In my first article on C, I have given an introduction to the C language where I have explained briefly what C programming is and its history of development. A lot of youngsters who come to me for career advice ask me if learning C is still relevant today and whether it can help fetch a job in the IT Industry. My answer to them is an obvious YES. Read on to understand why C is still a relevant & important programming language today and why you must spend time to learn C in 2023.
Of course you can only master C and pursue a flourishing career - no need to learn a second language.
Although C is classified as a high-level language, it includes several low-level features such as - low-level access to memory, pointers, memory allocation & deallocation, bit-level operations, working with registers, socket programming, etc. It necessitates explicitly writing code for each and every thing you want to do such as manipulating arrays, managing stacks & queues, writing sorting algorithms, allocating memory, moving bits, garbage handling, connecting to network to communicate with another C program, and so on. You get a chance to learn and implement advance level concepts such as - mutex, semaphore, atomic operations, inter-process communication, shared memory, etc. This forces you to learn and understand the inner workings of a computer system, its operating system and connected network. Without this knowledge you cannot write a useful system level C program or build a real-world application in C.
As you gain experience writing real applications in C you will develop a deep understanding of how computer systems work and also how networks work. This deep knowledge will enhance your level, enable you to comfortably write quality codes, and put you in the bracket of top level expert programmers - increasing your demand in the IT Industry.
As C helps build deeper understanding of a program's instruction flow, having spent a couple of years building C programs, you will develop a knack for finding and fixing bugs in any type of application built in any language. This skill will naturally put you in high demand as a software engineer and will enable you to command a much higher salary than your peers. While your peers would be struggling searching for forums to find solutions to a bug, as a C expert you will not need to go anywhere for help - others will come to you for help, making you an indispensable employee in your organization.
C is still used to develop a wide range of applications. The availability of C compilers for nearly all hardware platforms and operating systems has made it possible to write C programs for various types of applications and use cases. Just look around for the devices and gadgets you see near you - in all probability some or all of them are powered by C.
I have already mentioned earlier that C is the choice code for writing operating systems and compilers. C is also used to build real-time operating systems (RTOS). Few examples of RTOS - OS for data acquisition systems, OS for manufacturing plants & equipment, OS for airline traffic control systems, OS for controlling robots.
C has been extensively used also in building databases such as Oracle, MySQL, MS-SQL Server and PostgreSQL. Web servers such as Apache and Nginx are written in C. Most web browsers are written in C. Even many browser plugins are written in C.
C is best suited for building applications that require to handle huge data at high speed. Especially data that pertain to the population of a country that entail millions of records. Statistical analysis, etc. can be done much faster with the help of C programs.
Certain image processing software are usually written in C. For example a software to process and convert 2D images into a 3D motion picture require handling large amount of data and carrying out several complex computations. The efficiency of C makes it a choice for writing such kind of software.
C is also used to write device drivers, to program firmware (eg:- USB drives, hard drives and other portable storage devices) & middleware (eg:- data / process integrators, application service frameworks, translators and game engines).
C is a language of choice for programming embedded systems. In an embedded system, there is a micro-controller which is given instructions via a C program. Smart electronic products now-a-days have an in-built micro-controller for automation and in most cases the instruction set for the micro-controller is written in C.
Embedded systems are in use across all kinds of equipment, instruments and devices found in all walks of life, be it - aerospace, automotive, healthcare, manufacturing, robotics, etc. They have enabled create today's digitally connected world.
My daughter works for Bosch as a security expert and she still writes C codes to setup the security layer for automated cars produced by top level automobile companies such as Daimler Benz, BMW, Jaguar & Ford.
IoT is the in-thing today. More and more of day to day equipment such as cameras, televisions, kitchen appliances, health monitors, etc. are incorporating micro-controllers and getting connected to the Internet. The need for embedded programmers to program these devices (of course, in C) is seeing an exponential increase.
The automotive industry has latched onto C to build its self-driving car systems. Instructions are processed efficiently in autonomous vehicles in real-time and for faster response times they even implement parallel processing architectures.
It is no brainer to imagine that IoT will be every where in time to come. Here are just a few use cases:
Due to the above uses, the demand for C programmers have always been and will always be there. Can you imagine the volume of code that were written in C over the past 5 decades that exist today - would the industry replace these with alternatives? It doesn't make sense considering the cost involved and after all why replace when they are running just fine. So who will maintain all these C programs? YOU - who else?
