As demand surges for apps to run on iOS, Android and whatever operating system will power the next wave of smart mobile 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 IHS, a market research firm in Englewood, Colo.
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% in the first quarter of this year compared with the first quarter of 2010; postings for iPhone-related positions rose 220% 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% 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% in that same period, 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 they were working a short while ago 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," she says.
While there are ample pools of Web and Java development talent, professionals with expertise building native apps for Apple's iPhone and iPad, 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 -- 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.
Don't Forget Security
Mobile application development is a relatively new field, and technologies for securing mobile application code are immature, according to a recent Forrester Research report that advises security managers to get involved.
The report, by analyst Chenxi Wang, says that vulnerabilities in mobile code, flawed application architecture or improper handling of credentials can lead to embarrassing data breaches, network intrusions or hacker attacks.
For example, last year researchers found that Citigroup's iPhone mobile banking app was mistakenly saving access codes and banking data in an unencrypted file on the phone. Citigroup then urged customers to upgrade the app to a version that fixed the problem.
— Mitch Betts
"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, an analyst at Gartner. "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."
All signs indicate that 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 Co.'s strategy. To date, the Colorado ski resort operator 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, such as 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.
"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 that 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.
Aware 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 on mobile platforms, 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, thanks to their sets of core skills, Dunn says.
With the new domain expertise under their belts, 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 in its 150-person developer group, which is part of an enterprise IT staff of nearly 300 people.
The User Experience
The new design requirements of mobile platforms represent a potentially more difficult transition: In addition to recognizing that they will be designing apps for the smaller real estate of smartphone screens, developers 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. "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," Aziz explains. "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 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 education and certificate courses on hot subjects such as HTML5, 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 today's IT professionals, according to Nick Dalton, owner of 360mind, an application development consultancy that specializes 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 says. 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 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."
All You Really Need is Love
Many application development professionals are likely to obsess over what tools and technology they should choose to develop a mobile app. While that's important, "it is less than half the battle," says a recent report by Forrester Research analyst Mike Gualtieri.
What you really need is a mobile app that people will love to use. "If users don't love your application, then they will simply move on to another application that they do love -- or use no app at all," the report says. The reaction you're seeking? "This app is awesome!"
Gualtieri's report says that "lovable mobile user experiences" must have the following qualities:
* Utility: A mobile app must deliver functions that allow customers, employees or business partners to achieve their goals using the ingenuity and capabilities of your business.
* Usability: Your mobile app must be extremely easy to use.
* Desirability: The experience of using the mobile app should produce positive emotions. "You'd think that useful and usable would be enough -- but they are not. Users also want to enjoy their experience," Gualtieri writes.
Developers should identify their target mobile users, interview those users about their needs, observe them "in their natural habitat," design the app and then "validate your design in a mobile context to make certain your users are happy and that they love your app," the report says.
Well-designed mobile apps help mobile users do something that furthers the organization's goals, the report notes. For example, Liberty Mutual Insurance offers customers an Apple iPhone app that streamlines automobile accident claim processing.
The app walks customers through the process of collecting information from the other driver, taking a photo of the damage, mapping the location via GPS and sending the report. Liberty Mutual benefits because it gets accurate information, can quickly start processing the claim and can help the customer through a stressful situation.
What's to love about a mobile app for auto accident insurance claims? "Perhaps nothing," the report notes, "until you are in a fender bender."
— Mitch Betts
Dalton, a 25-year IT veteran, spent much of his career as an enterprise Java architect designing back-end systems and customer-facing applications at companies such as Nissan and Toyota. When the iPhone was first released, Dalton undertook a self-directed crash course to master the iOS software development kit. Once the Apple App Store was announced and the market for mobile app developers took off, Dalton left corporate IT and started 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 mobile development opportunities, 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."
And mobile app work has an added bonus, he says. "If you're coming from a multimillion-dollar enterprise server project where every decision takes forever," Dalton says, "working on these small, self-contained projects [for mobile devices] is a lot of fun."
Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.