Facebook roundtable: Hot developer skill sets

We’re using the discussion forums on our Facebook group, “ComputerWorld Canada Connects,” to engage our readers on a more regular basis. What follows is an edited version of a discussion between Shane Schick, editor of ComputerWorld Canada; Hugh Chatfield, an Ottawa-based IT consultant; and Tom Sommerville, director of development at Toronto-based Architech Soltuions.

Shane Schick: First off, what kind of projects are you working on at the moment and what’s offering you the biggest challenge?

Hugh Chatfield: Currently the bggest project I am working on is the production of a series of educational DVD products — the first being five days of workshop/lectures on Transformation using XSLT and XPath. Generally this is the class of work I currently find myself in — multimedia IT courses, Web sites, promotional DVDs and commercials. (You go where the money is).

My biggest challenge so far is getting a working environment so I can get on with my work. Getting a Windows XP version of Premier Pro to run on a Vista system proved impossible. Downloading a trial Vista version of Priemier Pro trashed my Vista system. Updates from Microsoft continually trash my Vista system to the point it won’t even boot up. I finally got it back up and turned off all updates. I am now running three computers with three different operating systems just to get access to working versions of the applications. Personally I think Microsoft has lost control of its software.

Tom Sommerville: At Architech Solutions we are working on a wide range of projects, all in the web space, broadly speaking. Everything from sophisticated meta-search engines (e.g. an “Expert Locator” that returns a list of people with expertise in subject areas related to search terms, rather than a list of docs) to in-store kiosks for a large retailer that are updated daily over the web with inventory data. I would have to say our biggest — and most time-consuming — challenge is finding and keeping good people. There are plenty of mediocre Java developers out there. Not so many excellent ones.

Hugh Chatfield: Tom, I am curious. I have long held the opinion that a “good programmer” would be quite independent from a “programming language de jour” — that any good programmer could pick up YAPL (yet another programming language) very quickly and be better than someone that knew the language but was not skilled in general programming skills. Do you find this to be true? Or is the lead time to develop specific Java skills for even a good programmer too much to bear?

Tom Sommerville: By and large I agree with your definition of a good programmer (or should I say, “developer” to be au courant) as someone who has a good general sense of how to make computers do what they want, regardless of the language. One of the key factors is a lifelong learning mentality: The best are those who always strive to stay ahead of the curve. That said, in these days of mashups and large-scale systems integration, familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of specific tools and platforms can mean the difference between on-time delivery and abject frustration.

Shane Schick: Would either of you say open source development introduces greater complexity into the mix, or is it creating more options? I see that Adobe, for instance, recently offered a Linux version of its RIA product, and Microsoft has been talking a lot about creating interoperability with its software and that of Novell, etc. But is life really getting any better for development teams because of these moves?

Tom Sommerville: Well, you might say greater complexity and more options are two sides of the same coin.

The growth of open source has certainly broadened the base of development talent available to the enterprise, as IT departments can tap into ad hoc teams of avid coders who would formerly never have hit their radar. At the same time, the proliferation of standards, tools, platforms etc. outside the traditional vendor model has made the landscape more challenging, especially when evaluating longer-term strategic direction.

Ultimately I see open source as a boon, but the advantage will go to the most nimble enterprises: those best able to take advantage of the rapidly evolving landscape by intelligently picking the best-fit components to drive business value.

Hugh Chatfield: I use the open source tools for my projects much like I would use a hammer. The hammer isn’t part of what I deliver to my customers, but I can’t bang nails without it. Since these open source tools haven’t broke yet for me — I would say my complexity levels have gone down — in the sense that I don’t have to pour hours and days into figuring out why the tool broke, and more importantly how to get back up working again. Nobody pays me to fix their software problems.

Tom Sommerville: If you have the luxury of choice, being able to broaden your toolbox into the open source space makes complete sense. Again, the mark of a good developer is the ability — and desire — to constantly adopt the best new tools. As a provider of consulting and professional services, with large enterprises especially, we are more often than not constrained by the client’s existing infrastructure or standards. In such circumstances, it’s usually necessary to go with a developer who has a depth of experience with that particular stack, especially for a relatively short engagement where there’s no time for a learning curve.

This is where the complexity comes in: How do I ensure that my team of developers has the breadth to cover the majority of platforms and languages that will be required, without either spending an inordinate amount of time getting up to speed, or having insufficient depth of knowledge to be effective on projects?

Shane Schick: Hugh, you’re involved in the education side. How would you respond to the issues Tom’s raising about developer skill sets?

Hugh Chatfield: I agree that the best developers are the ones who adopt continuous learning as their operating principle — something that I have been involved in most of my career. It is true that in the consulting business, you are constrained to what the customer uses. I am familar with the RFP’s that float across my screen asking for expert level knowledge in a whole collection of esoteric products and technologies. I often wondered if such a person could even exist on the planet. When you have a stable of developers, you do have a little more flexibility in that across the team you can cover off much more products and technology. Typically this doesn’t help much, since the RFPs request two or more years experience within the last two years — and usually don’t allow for teams.

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