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  • A man sits at a desk which has various paper documents spread out on it.  A man is standing next to him, pointing to something on one of the documents.  The seated man is also looking at this document.

    Computer systems programmers develop programs that control the internal operations of computers.

  • A man sits at a desk which has many paper documents on it.  He is studying one of documents, which has a series of diagrams on it.

    Working through a diagram that outlines how the program should work.

  • A man sits at an office desk, using a computer.

    Translating instructions into computer language.

  • A man sits at an office desk, looking through a printed manual.  Various paper documents and a computer are also on the desk.

    Consulting systems documentation.

Computer Systems Programmer

Introduction

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

Work Activities

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

Pay

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.

Self-employment

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

Entry routes

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.

Training

Developers and programmers need to keep updating their skills by going on training courses in the latest systems, programming languages and methods.

Progression

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.

Qualifications

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.

Adult Opportunities

Age limits

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

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.

Access courses

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

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.

Statistics

  • 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.

Further Information

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

Irish enquiries

Website: www.qub.ac.uk

The Tech Partnership

Skills for business and information technology

Address: 1 Castle Lane, London SW1E 6DR

Tel: 020 7963 8920

Email: info@e-skills.com

Website: www.e-skills.com

Open University (OU)

Tel: 0845 3006090

Website: www.open.ac.uk

Inside Careers

Specialists in graduate careers

Address: Unit 6, The Quad, 49 Atalanta Street, Fulham, London SW6 6TU

Tel: 020 7565 7900

Website: www.insidecareers.co.uk

Big Ambition

Email: bigambition@e-skills.com

Website: www.bigambition.co.uk

Bring IT On

Irish enquiries

Website: www.bringitonni.info

Guardian Technology

Address: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU

Tel: 020 3353 2000

Email: tech@guardian.co.uk

Website: www.guardian.co.uk/technology

University of London International Programme

Tel: 020 7862 8360

Website: www.londoninternational.ac.uk

Institution of Analysts and Programmers (IAP)

Address: Boundary House, Boston Road, London W7 2QE

Tel: 020 8434 3685

Email: admin@iap.org.uk

Website: www.iap.org.uk

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