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The difference between coders, programmers and engineers

HBO's "Silicon Valley" airs Sundays at 10 PM 

There's a line in the new HBO show "Silicon Valley" that's making people ask a really basic question: What's the difference between a coder, a programmer and an engineer?

In the show, our hero is Richard Hendricks, a college dropout who works at the software company "Hooli" (which may or may not parody Google) and who has written a valuable algorithm on the side.

In an early scene, Richard is approached by two male co-workers. And under his breath, Richard seems to say "programmers, oh no, no."

The scene puzzled a lot of viewers, including Sid Gidwany, head of engineering at August, a startup in San Francisco.

"I thought that scene was kind of weird because he, himself, is a programmer," Gidwany says.

Hendricks, after all has written his own algorithm, so isn't he a programmer, too? Or maybe he's a coder, or maybe an engineer. Or maybe, because he wrote the program on his off hours, does that make him a hacker?

If you're confused, you're not alone.

Most Americans don't work at software companies, which means most of us have no idea about the distinction between these terms. If there even is one.

"There's not too much of a distinction," says Gidwany. "He can call himself a coder or engineer or whatever."

It turns out that you can indeed self identify as pretty much anything you like if you work in the software business these days.

Coder? You're a shut-in who spends most of his (yes, statistically, you're probably a dude) hunched over a laptop and rarely see the light of day.

Hacker? You're a bit dangerous (or at least you imagine you are).

Programmer? You're proud to be a nerd.

Engineer? You're filling in your Match.com profile.

In other words, you can call yourself whatever you think is cool. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, the distinction is a bit of a throwback, which is why it would make sense if the creator of the TV show Silicon Valley referred to it.

"Mike Judge was a Silicon Valley guy maybe 20 years ago," says Nick Heyman. He calls himself an engineer. I met him and Goodwani at the Founder's Den, a co-working space in San Francisco.

"There was was a big distinction back then," Heyman says. "Now much less."

Godwani agrees. "Especially, late 70s, early 80s," he says. "Companies back then made a distinction between engineers and programmers."

He says, back then computer science degrees weren't offered by a lot of colleges so if you wanted to learn about computers, you would get a more traditional engineering degree.

"Programmers were generally self-taught," Gidwani says. "So a lot of times, there was a distinction of 'I am more formally trained, I am more highly educated.'"

While some big tech companies still reserve the title of "engineer" for people with degrees, college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple, helped disrupt that hierarchy.

And in recent years, new software tools have blurred the distinction even more by enabling people without formal training to build amazing tech products. So now anyone can call themselves a coder, programmer, hacker and even an engineer.

Oh and by the way, that scene in the show where Richard Hendricks recoils at the sight of his colleagues? A number of people told me what actually says is, "Bro-grammers, oh no, no!"

Yeah, who wouldn't be freaked out!

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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