Phone apps

Your next job: Mobile app developer?

As market demand surges for apps to run on iOS, Android and whatever operating system will power the next wave of smart devices, companies are facing a dearth of mobile development talent. For IT professionals with programming skills, that gap represents a fresh opportunity to embark on a career makeover.

To put the demand in perspective, consider that Apple racked up $1.78 billion in app sales in 2010, and global mobile app sales are forecast to hit $4 billion this year, according to market researcher IHS.

Just who is developing all of those apps? In its recent “America’s Tech Talent Crunch” study, IT job site Dice.com found that job postings for Android developers soared 302 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter of 2010; ads for iPhone-related positions rose 220 percent in the same time frame.

Elance.com, a website for freelancers, reports comparable demand: In the first quarter of 2011, there were 4,500 mobile developer jobs posted on the site—an increase of 101 percent over the number of similar job postings in the same quarter last year.

The total number of job listings on the site expanded at a rate of 52 percent in that same time frame, indicating that mobile development as a career segment may be growing twice as fast as the overall job market, according to Ellen Pack, vice president of marketing at Elance.com.

It’s not just tech companies that are on the prowl for mobile development talent. Today, all kinds of product and service companies are scrambling to come out with apps, just as, a short while ago, they were working to establish a presence on social networking sites.

“It’s become one of the boxes you have to check to be a successful brand,” Pack says. And that reality translates into pent-up demand for app developers. “It’s one of those areas where there is more demand than supply because there aren’t enough great mobile developers out there.”

While there are ample pools of Web and Java development talent, professionals with expertise building native apps for Apple’s iPhone or iPad, or for the BlackBerry or any of the newer Android devices, are in short supply because of the relative newness of those platforms.

Developers and designers who fully understand the constraints and the opportunities afforded by the smaller real estate and touch interfaces of the smart device platform are in high demand.

Market watchers say it’s the ability to grasp mobile’s new usage rules, and not simply the ability to master new programming skills, that separates those with an affinity for mobile development from those who just don’t get it.

“When you’re building Web applications, [you] have the whole desktop. There are things you can get away with from a design point of view that simply don’t translate to a mobile device,” notes Eric Knipp, a Gartner analyst specializing in Web and cloud computing. “It’s not just about making things smaller or splitting things up into separate screens. Developers have been trained to think that more features equates to better applications, but on mobile devices, that’s simply not true.”

Who’s hiring, and how

All signs indicate there is a healthy demand for mobile app developers, but that demand isn’t translating into widespread offers of full-time jobs on corporate IT teams just yet. That’s because many companies with lean IT budgets aren’t ready to commit to hiring highly specialized, and therefore pricey, mobile development talent.

Some organizations are outsourcing mobile app projects to consulting firms and boutique development shops until they have a more pronounced need.

That’s Aspen Skiing’s strategy. To date, the Colorado ski resort has come out with a couple of mobile apps, including a tool that lets managers conduct ad hoc smartphone-based surveys of customers around the resort, and another that gives customers access to an array of resort data, including weather conditions, lift status and daily events.

Since Aspen Skiing doesn’t consider software development a core competency and can’t accommodate a large IT staff, outsourcing mobile development seemed like the most efficient plan—at least in the short run—which is why the company turned to an outside consultancy to develop its mobile apps.

“Mobile is such a rapidly changing environment—so much of it is tied to what content management tool you use or what devices you want to support,” says Paul Major, managing director of IT at Aspen Skiing. “Going outside helps us keep pace.”

Supermedia, which provides marketing and advertising services for small and midsize businesses, also initially thought outsourcing would be more cost-effective than in-house development.

But a couple of years into its mobile initiative, Supermedia realized the discipline was far too central to its business model to continue paying outside consultants to develop apps, according to Michael Dunn, the company’s CIO. A little over a year ago, the firm decided to set up an internal team to build regular updates and to enhance its apps to support the growing number of mobile platforms.

Cognizant of the shortage of skilled development talent, Supermedia took a number of steps to avoid being caught in a crunch.

First, it cross-trained two key internal Java developers to learn the new skills, and then it seeded the rest of its fledgling team with recent college graduates. “The market took off so fast and there was such a huge demand for developers, this let us hire immediately, and it’s far more affordable,” Dunn explains.

The seasoned Java developers came up to speed pretty quickly on specific Android- and iOS-related skills, Dunn says, thanks to their basic sets of core skills.