You would have already understood by now that there is huge demand for C programmers in the Industry. Despite so many prevalent high level programming languages that emerged later, C is in high demand and provides enough opportunities of pursuing a successful career. 100s of students whom I taught C two decades back, are pursuing very successful career in top IT companies in USA & Europe and are still writing codes in C or supervising a team of C programmers. It is an ever-green language and I do not see it dying in time to come.
Your in-depth understanding of the fundamental concepts that you acquire after spending a couple of years writing complex C programs, will place you a few notches above other candidates in any technical interview. You will be able to answer fundamental questions with ease which are often asked in job interviews. You will be able to explain the Why's behind solutions to problems, and create a positve impression about your abilities as a software engineer. This will definitely help you stand out amongst the other candidates who may exhibit only surface level knowledge.
Your knowledge of C will make you suitable for several domains. Most IT organizations inevitably are on the lookout for good C programmers. You can even work on open-source projects to contribute to the programming society at large and gain authority in your domain.
You may be curious to know - how much does a C programmer make?
Annual salaries for C programmers in the United States range from $15K to $475K depending upon experience and expertise level. On an average, an entry level C programmer can find a job that pays $90K annually. This is approx. 50% higher than the country's average across all fields. If you are in the silicon valley, with a decent expertise level you can expect to get as high as $120-140k. States like TX & NJ too offer decent entry level salaries in the range of 100-120K.
Here are a couple of questions that many ask.
Writing in assembly language is quite tedious. You ought to be a well experienced assembly level coder to be able to write efficient programs in assembly language. Also, there is much more lines of code to be written as each and every instruction set has to be written explicitly - a huge drain on your mind. C makes the job easier. With fewer lines of code (as compared to assembly) you can quickly complete a programming task. And for most use cases you will be comfortable writing in C, except for some very specific cases where writing assembly code may be desirable. The modern C compilers are capable of converting a C program into an executable file with fewer machine level instructions. Hence, a C executable file will run as efficiently as an assembly program.
Another drawback of directly writing in assembly is that different architectures require different instruction sets. So, with assembly you will have to re-write and maintain multiple variants of the code for different computer and processor architectures. This requires lot of effort, is time-consuming and hence expensive. With C, due to its portability, you simply write one program and compile it with compilers on different architectures to generate architecture specific executables.
There are many real world applications where performance is desirable especially where complex computation is being carried over large data sets. While you can always build such applications in other programming languages, to run them without degrading performance will require deploying more cpu and memory resources and hence increase your operating cost. Also, there are applications that must run fast and there is no scope to comprise speed of execution.
Let us look at an example of a self-driven car where response time for operations such as braking cannot be compromised. If the underlying program is resource intensive, it will require a more powerful on-board computer, which in turn will consume more power and hence drain the battery faster.
Further, C leaves a lot of scope for future tweaking of existing programs to improve efficiency. This is possible as C allows for low-level coding and direct control of computer memory.
This is the reason why C is preferred in many use cases as already talked about earlier in this article. We have already seen earlier in this article how and where C is used. So why not C?
During my interaction with budding programmers, I have observed that most of them focus only on learning one or two higher level languages. They have little understanding of what is happening at the operating system and machine level when their codes run. If your objective is to just become a website developer and build basic websites which mostly have content and a few simple forms, you can perhaps get away without learning the fundamentals. However, if you truly intend to become an expert full-stack software developer, or pursue a career in areas such as - data science, machine learning or AI; you have no choice but to spend considerable time learning the fundamentals that I have discussed in this article.
Trust me, you must learn C first before you embark on your mission to become a good high-level application developer. Your strong foundation will come to your rescue every time (wherever you work), as your organization adopts new programming languages to exploit certain specific strengths for specific types of application your organization requires.
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Rajeev Kumar is the primary author of How2Lab. He is a B.Tech. from IIT Kanpur with several years of experience in IT education and Software development. He has taught a wide spectrum of people including fresh young talents, students of premier engineering colleges & management institutes, and IT professionals.
Rajeev has founded Computer Solutions & Web Services Worldwide. He has hands-on experience of building variety of websites and business applications, that include - SaaS based erp & e-commerce systems, and cloud deployed operations management software for health-care, manufacturing and other industries.