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   February 2013     


career focus
Software Engineering Careers Continue to Boom

By John R. Platt

Oh, what a difference two years makes. When Today's Engineer last looked at software engineering careers in March 2011, the industry was as hot as hot could be. Twenty-three months later, software engineering is even hotter, with more demand for talented professionals than ever, but nowhere close to enough people to fill all of the open positions.

"If 30 qualified people walked through our door today, I would hire them in a heartbeat," says Tom Kulzer, founder and CEO of AWeber Communications, who feels that one reason for the shortage of candidates is the lack of students studying the topic. "For every one engineer that schools train and educate there are probably three positions to fill in the real world."

Demand is so high right now that some employers aren't even waiting for students to graduate, says Ed Hill, a professor in the College of Engineering and Information Science at DeVry University. "I was at a developers' conference last year and I was approached by eight or nine recruiters trying to hire people. You practically had to bat them away, like mosquitoes."

Limits on work visas for international employees have also kept the supply of workers low, says Andrew Schrage, co-founder of the Money Crashers finance and careers website. Meanwhile, the growth of technology and online services drives demand at every step, according to Gayle Laakmann McDowell, author of the book "Cracking the Coding Interview" and founder of the interview-prep site CareerCup.com. "Non-tech companies are increasingly needing software engineers, startups are becoming hotter and hotter and the big tech companies are all growing. It's creating more and more demand for software engineers and the supply, unfortunately, hasn't really been increasing much in the U.S.".

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 30 percent growth rate for software engineering jobs through 2020, which is much higher than the average growth rate for all other occupations (14 percent). With new enrollments in U.S. undergraduate programs in software and other related engineering fields remaining fairly level, and Masters and Ph.D. enrollments increasing just slightly, U.S. engineering schools will struggle to keep pace with demand.

No matter what industry people end up working in, "there has never been a more exciting time to be in the software industry," says Lorinda Brandon, director of solutions strategy at SmartBear Software. "Everything in our homes, cars, offices, and public areas is powered by software. We carry it in our briefcases, our purses, our pockets. And with demand for software comes demand for software professionals."

Less Language, More Communication

So, what skills are in demand for today's software engineers? Almost every person interviewed for this article cited a few skill sets, programs or programming languages that were in demand — Agile, HTML5 and Ruby on Rails are particularly hot — but no two lists were the same. There's a reason for that.

"Programming languages have a short lifespan," says McDowell, who feels that in the long run "languages don't matter that much." She suggests that software engineers not brand themselves, for example, as Java or .NET programmers. Instead, she recommends engineers demonstrate that they are ambitious, ready to learn new things, and able to solve problems.

The qualities are reflected in the programming tests that many tech companies ask their applicants to complete ahead of (or instead of) job interviews. "Anyone can write code," says JD Dietrich, applied teams strategist at The Nerdery, which is running a campaign to hire 100 nerds in 100 days. "We're looking for critical thinkers, people who can actually understand a real-world business problem and be able to translate that problem to software." The Nerdery asks applicants to take what they call a code challenge: a two-page specification that requires them to write a fully functioning app that interfaces with an external API. "It's a good way for us to measure their problem-solving capabilities and whether they're a critical and analytical thinker."

Just as important as the ability to solve problem is the ability to communicate. "Software is fundamentally a communication problem, not a technical challenge," says Mark A. Herschberg, "freelance CTO" for the Museum of Mathematics, who also teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "In my MIT class, we teach techniques like leadership, team dynamics, negotiations and communication techniques. These non-technical skills — what we call "firm skills" at MIT — are timeless."

Teamwork is also an integral element of software engineering. "You need to be able to talk to other people and collaborate on projects in order to move them forward," Kulzer says. "Good communication skills help teams to identify roadblocks as they happen and then work to remove them."

Above all that, perhaps most important is the ability for a software engineer is the ability to understand clients' critical business processes and roles. "The biggest challenge of a software engineering is taking what currently exists as a human process, where a human is making decisions along the way, and trying to put that into code," Dietrich says.

So how do you gain that knowledge? "I suggest to my students that they learn something about business and industry," Hill says. "Most likely they're going to end up writing business applications, and they try to know a little bit about the domain they are programming in." His best advice? "I tell them not to fall asleep in their accounting class. It may not seem relevant at the time, but as soon as they have to implement a payroll system or an inventory system or something like that, it will start to come back to them."

Getting Hired

Even with the high demand for software engineers, experience still matters more than just putting a warm body in an office chair. Kulzer says many applicants he sees have no experience with actually shipping products. "Understanding of the software development life cycle, version control, unit testing and how to produce systems that are scalable are all critical," he says. AWeber has a co-op program with nearby Drexel University to help show students how things are done in the real world, which Kulzer says has improved the local talent pool. He also finds that the best young applicants have done programming and consulting on the side while they were in college.

The Nerdery hires employees of all experience levels, but Dietrich says some of the most valuable engineers are the ones who have learned from their mistakes. "The people who are going to be most successful are the ones who have done it the wrong way enough times that they have learned the right way. Many times, experience and, inherently, the failures that come with experience, are how to be the most successful at software engineering."

McDowell, Dietrich and others recommend trying several sample programming exams to prepare for upcoming job interviews. McDowell says most software engineering companies require an exam to demonstrate technical and problem-solving skills, which can be often valued more than personality. On the other hand, Kulzer feels the tests aren't always necessary. "Everybody wants to work at Google and their tests are really difficult. I think it's kind of a way for them to weed out people that they're not really interested in hiring."

Some employers may value certification, but experts say that may vary from industry to industry. "A non-technical company —a manufacturing company who use a couple of programmers, for example — might look positively on certification because they don't have the technical skills to interview somebody," McDowell says. "It shows that you have a core set of knowledge."

Then again, McDowell says certifications might count against applicants in the software industry. "Certifications are fundamentally about knowledge, not aptitude, and if you're out in Silicon Valley or if you're applying to Google or Microsoft or Amazon, they actually look down on certifications," she says.

The Nerdery right now doesn't worry much about certifications for their applicants, but they acknowledge that might not always be the case. "As software engineering grows and becomes more ubiquitous, I believe that certification and standardization in process are going to continue to grow and become more and more important," Dietrich says.

As for the people not yet sure about entering the field, Hill highly recommends it. "It's always interesting. There's always something new to learn and opportunities for growth. Certainly, it can be challenging at times, but it's worth it."

Professional Licensure Now an Option for Software Engineers in Some States

In April, the first-ever PE exams for software engineers will be administered in at least 10 states — Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

Only software professionals working on software that can affect health, safety and welfare, and who are offering their services directly to the public (and not through a corporate or government entity, which may be exempted) will need to be licensed in those states that require it. How many engineers will be affected is unknown, but it is likely that it will be a very small number,  on the order of  less than 2 to 5 percent of software professionals.

The exam is designed to test minimum competency, not expertise. The exam is not to act as a barrier to practice, but rather, to insure that professionals conduct their practice so that the safety of the public is protected. For more information, visit: http://www.todaysengineer.org/2012/Oct/software-engineering-licensure.asp



Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.


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