enabling computer systems to gather and analyze information quickly and autonomously, and ensuring that big data and systems are protected and secure from outside attacks.

Programming vs Computer Science: Career Paths

When considering career paths, many often wonder about programming vs computer science. Programming is one practical, yet narrow, aspect of computer science, whereas the study of computer science equips professionals with advanced tech concepts and skills, including systems design, algorithms, software development, programming, cybersecurity and vulnerability assessment, and more. Professionals who studied computer science will all know how to code, although their experience with different types of programming languages will probably vary.

What Can You Do With Programming?

Computer programmers are synonymous with coders or developers. Typically, computer programmers build and test applications (websites, mobile apps, or software) by writing code in one or multiple programming languages. Software engineers define the requirements and design the software systems, while programmers execute on those plans with coding.

How long does it take to become a computer programmer? The answer depends on what type of programmer you want to be, how broad a skillset you want to have, and how good you want to be. Learning a few programming languages - for example, HTML, CSS and Javascript for front-end web development - may only require a 6-9 month coding bootcamp, plus continuing development to keep skills fresh. However, learning and mastering the "full stack" (front-end and back-end development) often requires years of training and/or work experience, plus ongoing training and problem-solving throughout your career.

You don't need a degree to become a programmer; however, most software engineers and technical product managers have at least a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related technical field, plus programming skills in one or multiple coding languages.

Job opportunities include a range of front-end, back-end and full-stack development roles:

  • Javascript Programmer: Writing Javascript code and testing front-end responsive sites and applications.
  • Applications Developer: Writing, testing, and updating programs for a specific device or operating system.
  • Systems Developer: Developing operating systems-level software that runs devices and network distribution software.
  • Full Stack Developer: Creating designs for websites that meet expectations for user experience.

However, to progress beyond entry-level or executional coding roles, companies usually look for additional software engineering work or heightened educational credentials from a reputable institution. Computer science is a broader field of study that enables graduates to not only write quality code, but manage projects and connect the business value back to those projects.

What Career Paths Can You Pursue with Computer Science?

Is programming the same as computer science? In short, no - they are not the same. Professionals trained in computer science must be able to program, but they're also able to expand into technical product management and engineering team leadership, to name a few career paths.

A master’s in computer science is a versatile degree with applications in a wide range of career paths. Because graduates gain the holistic knowledge and practical application experience necessary to advance in the field, they are well-prepared to take on current and new opportunities in all sectors, from government and nonprofit enterprises to private sector industries worldwide. Top technology companies look for candidates with a master’s degree because they understand MCS graduates possess the necessary technical acumen and the business and project management skills to drive innovation and results.

Other master’s in computer science careers include:

  • Technical Product Manager: Top tech companies often prefer an advanced degree in a technical field to enter into a product management role. These computer scientists lead a team of engineers to dream up and create the next big innovation in their field.
  • Cybersecurity Lead: Find strengths and weaknesses within computer systems, implement cyber defense technologies from an increasingly growing number of complex online attacks, and manage the teams that secure the systems.
  • Machine Learning/AI Engineer: Create and develop machine learning algorithms that enable computers to learn from or adapt to new data.
  • Software Development Director: Lead cross-functional teams within an organization to manage the software design, development and iterative improvement process.
  • RPA Developer: Leverage robotic process automation to create, design, and develop automated processes that maximize efficiency and scale successful initiatives.

Computer Science vs Computer Programmer Salary

Computer scientists and software engineers continue to be in high demand, whereas programming jobs are expected to decline as much as 10% in the next 10 years due to automation and the rise of machine learning. An entry-level programmer position is attainable with self-taught coding courses or an accelerated bootcamp. According to CourseReport, the average starting salary of a bootcamp grad is $69,079, depending on the industry and geographic location. According to Payscale, the average Master's in Computer Programming salary is approx. $105,000. In the post-pandemic world, many developer jobs are remote and flexible.

Individuals interested in pursuing a degree that can lead to increased career options and job stability can consider earning a master’s degree in computer science. Earning an MCS degree can also be beneficial for programmers because it allows them to broaden their problem-solving and technical abilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a master’s in computer science can earn more than $126,830 annually.

Computer Science vs Programming: Necessary Skills and Education Paths

Outcomes for those who earn a computer programming degree can vary widely. As workplace technology teams become more collaborative, employees will need multiple skills beyond programming in order to make valuable contributions and develop their careers. With a master’s degree, in computer science you can gain broad insight and experience, important specialization skills, and application experience.

