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On the Difference Between Coding, Programming, Engineering, and Computer Science

My homepage lists my new career shift as

“This is me, attempting to reinvent myself as a journeyman programmer. (aiming at craftsmanship)”

I’ve never warmed to the term coder. For some reason, it never meshed with the way I thought about my new career and the work I wanted to do. And I couldn’t quite articulate just how I thought they were different.

Today as I began reading The Secret Life of Programs though, I found author Jonathan E. Steinhart’s already done the hard work giving me a lovely explicit definition that I cannot better, even if I tried endlessly.
Here’s his take …


A number of different terms are used to describe working with software. These terms have no exact definitions, although they have acquired some rough meanings.


Coding, a fairly recent term popularized as part of “learning to code,” can be viewed as the somewhat mechanical work of translation. Let’s compare it to the job of medical coding. When you visit a doctor, getting a diagnosis is the easy part. The hard part is translating that diagnosis into one of the over 100,000 codes in the ICD standards, ICD-10 at the time of writing. A Certified Professional Coder who has learned these codes knows that, when a doctor comes up with a diagnosis of “struck by cow,” it should be assigned code W55.2XA. This is actually harder than many coding jobs in the programming space due to the sheer number of codes. But the process is similar to what a coder would do if directed to “make that text bold” on a web page; a coder knows which code to use to make that happen.

The ICD-10 standard is so complicated that few coders know it all. Instead, medical coders get certified in specialty areas such as “Diseases of the nervous system” or “Mental and behavioral disorders.” This is analogous to a coder being proficient in a language such as HTML or JavaScript.


But programming—that is, being a programmer—means knowing more than a specialty area or two. The doctor in this scenario is analogous to a programmer. The doctor determines a diagnosis by evaluating the patient. This can be pretty complex. For example, if a patient has burns and is soaking wet, is it a “bizarre personal appearance” (R46.1) or a “burn due to water skis on fire, initial encounter” (V91.07XA)? Once the doctor has diagnosis, a treatment plan can be devised. The treatment plan must be effective; the doctor probably doesn’t want to see the same patient suffering from a bad case of “parental overprotection” (Z62.1).

Just like the doctor, a programmer evaluates a problem and determines a solution. For example, maybe there’s a need for a website that allows people to rank ICD-10 codes in terms of silliness. A programmer would determine the best algorithms for storing and manipulating the data, the structure of the communication between the web client and server, the user interface, and so on. It’s not a simple “plug in the code” sort of thing.


Engineering is the next step up in complexity. In general, engineering is the art of taking knowledge and using it to accomplish something. You could consider the creation of the ICD standards to be engineering; it took the large field of medical diagnoses and reduced them to a set of codes that could be more easily tracked and analyzed than doctor’s notes. It’s a matter of opinion as to whether or not such a complex system represents good engineering. As an example of computer engineering, many years ago I worked on a project to build a low-cost medical monitor such as those that you see in hospitals. The charge I was given was to make a system that a doctor or nurse could figure out how to use in less than 5 minutes without any documentation. As you might imagine, this required much more than just knowledge of programming. And I beat the goal—my solution ended up taking about 30 seconds to learn to use.


Programming is often confused with computer science. While many computer scientists program, most programmers aren’t computer scientists. Computer science is the study of computing. Computer science discoveries are used by engineers and programmers.


Coding, programming, engineering, and computer science are independent but related disciplines that differ in the type and amount of knowledge required. Being a computer scientist, engineer, or coder doesn’t automatically make someone a good programmer. … Engineering and programming are similar to music or painting—they’re part skill and part art.

So I could also state my goal as

“This is me, attempting to reinvent myself as a programmer. (aiming at becoming an engineer)”

I think I’ll stick with my line though. I love the inclusion of the arts in there. Programmer and engineer are too dry without them :)
But this little screed helps me explain my intentions better to other people :)
And for that, a hat tip and lots of gratitude to you, Mr. Steinhart!


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