Computer Systems Programmer
Computer systems programmers write programs to control the internal operations of computers. This involves designing programs that are efficient, fast and versatile. They spend a lot of time testing programs. They might also install, customise and support these operating systems.
Also known as
- Programmer, Computer Systems
- Systems Programmer
Systems programmers research, design and develop programs that control the internal operations of large mainframe computers and networks. Programmers write and adapt programs that are fast, versatile and efficient, sometimes following specifications provided by a systems analyst. They might also install, customise and support these operating systems.
Their aim is to make computer systems (both hardware and software) work more efficiently and reliably. This includes looking at how computers handle and store data and text, send information to printers, and link up to telecommunications systems. They might also need to make sure that systems are secure.
If an applications program (for example, one that enables a computer to manage a payroll) is not working as quickly or as efficiently as it should be, the systems programmer will investigate the operating system and computer network to see whether these can be 'fine tuned' to improve the application's performance.
Programmers often begin each project by representing it in the form of a diagram in order to break down the project into a series of steps, which they can then follow in a logical order.
The programmer translates these steps into instructions written in computer language. This is a very technical job; systems programmers deal with complicated computer language.
Programmers spend a lot of time testing and improving the program, and removing faults ('debugging'). Systems programmers produce diagrams and program notes to help technical writers, who are responsible for producing user manuals.
Systems programmers might also perform technical tasks such as making sure that new or upgraded software works well with existing systems. They might advise systems analysts and applications programmers on whether additional tasks can be added to the system or whether a new system is needed.
Systems programmers who provide support for operating systems might work on-call to sort out any problems that arise.
Apart from computers, all sorts of equipment have operating systems, including printers, mobile phones, tablets and telecommunications equipment. Systems programmers might work for companies that produce these items; they write or adapt operating systems in these specific areas.
Being able to read, write and speak Welsh may be an advantage when you’re looking for work in Wales.
Personal Qualities and Skills
As a systems programmer, you'll need:
- Strong technical knowledge of relevant computer languages, networks and operating systems.
- Good written skills to produce reports, diagrams and instructions.
- To be a good problem solver.
- A logical and methodical approach to your work.
- Patience and attention to detail.
- To be able to work well on your own and as a member of a team.
- Project-management skills.
- The ability to cope well when things go wrong.
- Good communication, customer service and interpersonal skills to provide support and advice to clients and other members of staff.
- To keep up to date with new technologies.
Pay and Opportunities
The pay rates given below are approximate.
Computer systems programmers earn in the range of £24,000 - £30,500 a year, rising to £38,000 - £46,000. Higher earners can make over £60,000 a year.
Salaries could include performance-related pay, profit share or company bonuses.
Hours of work
Systems programmers usually work 35-37 hours, Monday to Friday. Depending on the post, some might occasionally work outside normal business hours, or on an on-call basis.
Where could I work?
Employers are software houses, consultancies, computer manufacturers and large-scale computer users.
Opportunities for systems programmers occur in some cities around the UK. A significant number of vacancies for IT and telecoms professionals are in London and the South East of England.
What's happening in this work area?
The IT industry is predicted to grow much faster than the rest of the UK workforce over the next ten years. The recession has affected the IT industry, but overall it has emerged in a very strong position.
One reason for this strength is the realisation, by the global economy, of the importance of IT in helping businesses to survive the recession and economic downturn. Investment in technology is also viewed by many as a way for public bodies to become more efficient.
There is a shortage of candidates with IT skills and qualifications in the UK.
Future skills needsTechnical skills are highly important in this industry. However, employers have also highlighted the need for the following non-technical skills:
- teamworking skills
- good communication skills
- business skills.
Opportunities occur for experienced systems programmers to work on a self-employed, consultancy basis - usually on short-term contract work for different clients.
Where are vacancies advertised?
Vacancies are advertised on specialist IT job boards and employers' websites, in computing magazines and professional journals, in local/national newspapers, on Universal Jobmatch and at Jobcentre Plus.
Short-term contract work is found through specialist IT recruitment agencies.
Entry Routes and Training
Almost all entrants to this work have a degree in a relevant subject (for example, computer science or software engineering). Many employers will also look for programming skills and knowledge of mainframes and operating systems.
E-skills has teamed up with employers and universities to offer a degree in Software Development for Business.
Some universities and employers offer internships or student placements that develop business, communication and interpersonal skills.
Full-time and part-time foundation degrees are offered in various computing subjects. These can be topped up to a full degree with further study.
A postgraduate IT conversion course might be useful for entry, if your first degree is in a subject unrelated to IT.
Developers and programmers need to keep updating their skills by going on training courses in the latest systems, programming languages and methods.
Systems programmers could progress to posts such as systems analyst, project manager and network manager, after further training and experience. Some experienced systems programmers work on a self-employed basis.
For entry to a degree course in computer science, the usual requirement is:
- 2/3 A levels
- GCSEs at grade C or above in 2/3 other subjects
- English and Maths at GCSE.
Maths could be required at A level for some degrees. Others might ask for Maths, Physics or Computing at A level. Check entry requirements.
Alternatives to A levels include:
- Edexcel (BTEC) Level 3 National qualifications
- the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
For some degrees, you would need an A level in Maths in addition to a BTEC Level 3 National qualification. You might need Maths (or Physics or Computing) at Higher level in the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
However, course requirements vary so check prospectuses carefully.
Some universities accept the Welsh Baccalaureate as equivalent to 1 A-level.
It is illegal for any organisation to set age limits for entry to employment, education or training, unless they can show there is a real need to have these limits.
Entry is possible for graduates with a degree in a non-IT related subject, if they can provide evidence of technical ability in IT. Taking a postgraduate IT conversion course will improve your chances.
If you have skills in other areas of programming, for example, applications, this can be a way to enter systems work. A technical background, such as in microelectronic and computer engineering, is also relevant.
Universities and colleges of higher education (HE) will usually consider applications from candidates who do not meet their usual entry requirements. You should check the admissions policy of individual universities and HE colleges.
If you don't have the qualifications needed to enter your chosen degree course, a college or university Access course, for example, Access to IT/Computing, could be the way in.
These courses are designed for people who have not followed the usual routes into higher education. No formal qualifications are usually needed, but you should check this with individual colleges.
Distance learning opportunities include the Open University's degree and postgraduate courses in computing subjects.
Many educational institutions offer specific qualifications on a distance/online learning basis, such as the degree in Computing and Information Systems from the University of London's International Programmes. Computeach offers courses by distance learning, including the Programming Professional course.
- 9% of people in occupations such as computer systems programmer are self-employed.
- 4% work part-time.
- 26% have flexible hours.
- 3% of employees work on a temporary basis.
Professional institutionsProfessional institutions have the following roles:
- To support their members.
- To protect the public by keeping standards high in their professions.
For more information on the institution(s) relevant to this career, check out the contacts below.
Queen's University Belfast
The Tech Partnership
Skills for business and information technology
Address: 1 Castle Lane, London SW1E 6DR
Tel: 020 7963 8920
Open University (OU)
Tel: 0845 3006090
Specialists in graduate careers
Address: Unit 6, The Quad, 49 Atalanta Street, Fulham, London SW6 6TU
Tel: 020 7565 7900
Bring IT On
Address: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU
Tel: 020 3353 2000
University of London International Programme
Tel: 020 7862 8360
Institution of Analysts and Programmers (IAP)
Address: Boundary House, Boston Road, London W7 2QE
Tel: 020 8434 3685