CXO

Developer skills outlook 2007: What training do you need?

Angus Kidman examines whether you need a university degree to find a job as a developer and which, if any, certifications you'll need to remain a desirable candidate.

In the first half of our training and skills special, Angus Kidman investigated some key technologies and soft skills employees are searching for.

Now in the second part, he examines whether you need a university degree to find a job as a developer, and which (if any) certifications you'll need to remain a desirable candidate.

There's a common viewpoint that computer science degrees are a waste of time, teaching far too much esoteric theory and not enough practical work skills. "We are wasting a lot of resources that could be better spent making our young people more internationally competitive," said Chris Hewitt, senior consultant at local developer Readify. "Perhaps a computer science degree should be one year -- teach them the basics and get them out in the real world where they can learn on the job."

"Levels of education can sometimes be misleading for an employer," agreed Anoosh Manzoori, managing director for SmartyHost. There are a lot of so-called 'developers' out there with university degrees -- this doesn't necessarily mean they have the right skill set for software development."
Not all employers take that view. "The university graduates that we have are of very good quality," said Paul Beesley, EVP of R&D at Mincom.

However, Beesley does agree that too much specialisation and a focus on pure technology may be risky. "We often look for business and commerce people who are doing that with an IT flavour to the degree. We're after people with some good communication skills as well. The product development lifecycle has become far more inclusive of end users and customers, so you need people with a good public presence, good communication skills and who can control how they interact with the end users."

"People with business backgrounds who move to IT do better," agreed Mike Smith, managing director for Simbient. "To some degree, raw technical capability counts for something, but if a candidate came through who had a mixture of technology and business in a degree, that would go a long way."

The numbers back them up. Options remains strong for people with a general degree followed by an IT specialisation. According to Graduate Careers Australia, 91 per cent of those who have done a postgraduate IT certificate find employment within four months of graduating. The super-specialised are less lucky; for those with masters degrees, the figure is just 77.7 per cent.

The best-regarded degrees are those which focus on fundamental skills, rather than specific technologies. "Degrees from institutions that maintain adequate standards are relevant because they demonstrate an ability to learn," said Readify's Hewitt. "Computer science degrees are useful where they teach the basics of logic and programming. Technologies in this industry change constantly and the rate of change is constantly accelerating; in many cases the technology components of computer science degrees are either not relevant now or will not be relevant by the time the students graduate."

"There are some degree courses that are refreshingly up-to-date technologically, however students and employers should realise that in terms of technology developers will need regular retraining over the course of their working lives if their skills are to remain relevant."

Technological variety is also in demand from some employers. "Currently a lot of university education and graduates are focused on the Windows platform," Manzoori said. "Diversification at an academic level is something that needs to be worked on."

The certification debate

One commonly used tactic to update basic skills and expand developer technology range is certification. However, whether it is of much practical value remains a subject of fierce debate.

"Certification is certainly of interest to us, because it tells you something about the person," Beesley said. " It tells you they're willing to invest their own dime in improving their knowledge. It shows they're self-educating and they've got a good work ethic. The certification itself I'm not so concerned about."


Mike Smith, Simbient

"There's a lot of debates about certification of engineers; I'm not sure how you make it work," said Jeff Pope, Asia Pacific vice president for Agitar Software. "The whole training side of things is very important, and you need a disciplined approach, but with certification you just stick a badge on people."

"I've fluctuated on certifications," concurred Smith. "To date, the primary certifications we've been interested in are the Microsoft ones, because that's our space, but there's been a lot of internal debate as to the relevance of it."

"It depends on industry and specialisation," Manzoori said. "Certification does not automatically solve problems for an organisation, people do. Certification helps keep staff up-to-date but having an environment where they can flex their programming muscles will generate more value from that education."

Of course, that's of little help to developers who face job ads listing certification as a basic requirement. "No amount of certification is going to replace experience, but it's a small subset of people who are experienced," said Tim Hussey, APAC senior manager for partner programs at Adobe. "Developer certification training is still going to be a huge area of focus."

The relative importance of certification often varies with the project. "A lot of it depends on the organisation," said Laurie Wong, software project manager for Sun ANZ. "If an organisation is adopting a new technology and building it from their architectural blueprint, their appetite will be for trained and certified developers but with not too much experience. If you've got a mature architecture and established processes and pre-built frameworks for common services, you'll be looking for more experienced developers."

While mass-market certification may have its critics, it's generally agreed that certification is better than the common scenario of companies with no will to train staff at all. "I don't think customers we talk to have enough time to train their people," Pope said. "When we go into client sites we see anxiety written across all the people we're talking to. I think we also see it in the project management space. Our clients we're talking to are looking for people with real live hardcore experience with bringing projects in. You go into some of the banks and they're really crying out for skilled people."

Australian IT workers appear to have recognised the importance of re-certifying, and not purely in technology areas. According to the 2006 Australian Computer Society employment survey, 62% of its members have undertaken IT-related training, 43% have undergone personal development training and 39% have done further studies in business-related areas.

The nature of certification training has changed dramatically. "Private technology training is more intensive, more focused on short and medium term business requirements and tends to be more up-to-date," Hewitt said. It is best used for point updates of technology skills especially where businesses are starting on specific new projects and technologies."


Laurie Wong, Sun

Employer support is also important. "What we try to encourage is an environment where people are learning new things," said Marcus Cameron, chief technology officer for Hyro. "It's important that our staff are in an environment where they can retain and gain skills." One popular choice is new interface skills such as Web 2.0. In part, that may because of their relative simplicity for experienced programmers. "If you're a C++ programmer or you have Java skills, I don't think it's going to be a huge learning curve to step into these new technologies," Hussey said.

Do-it-yourself?

On the other side of the coin, most developers have worked with colleagues who have no formal qualifications. Can self-taught developers progress in the industry? "Very much so," says Manzoori. "Just look at the open source community, which is experiencing huge growth at the moment."

"Several of our senior consultants are self-taught," agreed Hewitt. "Some of these people are internationally recognised experts in their fields. Aside from raw intelligence, the most important attribute required to stay ahead of the technology wave is the ability to constantly learn, and self-taught developers obviously have this skill."

"Certainly, having certification and having a formal qualification helps you with the analytical framework and have a methodical approach," said Wong. "It doesn't mean that somebody who's self-qualified can't pick up those skills."

Ultimately, the most sought-after skill is the ability to absorb new information quickly.

"The learning process never stops," Cameron said. "You have to keep learning in this business. If you think a university qualification is all you need, you're not going to be developing for very long, because the skills that you've got will be out of date very quickly. Your peers and competition are going to outstrip you."

"We really encourage our people to experiment with technology. One of the reasons is that it places us better to provide authoritative solutions to our customers. From the technologist's point of view, they love to learn new stuff. "

Enthusiasm is still critical. "My developers often say they see code in their dreams when they sleep at night," Manzoori said. "That's when I know I've found the right person for the role."

Knowing how to find new information -- at a more sophisticated level than a basic Google search -- may be your best weapon in the fight for a better job. As Smith puts it: "A good developer knows how to find stuff out quickly."

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