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Essential to any IT organization, system programmers are responsible for ensuring the installation and performance of an operating system. They handle all aspects of the OS, from design and deployment to upgrades and bug resolution. The mission-critical nature of this position requires system programmers work well under pressure. Opportunities for freelance and remote positions exist, but the traditional work setting is an office environment with standard nine-to-five hours. Depending on the organization and task, system programmers will work with and answer to project managers, programmers, and other technicians.

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System Programmer Duties and Responsibilities

Specific duties for system programmers vary depending on the employer, the exact nature of the position, and the system involved. However, there are several core tasks commonly associated with the role, including:

Develop and Install Operation Systems

Every operating system begins with a programmer—they design, develop, and deploy. To that point, system programmers are responsible for developing and installing operating systems and operating system software, as well as for installing modifications and enhancements to existing systems. Installations will vary in scope and can include anything from deploying an entire operating system to a simple program upgrade.

Perform System Maintenance

To ensure a system continues to perform at an optimal level, its components must be carefully tested and maintained. System programmers routinely evaluate the performance of hardware and software to confirm functionality and execute scheduled maintenance tasks to keep systems running smoothly and bug-free.

Customize Hardware and Software

Programs running on a given system often require specific modifications to the mainframe and operating system to ensure performance. It's the job of the system programmer to customize both the hardware and software to meet these demands without compromising the performance of other programs or the system as a whole.

Execute System Upgrades

Periodically, both the hardware and software of existing systems will require updates—including the middleware and application programs that run on the system. The system programmer executes these updates, ensuring they are properly deployed and function properly.

Debug Errors

No system runs perfectly all the time, and when an error occurs, it's the responsibility of the system programmer to identify the problem and debug it. System programmers must identify the source of the problem, analyze all relevant information, then develop and deploy a solution to remedy the bug in a timely manner.

System Programmer Skills and Qualifications

The ideal system programmer possesses a strong technical background, an analytical mind, and is comfortable working alone or as part of a team. System programmers commonly hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field; however, depending on the employer and role, relevant work experience will suffice in lieu of an advanced degree. Employers also prioritize candidates who display the following abilities:

  • C programming - C is one of the most prevalent and widely used programming languages of all time. There is no roadmap to continued success as a system programmer that does not include mastery of this programming language
  • Linux and Linux kernel - most system programmers cut their teeth with Linux, the leading general-purpose operating system.Those who possess a deep understanding of how to utilize it will be better prepared for working with virtually any operating system
  • Debugging - system programmers face a wide range of problems, from software bugs to system updates and everything in between. To tackle these challenges, a programmer must collect all relevant data and analyze it to determine the proper course of action
  • Interpersonal skills - many programming tasks and responsibilities require input from additional parties, including managers, coworkers, and customers. It's essential for system programmers to communicate effectively in order to meet the objectives of an assigned task and ensure all involved parties are satisfied
  • Task management - whether they are the lead technician or one of several members on a team, system programmers must effectively budget their time to ensure project benchmarks are met. Proper task management requires adequate and honest assessment, planning, and communication

Tools of the Trade

Regardless of the environment, system programmers frequently use some or all of the following tools during their workday:

Programming languages (C, C++, and C#)

Operating systems (Linux, UNIX, and z/OS)

Software conversion tools (translators, compilers, interpreters, and assemblers)

System Programmer Education and Training

A bachelor’s degree in computer science or an equivalent field is often required for employment. However, relevant experience or demonstrated proficiency in job-related areas—such as operating systems languages—can suffice in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.

System Programmer Salary and Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists system programmers under the general category of “computer programmer” and reports the median annual salary as $82,240, with an hourly rate of $39.54. These numbers are consistent with salaries offered for system programmers on multiple job sites and online career boards. System programmers in the 10th percentile earn close to $47,000 year, while the highest-paid programmers make more than $132,000.

According to the BLS, employment of system programmers is expected to fall 7 percent through 2026. In part, this decline is due to the availability of remote or off-site work, which allows companies to hire workers from anywhere in the world, including areas where wages are typically lower.

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Helpful Resources

Interested in becoming a system programmer? Check out the resources below to help get you on your way:


this free online interactive tutorial will introduce you to the world of C programming

The Linux Programming Interface: A Linux and UNIX Programming Handbook

billed as "the definitive guide" to Linux and UNIX programming, this comprehensive resource provides much of the information you need to master system programming. Author and programming expert Michael Kerrisk provides detailed descriptions for over 500 essential system calls and library functions, as well as more than 200 example programs to help hone your programming skills

Stack Overflow

home to the largest online developer community in the world, this questionandanswer site is a handy resource for learning about various programming languages and Linux, as well as numerous other useful topics

Linux Kernel Development

this book is excellent resource for programmers who want to write and develop kernel code or who simply want to improve their understanding of the Linux operating system. It details all the major features of the Linux kernel and includes valuable knowledge and experiences from author and core kernel developer Robert Love


this online development platform allows you to work, review, and collaborate on a variety of open source coding projects. Working on existing open source projects can help hone programming skills and sharpen understanding of key concepts

Linux System Programming: Talking Directly to the Kernel C Library

also from Robert Love, this comprehensive guide provides a detailed tutorial on Linux programming, including a reference manual on system calls and tips on writing better code

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