Coding vs. Programming: What’s the Difference?

Cindy F. Cape
web designer drawing website development wireframe

It seems that the entire world has decided to begin developing apps, web pages, and web apps. The Apple App Store and Google Play Store host millions of apps, and the number continues to grow. On top of that, more than 250,000 new websites hit the internet every day.

Each new page, app, or web app may involve developers, designers, programmers, and coders. While many people rapidly swap back and forth between these terms to describe the same functions, they actually have distinct differences.

So, what is the difference between coding vs. programming? Between the work of web developers and web designers? As a very simple analogy, consider the construction of a new office building. The coders, programmers, developers, and designers ensure that the “building” is well designed and works as it is meant to.

Understanding key jobs in application and website development

Designers: The architects

Designers are the idea people for the project. Just as an architect determines what a building will look like and its general purpose, designers are responsible for the overall user interface and user experience of an application or web page, including its feel and function.

But designer responsibilities go much deeper than the surface appearance and general functionality of an application. They are intimately involved in selecting features and clarifying how the individual parts of an app work together. Consider this to be the internal layout of the building: how do people and services move between different areas?

Designers also work closely with other development team members to ensure that the end product meets the specifications. Along with others, they make sure that the application “punch list” is completed.

Designers may or may not have responsibility for the more practical aspects of app creation, which include creating workflows and coding. While designers don’t usually code, they can create websites and web applications with the help of low-code or no-code drag-and-drop web development tools even with little knowledge or experience in programming or coding.

Developers: The systems engineers

The word developer encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, especially because it is often not used alone. For example, there are systems developers, software developers, app developers, web developers, frontend developers, backend developers, and more. Each profession has its own skill set and specialties. And there is an equally wide range of definitions for these different developers.

Consider the definition of web developer from Techopedia, which ties web development to backend development: “A web developer is usually concerned with the back end or the programming aspect of creating a website or Web application and is not to be confused with a Web designer, who only deals with the aesthetics of a website or application, although many professionals have both skill sets.”

In contrast, Upwork, a well-known freelance design, development, and coding services provider, ties web developers to both frontend and backend development. Some go even further and merge web design and development, making developers responsible for an application end-to-end.

Backend developers work as the building’s systems engineers, but instead of designing electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems, they create the internal structures that make the application work. Similarly, frontend developers take visual mock-ups and turn them into functional specifications. Developers also have post-construction responsibilities, updating applications as needed.

Developers need to have a broad skills base that includes knowledge of the primary web programming languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.), fundamentals of graphic design, database programming and management, and working with libraries and frameworks.

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Programmers: The general contractors

Now, we get to the point where the boundaries between functions truly begin to blur (i.e., the common question, What is the difference between coding vs. programming?) Programmers have many of the same functions as developers, and programmers are also frequently skilled coders with a wide knowledge of programming languages. Programming and coding are probably the most fluidly used of our terms. But programming is less about the minutiae of coding than logical flows. As such, it sits at a higher level in the development process than coding.

From the 30,000-foot view, programmers build the decision trees and logical structures that coders then implement. They are familiar with the full spectrum of how logic translates into program structures, whether in object-oriented programming regimes or other programming schemes. Programmers are the problem solvers who act as the functional middlemen between the high-level design and the detailed code.

Programmers need many of the same skills as developers and coders, although programmers do not need to know how to code from a purely theoretical perspective. However, from a more practical viewpoint, programmers invariably are skilled coders and frequently are one and the same in the development process.

Coders: The skilled tradespeople

In our analogy, coders serve the function of skilled tradespeople. Like the electricians, plumbers, and HVAC specialists who take the blueprints and systems designs and install all the services necessary to make the building function, coders turn specifications into a working product.

Coders don’t simply write code, hand it over, and walk away, though. Instead, they work diligently to optimize code. For example, rather than creating code from scratch, coders will determine which existing libraries and modules they can use to minimize the time they have to spend on a given project.

Effective coders also know that an application’s size and speed can be critical factors in whether consumers will use it. As just one example, internet users are fanatical about website load speed—if a mobile site takes longer than three seconds to load, more than half of the visitors will abandon it. Application size can affect application speed, so coders work hard to optimize the structure of their code.

Coders are also the primary quality control staff in application development. They debug and test code as they write, ensuring that the application works as intended. Therefore, they need to be familiar with both black box (external focus) and white box (internal focus) testing processes and tools like SAST, DAST, and IAST.

Coders may also be responsible for implementing important compliance features (e.g., data privacy and cybersecurity) in an application. They need to be familiar with privacy by design and security by design principles, which are increasingly important concepts for application development.

Use the right people for the right jobs

Just as general contractors may also be skilled electricians, and architects may be systems engineers, the functions in web development overlap. So when people wonder what the difference is between coding vs. programming, for example, the truth is that developers and programmers may also be designers or coders, and vice versa. Although developers typically have skills that cover every function, it doesn’t mean that these terms should be used interchangeably.

Precision in language is important, just as is precision in coding, programming, and development. The more precisely you define the functions, the better you can understand the overall app-development process.

RELATED: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to Launching a New Tech Product

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