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Windows shutting for programmers who lack business savvy

If you're a language-happy Windows developer, consider this sobering reality: Core coding skills no longer guarantee that you'll keep your job, much less advance your career. Hiring managers say you'd be better

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off acquiring some practical business sense, rather than adding more libraries to your programming arsenal.

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During the heady days of the dot-com bubble, software coders were hot commodities. But once the bubble burst and the economy headed south, many of those same developers found that they were suddenly considered a lot less valuable.

"Our industry for the past 10 or 12 years has been one of a geek mentality, where coders were treated like talented children," said Greg Brill, president of Infusion Development Corp. in New York.

"Writing code is easy. What the industry needs is professionals -- people who can code but, more importantly, know how to work with a client to ascertain what's needed and then devise a software solution."

As information technology companies try to flatten costs and accelerate productivity, the software engineering trade is being transformed. If you're like the stereotypical programmer -- introverted, independent-minded and myopically focused on writing software code -- then don't be surprised if your career starts to stagnate. Conversely, developers with hands-on experience in product rollouts, productivity follow-ups and customer service remain in demand.

BOOST YOUR VALUE 

Formal training is one way to help expand your knowledge base, but don't pin all your hopes on it. Having an armload of certifications may not help you if you can't connect them to your company's need for profit.

"You can have someone who's certified in all the Microsoft languages, but there's nothing like real experience within a real development environment," said Scott Testa, president of Mindbridge Software Corp. in King of Prussia, Pa.

"Smart developers learn more from their peers than they ever do in a classroom environment."

Kester Software Inc., a wireless application services provider in Indianapolis, puts less emphasis on programming diversity than on a candidate's ability to tackle customer problems, especially through teamwork. Paul McKinney, Kester's president said, "I would rather hire someone who is a little less technical but has some business savvy. We really want someone who understands what it means to work with tech document writers and analysts to get the work done."

There was a time when programmers could specialize in one or two programming languages. Not so anymore, said Forrest Shue, a partner with Delta Corporate Services Inc. of Parsippany, N.J.

"When I started learning Windows and PowerBuilder 15 years ago, there weren't many choices for Windows development, so it was a good bet to become an expert," he said. "Now, if you became an expert in ASP or Java, there's a real danger people are going to say 'so what?'"

Instead of waiting for exact specifications before starting a given coding project, programmers are being called upon to get involved earlier by making presentations to clients, estimating task schedules, performing risk assessments and handling other project-related tasks. Shue said that engineers need to embrace these new responsibilities.

John Robbins, chief executive officer of New Hampshire-based Wintellect, said that most organizations fail to do necessary "productivity postmortems" after a project is completed. Engineers boost their value to an organization when they can provide detailed suggestions on ways to tighten the production cycle or cut costs.

"It's a scary thing to get a project done and out the door. Following up on projects after the fact helps you learn what was done well and what needs to be changed," Robbins said.

WALK ON THE "DARK SIDE" 

The best path to career growth may be to leave programming, at least temporarily, for a stint in management. Developers may shudder at the thought, but seeing life from the "dark side" of management provides an important perspective that could make you a more well-rounded programmer, said Robbins, whose company specializes in debugging Windows .NET and other Windows programs.

Robbins remembers how all the "stupid things" his boss asked him when he was a programmer instantly made sense when Robbins himself started managing projects. The managerial experience forced Robbins to learn new aspects of the product development cycle: assessment and testing, user needs and marketing.

"The one thing I keep hearing from developers is 'I just want to focus on the technology,' and they completely miss the big picture," Robbins said. "Fundamentally, an engineer's job is to apply technology to make money for the company. Being in management forces you to deal with that.

"If you can turn around and then go back into engineering, you're worth your weight in gold."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Garry Kranz is a freelance technology writer. He lives in Richmond, Va.

This was first published in September 2002

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