What is the Best Programming Language for Your Backend Developer Career?

While it’s a job seekers’ market, competition can be fierce for top developer positions, so you need to make sure your toolbox is fully loaded.

What a backend developer does — essentially, make sure web servers, databases and applications work together in harmony — may be invisible to end users.

But the behind-the-scenes functionality they develop is essential to processing user actions taken on the frontend.

According to Robert Half Technology’s Salary Guide developers are one of the top in-demand positions of 2016. While it’s a job seekers’ market, competition can be fierce for top developer positions, so you need to make sure your toolbox is fully loaded. One way to do this is to add some new languages to your backend repertoire. Three great options for a backend developer are C, C++ and Java. But which is best for you?

To determine whether you want to learn C, C++ or Java, it’s important to know what sort of backend developer you want to be:

Now, take a closer look at C, C++ and Java to better understand why hiring managers seek backend developer professionals knowledgeable in these languages:

C = lasting popularity

C is one of the oldest programming languages, yet it holds firm in the top 10 list (currently number two) on the TIOBE Index in popularity. C is so widely used in part because it’s cross-platform and compatible with compilers available for most system architectures and operating systems. Many other languages have a similar syntax. However, C — which is a structured language — has a smaller vocabulary than most and allows a backend developer less flexibility in achieving desired functionality. But the fact that it’s structured makes it a good toolbox option, as it’s easier to read and maintain.

C++ = super flexible

A term commonly used to refer to C++ is “multi-paradigm,” meaning you can write code in a way that’s procedural but also use functional, object-oriented, or a mix of programming paradigms. This flexibility means C++ can be more challenging to learn; a software engineer may develop in it using one or more of these styles, or even combine it with code written in other languages. Many programs, such as several Adobe Systems products, Dragon Naturally Speaking and [email protected] are built with it. Additionally, many wired and wireless telecommunications systems work on foundational software made in C++.

Java = corporate and commercial

Java, the youngest of these languages, was being created about the same time the World Wide Web Consortium was forming. Another multi-paradigm programming language, Java was soon incorporated into many major web browsers. It was originally a proprietary system developed by Sun Microsystems, Inc. (bought by Oracle Corp. in 2010). Many enterprises still hire Java backend developers to update or maintain older client/server customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Java is also used in 3D graphics applications and for mobile app development, which is a booming industry. 

Find out why many employers are having a tough time finding skilled Java developers.

Lucrative options

Learning any one of these three programming languages would be a good start to becoming a better backend developer. Java and C++ are versatile codebases with active developer communities and online training. Though less flexible, C is an excellent choice if you want to work with web technologies that run on UNIX or Linux. If your goal is to work in web development, be sure to also get to know the languages that connect the “back end” to the “front end” — PHP, Ruby, Python, Perl, or .NET. (Bonus: Knowing languages like these can also give your salary a boost, according to Robert Half Technology’s Salary Guide.)

Still unsure which language to start with? Search job boards to see which languages are in high demand for backend developer postings in your region.

Check out the Robert Half Technology Salary Guide to see typical job descriptions and starting salaries for developers, as well as average salary increases determined by the programming languages you know.

Download the Salary Guide

More resources:

Note: This post has been updated. It originally appeared on 4/7/15.