Safest Career Choices for Developers (If You Don't Want Your Job To Go Away)
Test and Monitor | Posted January 16, 2011

Mobile development’s the way to move. And developers expending their brain juice on Java and Objective C are going to enjoy steady paychecks for a good, long time.

Jobs-wise, 2011’s going to be the same suck-fest as in 2010. The grisly data: According to a recent study by Computer Economics, 42% of IT outfits are cutting headcount—not much less than the 46% a year ago. Only 28% of IT departments expected to employ more bodies in the coming year—about the same as last year’s 27% level.

Mind you, there are jobs. Job postings on Dice are up 39% from a year ago. But before you get vaguely optimistic, bear in mind that whatever IT jobs do get added in the U.S. are vulnerable to being slurped up by the voracious vampire squid of offshoring and the lamentable effectiveness of productivity improvements. The latest research from The Hackett Group found that 1.1 million jobs in corporate finance, IT, and other business functions were lost in 2008 and 2009 due to those factors (plus slow economic growth, of course), while another 1.3 million more jobs are expected to vaporize by 2014.

Jobs disappear, and technologies morph. Last millennium’s creaky mainframe developer skills became this millennium’s fading Windows 2000 developer skills. Maybe the hard-won expertise in those areas is not exactly deader than doornails, but the skills have acquired a musty aroma.

What’s a developer to do? What skills are going to last awhile? Upon what areas of expertise is it (sort of) safe to expend brain juice? To find out, we asked a technical recruiter, an online tech job board, and a tech learning center.

The Dead and Dying

No shocker here: Tom Silver, Senior Vice President of North America for, said the job board is seeing an ever-dwindling number of job postings calling for mainframe developer skills. There was a flare-up for Y2K remediation 10+ years ago, but that’s long kaput.

Since then, other programming languages have enjoyed their heyday and are seeing demand decrease, including ColdFusion, Silver said. Ditto for older operating systems from Microsoft: Windows Vista, Windows 2000, and Windows NT.

It’s not that there isn’t a boatload of Windows 2000 still in use. Dice is still seeing plenty of shops using it. As a result plenty of shops have jobs for developers who can supply a fix until the employers, as late upgraders, wean themselves off the outdated OS.

But demand is trickling away, Silver said. Those systems are being replaced. If Silver were in your shoes, looking-toward-the-future-wise, he “wouldn’t want a lot of experience in Windows 2000 hanging around,” Silver said.

The Clunky Skills House of Horror

It’s not like developers aren’t on the ball, and aren’t taking it upon themselves to learn new platforms. But there’s always the fear of getting stuck in a situation where you’re working for a company that’s put off an infrastructure upgrade for a long time. Working on Windows 2000 is all well and good, until the company decides it wants to do something different or you, as a tech worker, get bored silly and want to do something else. “If you haven’t upgraded your skills, it will be harder for you,” Silver said.

If he were at a Windows 2000 shop, Silver said, he’d make sure to enroll in classes and work on certifications to try to keep his skills from collecting dust, he said. “You’re in a better position to do it while working than not,” he said.

He also suggested getting more involved in other, tech-related types of projects that incorporate some coding expertise but don’t rely on it completely. Project management, for example, is a great way to grow in the organization. It will make you ever more precious because it plunges you into the use of technology as it relates to tighter integration with business strategy and management. It will get your head out of the plain old technology management you can do in your sleep.

“To cross-train yourself makes you that much more valuable to the organization, not just in technology but in business strategy,” he said. “It’s awareness more than anything else. It’s awareness of skill development with respect to career aspirations that developers need to pay attention to.”

And okay, while project management isn’t a developer skill per se, it both makes you far more relevant to your current job and also makes you scrumptiously employable. Dice has seen these job listings shoot up 57% compared with a year ago and had over 13,000 such jobs listed as of mid-December.

Developer Skills with Staying Power

Here’s what else is still hot and what should stay hot for awhile, according to everybody we talked to:

    • Java/J2EE/Java EE

    • Network security

    • Cloud computing

    • iPhone/iPad

    • Android

    • SharePoint

    • Project management

    • Database management (particularly Oracle)

For the past 10 years or so, the hot skill’s been Java or J2EE, according to Elliott Martimbeau, Recruiting Manager for the Charlotte, N.C., office of tech recruiter Sapphire Technologies. “If you had skills in those technologies, you were cutting-edge—a very hot candidate,” he said. “Companies were really ready for you and would jump all over [Java pros].”