What Skills are Needed for Programming?

Programming can be self-taught, but successful careers in the field require certain skills that can be developed in a degree program.

These skills include:

  • Computer Language Knowledge: Computer programmers write, update and test programs, so it is important to know different computer languages, including C#, Java, Python, and more.
  • Analytical Thinking: Computer programming is often about problem-solving. Computer programmers need to be able to identify and define problems, extract information from data and develop workable solutions.
  • Focus and Attention to Detail: Details matter in computer programming. Programmers must be able to efficiently focus on tasks and details specific to problems and in the development of code that solves those problems.
  • Collaborative Mindset: Programming is team-based, so computer programmers need communication and collaboration skills for effective project development.

With introductory skills attained by earning a bachelor’s degree in programming, you can begin entry-level work in the information technology field. Job opportunities can include programmer, web developer, software developer, and database administrator. It’s important to understand that computer languages constantly change. A successful career in computer programming requires continuing education.

Advanced education degrees, including a master’s in computer science, can be key to more career opportunities. Master’s degree programs allow you to focus on specializations such as optics, communication networks, or signal processing. A master’s degree program also helps you develop skills specific to an industry you are interested in, such as healthcare or finance.

Is a Computer Science Degree Needed to Be a Programmer?

A bachelor’s or master's degree in computer programming is not necessary for entry-level programming jobs. But a four-year degree greatly enhances your options for career development in the field. You can learn several programming languages along with specializations in different industries like healthcare or finance. A master’s degree in computer science can further enhance your opportunities, positioning you for roles in technical leadership.

Develop an Advanced Skill Set by Enrolling in a Computer Science Program

Because computer science careers offer greater flexibility and breadth than programming careers, a wider range of skill sets are required.

These skills include:

  • Computer and Technology Knowledge: Computer scientists need to understand machine architecture and how computers and operating systems work.
  • Programming: While the main job of computer scientists is not coding, it is a necessary skill. To develop your career trajectory, you will need to understand different programming languages, algorithms, and data structures.
  • Data Analysis: Computer scientists need to be able to manage all forms of data. This includes skillful collection, organization, and manipulation of large amounts of data using databases and other technologies.
  • Communication: Computer science positions require the ability to collaborate and communicate with experts and laypeople. Computer scientists need to be skilled in technical writing, presentation skills, and data visualization.
  • Math: Math helps you understand data structure and programming languages and supports effective problem-solving. Computer scientists need skill in statistics, calculus, linear algebra, and other advanced mathematics.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science allows students to gain core computer science fundamentals. The curriculum includes data structures, algorithms, software design, computer architecture and the techniques and methods computer scientists use in different industries.

A master’s degree in computer science further develops your skills to equip you for advanced computer science roles in business, government or industry. In a master’s program, you can develop skills and experience in specialties that interest you, such as machine learning, robotics, information systems, and more. A master’s program will allow you to gain advanced training in software engineering, data analytics, and computer systems, and help you apply your skills and knowledge to real-life applications.

Consider a Master of Computer Science to Drive Innovation

Companies worldwide are looking for people with advanced degrees and specialized technical skills that go beyond programming to lead their enterprises. Top companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and more hire Rice graduates to solve their most complex and challenging problems of today and tomorrow.

There is a large societal and labor market demand for advanced coding skills. However, as more people learn coding concepts and languages, talent differentiation and higher-paying salaries at leading companies will be driven by holistic computer science understanding. There is a particular emphasis on the integration of AI/machine learning into computer systems and cybersecurity to protect and secure those systems and their data.

Top-ranked for Computer Programming languages, Rice University's world-class Computer Science faculty designed the online Master of Computer Science to help you grasp the core concepts and real-world skills that make you fluent in computer science and in demand by employers.

Along with important core courses, you’ll also gain differentiating competencies including:

  • An engineering mindset to solve problems in the most efficient and systematic way
  • Fundamental understanding of programming languages to drive innovation in any language
  • In-depth exposure to a variety of emerging areas, including AI/ML, cybersecurity, data science, data visualization, and more
  • Project management skills for technical leadership roles at top companies
  • Access to world class faculty members who encourage hands-on experiences and support your career growth

Learn more about how the MCS@Rice online degree program can meet your goals for a rewarding computer science career. Explore our curriculum offerings and our best-in-class student experience.

Rice is Top 10 for training the best software engineering and programming talent.

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