Learning the right skills to keep on top of the game in software development is a thorny topic. We examine the skills, both technical and soft, employers are seeking in 2005 and beyond.

There comes a moment in almost every job when you realise that staying in your current role may not deliver the mortgage payments you need for much longer, and certainly isn’t going to provide the stimulation you want

Software developers probably know this feeling better than most, as the relentless march of technology can turn a valuable and lucrative skill into a career and financial cul-de-sac within months.

Once you realise your current skills are taking you nowhere, how can you improve you skills? And what skills, experience, and qualifications will make you marketable in 2005 and beyond?
Builder Magazine spoke with recruiters, employers and trainers and all agreed that .NET, Java or J2EE are the most in-demand technical skills. Experience with XML is highly rated, Web development skills are in constant demand as is experience working with databases. The ability to use Flash as a front-end for enterprise applications is also an emerging area.

All agreed that employers rate self-study very highly, as it demonstrates that candidates are willing to make an investment in their own careers. That investment is wisest, however, when it results in university qualifications or certifications. This kind of result is generally believed to represent a more rounded form of education than a boot camp that by virtue of its brevity offers education on specific technologies or skills in isolation.

Nothing, however, impresses a prospective employer more than hands-on experience.
-Certifications are important and well-regarded,” says Roger Brant, Team Manager for IT recruitment specialist Candle. -But you can have all the certifications you want but with no experience you’re going to struggle,” a chicken-and egg-dilemma that has bedeviled many developers over the years.
Brant believes developers can avoid this problem if they are willing to relinquish their present role for a less senior position working with the new technology in which they wish to acquire skills.

-You can take one step backwards in salary to go two steps forward in your career,” he suggests, as some employers will see your willingness to make a temporary career sacrifice as a sign that you are sincere in your desire to learn new skills. Demonstrating that commitment, he believes, makes it more likely that an employer will pay for the training that leads to a certification, while the fact that they do so while you are gaining hands-on experience with the new skill enhances future prospects.

A similar option is to seek out projects that require your existing skills but also bring you into contact with the newer technologies you aspire to work with in the future, according to Jane Bianchini, Director of recruitment company Ambition’s technology division. -If you can find work on a project to convert a legacy system to client/server, you will be valued for your legacy skills. In exchange for that, you’ll learn newer skills.” Enterprise Application Integration projects also offer this kind of opportunity, and are best leveraged by asking for training in the newer technology, which can be justified in order to ensure swift integration at the required quality.

If you can’t find a project that offers that opportunity, then becoming part of the wider coding community offers another route to improve skills that can be rewarded with a new job, says Amanda Keleher, the Human Resources Manager of development consultancy Thoughtworks.

-Something that really impresses me is people who start attending user groups, because it shows that they are willing to make a time commitment, mingle, and network so that if opportunities come up they know about them,” she says.

Keleher also rates contributions to open source projects highly. -You can prove competency and derive experience from an open source project,” she says. -It shows you are being really proactive about your skills.”

Karl Kopp, Director of Technology for Web design and consultancy company WDG is another who likes to see developers stay abreast of current trends in their own time. -Most of WDG’s developers code outside of work, in addition to their daytime work, to extend their knowledge of new technologies,” he says.

Skills in demand by State
ICT Specialisation
Lotus Notes Development
.NET technologies
Data Warehousing
Network Security
Risk Management
Geographical Information Systems
Firewall/Internet Security
Java Security
= Shortage
= Recruitment Difficulties

Another useful upskilling strategy is to seek out vendors that operate training and recruitment programs, such as post-relational database vendor InterSystems. Recognising that a readily available pool of skilled staff make its database more attractive to end-users, InterSystems works with a recruitment company to identify candidates that match its customers’ needs. These candidates are offered training on its products at a reduced price, providing the recruitment company with a steady flow of people it feels it can place and InterSystems’ customers with the skilled workforce they need to put its software to work.

Dennis Tebbut, the company’s Australian Managing Director and Chair of the Australian Computing Society Foundation’s NSW Chapter, says the program has successfully assisted several developers to upskill.

-We have found it has revitalised people and their businesses,” he says.
InterSystems’ willingness to work with people making a career change is shared by other employers, who recognise the achievement that certification or degrees represent but don’t rule out candidates whose background is less conventional.

-I would not be so elitist as to exclude people who have not been to university or do not have a compuer science degree,” says Peter Menadue, Dimension Data’s National Business Manager for Application Integration. -We would not necessarily exclude someone who started writing some code while they were in an unrelated occupation and went through a career sea change. But there has to be some structure and discipline involved, because programming is not just a skill, and it’s funny how people with a more formal background can often have a deeper understanding of all the considerations required to create a really good solution.”

For Menadue, quality also means an understanding of business issues, which he labels -commercial maturity.”

-Development today is not just about writing code by yourself at three in the morning while eating cold pizza,” he says. -It is about understanding how to develop and test to make software that is easy to maintain,” so that it meets a business’ needs for many years into the future.

Ambition’s Bianchini says this kind of long-term view demonstrates a profound change in the job market for developers that has made business skills as important to a developer’s career prospects as the ability to quickly cut clean code. -Soft” skills are also increasingly important, as few employers will tolerate surly coders who rely on technical skills alone.

-We see a very strong trend of employers looking for competencies like customer service over and above technical skills,” she says. -Because technology is now blended into the business, you also need to be a very good team player with influencing skills and a good customer service ethic.”
Universities increasingly include training for these skills as part of their courses, while private educators even offer standalone courses to complement their technology offerings.

-We often see very highly qualified people, even people with tertiary qualifications, come to us for soft skills training,” says Campbell Johnston, general manager of Computer Power Institute of Technology.
-The days are gone of being a purely technical person,” he adds. -What differentiates an effective software developer is that they are someone who can work within the formal discipline of software development, but not follow it so blindly that they create software that doesn’t meet a business’ needs.”

And to deliver on that need, candidates need to be flexible, a trait Dimension Data’s Menadue rates above all others.

-Sometimes you’ll meet someone that might not even be familiar with formal coding practices or methodologies,” he says. -But they clearly have an ability to grow and learn and stretch into other areas. Those sort of people are worth their weight in gold.”