Java’s still going strong and will be for the foreseeable future, he said. J2EE, after all, is the umbrella for a host of technologies, including languages, front-end, middle-tier and back-end technologies. Businesses are still busy using J2EE front ends to develop things like e-commerce Web sites, for example. And plenty of big clients, like banking or financial outfits are still setting up applications like car loan packages to sell online, written in Java.

Java-wise, the trouble for U.S. businesses is this: While plenty of foreign nationals come in to the country with a high level of Java technology skill, “not nearly as many” U.S. citizens have those skills, Martimbeau said. “It’s very difficult to find a national citizen with J2EE skills,” he said. “A lot of companies don’t allow use of foreign nationals, so it’s tough to get a person placed in an open job. I’d love to see more and more students in college studying IT and high-level development languages.”

But kids nowadays are probably going to be more involved in Objective C, “Which is pretty smart,” he said, given that Objective C underlies the mobility technologies that have employers drooling.

As for the developer skills that companies are shaking out of the curricula at educational venues like Learning Tree, SharePoint is huge, and it’s going to be here awhile, according to Don Berbary, president and general manager for U.S. operations at Learning Tree International. SharePoint’s predicted longevity has to do with it being yet another umbrella, he said, spanning many developer disciplines, whether it’s .NET or ASP.NET Visual Designer. Sapphire’s Martimbeau agreed that .NET is competing for developers’ attention, Martimbeau said, with employers getting hungrier for such Microsoft platform skills.

As for the rest of the hot skills, note the glue—i.e., mobile capability—that binds a bunch of them.

“The latest and greatest thing right now is mobile application technology for iPhone or iPad or iTouch or your ‛droid,” Martimbeau said. For the most part, those mobile technologies are written in Objective C, which is “relatively new” in the private sector, he said. “That’s probably the future for software development,” he said.

The listings on job boards backs him up: Android development skills are red-hot on Dice. Mention of Google’s mobile operating system barely existed on the board a year ago, with a measly 100 jobs. That’s gone to 700 in one year. “If I had to bet, I’d bet it goes up a significant percentage year over year,” Dice’s Silver said.

Ditto for iPhones as they grow ever more mainstream: Jobs calling for iPhone development skills have grown from nothing to 500 on Dice over the past year, and it’s going to keep growing, Silver said.

Learning Tree’s Berbary agreed on the mobile front, noting that iPad and iPhone development is an area that client companies are clamoring to train their IT staff on as they look to develop mobile applications.

Cloud computing skills are also selling. Dice has about 1,300 jobs listed—up from 300 a year ago.  Companies are looking for skills to help them take advantage of hardware virtualization, Silver said, as well as to throw some data into the cloud.

Think Infrastructure, Think Security

Then, of course, there’s always network security. It’s big, in demand, Silver said, and “it will never go away.”

In fact, security infrastructure projects are looking to be the first shelved projects to get dusted off and put back into play. “Companies are realizing their infrastructures might be more vulnerable than in the past,” Silver said, particularly given the DDoS mischief unleashed on MasterCard and its supposedly cyber-secure corporate ilk in the recent WikiLeaks battle.

“Companies realize they have to get after the information and data security projects they’ve been slow to get to,” Silver said. “What we hear from customers is that 2011 looks to be a better year. More companies are feeling more confident about the outlook for 2011. Projects that have been put on hold—namely, infrastructure projects—have to be done at this point. As a result, we’re seeing demand for tech workers who can do those.”

That’s borne out by The Hackett Group’s research, which found that 47% of surveyed IT executives planned to make improved disaster recovery capabilities a higher priority this year, while 45% said that increasing IT security would be a higher priority.

To sum up your stay-employed plan of attack for 2011, tackle one or all of these ploys: A. If you don’t already know how to write for whatever gadget is buzzing in your pocket, start learning. B. If you can’t write for the Java app that pops up when you pull out that buzzing gadget, start learning. C. If your idea of secure code has something to do with Post-It notes, start learning security. D. Rest in peace, Windows 2000, Windows NT and Windows NT. Long live your Microsoft skills in the form of SharePoint.

While we’re in the holiday spirit: Long live your job in the new year and the years beyond if you opt to acquire any of the aforementioned hot skills.


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