With the new domain expertise under their belt, the veteran developers were then able to mentor incoming college graduates, allowing Supermedia to leverage its investment in their training. The new hires “have core development skills and some knowledge of mobile app development—maybe not on a commercial scale, but they’ve done it in an academic environment as a project,” Dunn explains.

Currently, Supermedia has 10 mobile app specialists within its 150-person developer group, which is part of an enterprise IT staff of nearly 300 people.

Retooling your skill set

Whether you’re a recent college grad or a midcareer professional, you may have what it takes to be a good mobile app developer if you possess certain specific qualities, according to Dunn and other industry watchers.

The need for strong Java, HTML and general technical skills goes without saying. Developers who are steeped in the tenets of modern object-oriented programming and understand user interface and design patterns will have a leg up.

Expertise in the specific APIs and user interface toolkits of major mobile platforms like Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS is a plus—though a lack of such experience wouldn’t necessarily mean you have no chance of becoming a successful mobile app developer, experts say. A skilled programmer should be able to move between languages fairly easily, since mobile development essentially just involves learning a new syntax.

A potentially more difficult transition is coming to terms with the new design paradigm that mobile platforms represent: In addition to recognizing that you’ll be designing apps for the smaller real estate of smartphone screens, you have to understand how users interact with their devices and grasp the need to deliver highly targeted functionality.

“The way people interact with a laptop or a desktop is different than the way they interact with a smart device,” says Hap Aziz, director of the Rasmussen College School of Technology and Design, which was among the first universities to launch a curriculum with a specific focus on mobile application design and programming. (See Higher Ed Adds Mobile App Dev to the Mix for details.)

“People using a smart device don’t think of themselves as ‘computer users,’ therefore you can’t use the same conventions you’d use in developing desktop software. Drop-down menus and elaborate help screens just don’t work on a smart device—it’s more like working an ATM machine at the bank.”

Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the transition—just someone with the commitment to do what it takes to learn new technologies and to master the new conventions.

Going back to school is one option, and in addition to full-time programs like the one Rasmussen offers, there are countless undergraduate, continuing ed and certificate courses on hot subjects such as HTML 5, object-oriented programming, Java and iOS and Android programming.

Learning by doing is the next best approach, and one likely favored by the bulk of existing IT professionals, according to Nick Dalton, owner of 360mind, an application development consultancy specializing in mobile apps.

Would-be mobile app developers need to immerse themselves in the platform—and that means swearing off the PC for a while, he explains.

They need to make a full commitment to doing as much as possible in the mobile environment to experience firsthand both the constraints and the new opportunities.

“On a smaller device that doesn’t have much memory and has a weaker processor, you have to be more conscious of how you’re programming,” says Dalton. “Those things can’t come from theory, they can only come from experience.”

Dalton, a 25-year veteran in the IT profession, spent much of his career as an enterprise Java architect designing back-end systems and customer-facing applications at companies like Nissan and Toyota.

When the iPhone was first released, Dalton published an e-book called 101 iPhone Tips and Tricks and took a self-directed crash course—using the SDK, e-books and other online resources—to master the iOS SDK once it was released.

That early training and exposure established him as a go-to resource once the Apple App Store was announced and the market for mobile app developers took off, enabling him to leave corporate IT and start 360mind.

Today, 360mind employs nearly 20 mobile app developers and has moved away from building simple novelty apps to working on corporate initiatives that link both Apple iOS and Android apps to back-end enterprise systems. (For example, 360mind was the development muscle behind fast-food chain Chipotle’s ordering app, which lets customers order and pay for meals on their phones.)

With no end in sight for the opportunities in mobile development, Dalton says this latest “gold rush” sends a clear message to fellow developers, system architects and Web designers: “In today’s global, outsourcing economy, you don’t want to be stuck with outdated skills,” he says.

And there’s an added bonus to mobile app work as well. “If you’re coming from a multimillion-dollar enterprise server project where every decision takes forever, working on these small, self-contained projects around [mobile devices] is a lot of fun.”

Higher Ed adds mobile app development to the mix

Against a backdrop of surging demand for mobile apps, Rasmussen College is one of the first higher ed institutes to launch a specialized curriculum in mobile app design and programming.

Where a traditional computer science curriculum is more theoretical in nature, the Rasmussen program is focused heavily on software engineering skills related to mobile development, explains Hap Aziz, director of the Rasmussen College School of Technology and Design.

The college offers a two-year associate’s degree in software application development and a revamped four-year bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Students first learn modern object-oriented programming languages such as Java and C++ and then dive into specific mobile development environments like Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

The first classes of the new programs began this spring.

[Beth Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.]

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