Python tops programming love list – but if you want a job, learn SQL

Don't ask us how this is decided, it probably involved a lot of Perl

Once again, Python is at the top of the IEEE's annual survey of popular programming languages – seemingly decided by a grab bag of metrics – while SQL appears to be a crucial skill.

When it comes to popular languages, the survey found Python topped the list, followed by three flavors of C (original, ++ and #), Java, SQL, and JavaScript. Beyond those seven, and popularity drops quickly: R, the next most popular programming language, more than half as popular as its closest rival.

As we noted last year, Python's presence atop the list is atypical, as JavaScript regularly leads lists of popular languages from other sources, such as Stack Overflow, whose 2021 and 2022 Developer Survey reports both have JavaScript in pole position, followed by HTML/CSS, SQL, Python and Typescript. 

In 2021, IEEE Spectrum allowed users to apply their own weightings to the report to see different results, but decided not to include such a feature this year. Spectrum said it made the choice because few people were using it, and that the "giant ball of floating-point math" in browsers messed up the figures.

SQL the unsexy star

Loving a language is all well and good but a programmer needs to put food next to the keyboard, and when it comes to getting a job, SQL climbs to the top of the list, followed by Java, Python, JavaScript, the C's, HTML and TypeScript. That is to say, SQL is a leading desirable skill, at least according to job ads. It's worth noting that the IEEE said it just recently began considering TypeScript separately from JavaScript; TypeScript doesn't appear in the 2021 survey.

According to last year's list, SQL was ranked at number 10: so why the sudden jump to the top of desirable skills?

Having looked through hundreds of job listings in the course of compiling the list, said IEEE special projects editor and report author Stephen Cass, "I can say that the strength of the SQL signal is not because there are a lot of employers looking for just SQL coders … They want a given language plus SQL." 

Cass described modern apps as often consisting of a front and middleware layer talking to a database "often over a network to eliminate local resource constraints." With a variety of SQL implementations available, Cass said, "chances are there's probably already one that fits your use case."

As we noted, Stack Overflow's reports seem to agree, placing SQL in third place behind JavaScript and HTML/CSS, one spot higher than its 4th place ranking in 2021 (behind Python, which it swapped spots with). If you're turning to lists like these to determine where to focus your professional development, the big takeaway might be to polish your SQL skills. ®

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