2007 is just around the corner its time to look at increasing your skills and budgeting for courses to undertake next year. In the first of a two-part series, Angus Kidman investigates some key technologies and soft skills employees and the market are searching for.

At first glance, the numbers suggest the employment outlook for software developers is pretty healthy. According to the Australian Computer Society’s 2006 employment survey, unemployment amongst its members was just 5.1%, a drop of 7.3% since 2003. And a survey by the American Electronics Association which suggests that software services are the fastest growing sector for IT employment should be good news for aspiring developers.

However, many employers remain unhappy with the candidates currently on offer. “The biggest issue that we see generally speaking is that the overall skill level of the developers is not where it needs to be,” said Jeff Pope, Asia Pacific vice president for Agitar Software. “We go into different organisations and one of the biggest issues is the skill level of the people they’ve got on board. There’s more and more software that needs to be built; they’re under pressure to be more competitive, so they’ve got to get those products out faster. A lot of companies are pretty frustrated at how they’re going to solve that problem.”

Such trends aren’t always reflected in statistics. “There’s no shortage in terms of the number of people in the market, it’s the number of highly-skilled people,” said Magnus Cameron, chief technical officer for Hyro. “Government statistics are always very misleading in that respect.

Many employers remain highly fussy. “We employ 1% of the people who actually apply with us,” said Cameron. A common complaint is sloppy resume writing. “Most of the resumes we receive are very poor quality,” said Cameron. A lot of it has to do with attention to detail and accuracy — if there are spelling mistakes, they won’t be good at cutting code either.”

What software development jobs pay in Australia
Junior Tester $40,000-$50,000
Programmer $45,000-$65,000
Development Team Leader $75,000-$120,000
Architect $95,000-$125,000
Development Manager $105,000-$140,000

Source: Hays Salary Survey

That complaint is echoed throughout the industry. “There’s a bit of a lack of credibility in what resumes are reporting and what’s actually coming through,” said Mike Smith, managing director for Simbient. “Generally, people are over-claiming on their resumes.”
Those with enough skills to build a credible resume have often moved away from ‘conventional’ IT work. “A lot of the skilled people have migrated away from traditional IT projects and into specialised heavy engineering areas like mobile equipment and medical,” said Agitar’s Pope. “Those people have got all the experienced engineers. You’ll find it hard to get better development people. They’ve got a manufacturing approach to the way they build software. The software industry hasn’t crossed that chasm yet. In the commercial software development space, that part of the industry hasn’t worked out that you need to produce software a different way, building quality in rather than testing the bugs out after deployment.”

Yet that doesn’t mean you should abandon hope. “At the end of the day it comes down to talent and ambition,” said Anoosh Manzoori, managing director for online services provider and developer SmartyHost. “Those that live and breathe code are the ones that really excel, and they will always be in demand.”

What skills do you need?

Asked to pinpoint key technical skills for 2007, most employers fall back to the basics. “We primarily look for core skills in C# and Java — that’s 90% of the work we do,” Cameron said. “Anything else that people have on top of that is usually a bonus.”
“Java is still a growing market right across the region,” Pope said. “As much as it’s been around for a long time, there’s still the demand for skills.

Jeff Pope, Agitar

Open source technologies are becoming more popular. “There will be an increase in the number of companies using MySQL, PHP, and Linux as it gives them control over the development cycle and total costs, and reduces some of the sunk costs,” Manzoori said. “Developers with skills and passion in these areas should consequently be in demand.”

Modish buzzwords such as Web 2.0 and related technologies will also be appearing in many job advertisements. “A lot of people are very interested in Ajax,” said Laurie Wong, software project manager for Sun ANZ. “There’s also a lot of interest going in Adobe’s Flex environment. It’s about delivering a rich client experience through a browser. The interest is there because basically you can deliver a lot more compelling applications very quickly. But the transactional piece is still important.”

“Companies that do business primarily on the internet will be forced by competitive pressures to implement Web 2.0 technologies,” said Chris Hewitt, senior consultant for Readify. “Companies will move to Web 2.0 because in many respects this is a fashion-driven industry and that is the fashion for next year.”

That may not result in thousands of jobs, however, especially outside tech companies. “Web 2.0 hasn’t hit the mainstream business community in Australia yet,” Manzoori said. “At the moment, IT companies seem to be the most willing to invest in Web 2.0 skills.”
Other technology areas may emerge. “I think that collaborative information worker technologies that help to tie companies together and improve their ability to react to business imperatives will also be important in 2007, and I am always hopeful that business intelligence will finally take off,” said Readify’s Hewitt. “I think that over the next 5 years we will see a move to distributed functional languages (such as F#) and declarative UIs (such as XAML) which can make use of massively parallel processor resources. I often ask developers ‘how will you make use of 64 CPUs?'”

Most market watchers advise against specialising too much in just one area. “I still have a belief that you should have at least two or three domains of expertise in terms of languages and approaches,” Sun’s Wong said. “You might be more skilled in a particular environment, but you need to maintain currency in others. You have to hedge your risks. You can’t be in a position where a change in technology in a different part of the world impacts on your career.”

Magnus Cameron, Hyro

“The acronyms that are in demand are always changing,” Cameron agreed. “People need to skill up on skilling up. They need to be able to demonstrate that they can learn new technologies quickly.”
Whatever they are, how those skills are presented is just as important as your raw abilities. “A lot of it is very skills-focused — I’ve got this course, I know this product — but there’s no point telling me you know how to use Office, I’m assuming you can do that,” said Paul Beesley, EVP for R&D at Australian software developer Mincom. “What I’m after is what value you can add to the role.”

The soft skills challenge

Much of that value may fall outside the pure technology area. “The landscape of IT is changing, and it’s less about being a techno-boffin these days,” Simbient’s Smith said. ” There’s a much closer engagement between developers and business. Communications and empathy and comprehension of business concepts are all important, but a lot of people still think they have to be really verticalised in their skill sets, with a technology focus.”

Some market watchers argue that the traditional view of programmers as poor and introverted communicators is misguided. “Programming is very much a communications skill in some ways,” Cameron said. “It’s the skill of being able to craft and construct a simple piece of code to solve a complicated problem. Good programmers are also able to explain things well to other people.”
Can shy programmers become outgoing? “It’s an environmental thing,” Cameron said. “It’s about the people you’re surrounded with every day. If you’ve got a good management team that encourages people to communicate, people can be trained to become good presenters. They’ve got to want to do it though.”

Other soft skills also only come with practice. “What senior people would like is not just developers with good skills but developers with good experience on substantial projects,” Pope said. “They need to understand project deadlines and milestones.”
Having extra skills is especially critical as basic software development jobs increasingly shift offshore. “If you’re just a straight Java software developer, you’re now competing with the global marketplace and you’ve become a global commodity,” Beesley said. “If you want to get out of that, you’ve got to add some value.”

If there’s a dominant message for developers, it’s that general quality will always trump this year’s currently fashionable technology skill. Basics are important, although having additional skills to distinguish yourself from the pack can be useful.
“There are some times when we find people very easily,” Beesley said. “You look for a Java resource and you’ve got candidates. Where we’ve tended to struggle a little bit is with more specific skills.”

Overall, however, demand remains high. “I’ve been hiring people since the mid-90s, and it doesn’t change over time: it’s always hard to hire good people,” Cameron said. “Skilled people are always in demand, and they’re always hard to get. There’s just a bit more chaff that gets in the way at the moment.”

Stay tuned for our next article in the series where we look at what certifications and training will be hot in 2007.