6 hot industries for software engineering careers

Everyone wants software engineers. And that's not likely to change anytime soon, which is good news for anyone pursuing a software engineering career.

Nearly half of all IT respondents said they plan to hire for programming and application development skills in the next twelve months, making it the number one skill in Computerworld's Forecast Survey for 2015. Likewise, "software engineer" was the most in-demand job title across all industries, according to job site Glassdoor, with a base salary of $96,392 and a staggering 99,055 openings—roughly nine times that of the next highest-paying, in-demand job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22.8 percent employment growth for software developers between 2012 and 2022—significantly higher than the national average for all occupations.

Increasing business requirements for cloud computing, big data and analytics, and mobile solutions are all driving the demand for software engineers, says David Foote, CEO of IT labor analyst firm Foote Partners LLC. But with so many options, IT professionals on the supply side of the equation—particularly those just starting out or looking to market themselves in new ways—may have difficulty figuring out where to place their next career bet.

"It always comes back to the individual, what they have a passion for. Some have a passion for finance, some for innovation. Some want quality of life," says Marc Cervoni, managing partner with recruiting firm Park Hudson International. "It all depends on what direction you want to go with your technology career."

Here are six hot industries where software engineers should find plenty of room for career growth.

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1. Retail

A decade or two ago, a software engineering career in retail might have seemed like a dead end. But today, the retail industry employs as many or more software engineers than Silicon Valley.

Pushed by Amazon.com nearly to the point of extinction, many traditional retailers are willing to do "anything to break out of the box," says Foote. Some of these companies are blowing up their entire infrastructure and building new microservices platforms, and they're luring away top talent from digital competitors. Foote has seen retailers partner with the likes of NASA and virtual-reality vendor Oculus Rift to figure out what shopping might look like 10 years from now.

User interface professionals, mobile developers, and those who've worked in DevOps environments are all in high demand, Foote says. But there's plenty of work for back-end professionals as well.

Insider tip: In most cases, retailers are looking for specific development and platform skills. But these companies want to hire people who not only understand the technology of the future but also the customer of the future. "You have to be able to go beyond writing code and be that kind of hybrid software professional who also understands consumer products and what people want," says Foote.

Former gamers often do well in such roles. "They developed a natural understanding of how to develop products that people will use, but they grew up as the biggest critics of the games they played," Foote says.

2. Healthcare

Want a job in which you can actually explain to your mother that you're saving lives? This may be it. Software development plays a huge role in the healthcare industry. Professionals in the field develop clinical applications, cloud systems, analytics, patient portals, and other clinical and consumer health applications. Health IT professionals work for a variety of employers, including consulting companies, insurance companies, software vendors, and hospitals and other healthcare providers. The mission is to better organize and analyze health data, deliver information to patients, and improve healthcare overall.

Now that electronic medical records are a requirement, the demand for programmers has never been greater. "There's a mandate—and there's a date," says Foote. "There are tons of operational areas that all have a stake in this that are looking to hire software professionals."

Indeed, the need is so great that many hiring organizations will train and certify new employees in the software they use. "It's a great opportunity for software developers that many not know what they want to do next," says Foote. "They can spend two to three years of their career here and leave with a specific niche skill they can sell to thousands of other healthcare employers down the road."

Software engineers can expect job security and good salaries, says Tim Cannon, vice president of product management and marketing at HealthITJobs.com, a free job search resource for health IT professionals. Cannon says that 10 percent of his job listings are for programmers.

The average income for health IT professionals was around $90,000 in 2014, according to a survey by HealthITJobs.com. What's more, 80 percent of IT workers surveyed said they were satisfied in the healthcare industry, thanks to high income potential, flexibility, the opportunity to learn new skills, the ability to advance in their career, and the ability to use their skills every day.

Insider tip: If you have experience with electronic health records, by all means highlight that, but it's not required. Be sure to showcase your experience with big data and analytics, mobile apps, and the cloud. "Employers are looking for very specific skills, so show that you have them and that you can quickly pick up on the information you need to know about the healthcare industry, like regulations and the impact of the Affordable Care Act," says Cannon.

3. Research and development

While technically there's no separate R&D industry, you'll find such operations within thousands of traditional companies. These include game-changing product labs, research and development groups, and emerging business units with the need for specific types of software engineers.

Western Union, once synonymous with the telegraph, operates a high-tech product lab called Western Union Digital Ventures in San Francisco's SOMA District. The 165-year old company has ridden the wave of many technological revolutions, and, intent on riding the digital cash and payments wave, is looking for big thinkers in mobility.

Or consider Thompson Reuters. Within the $12.6 billion media company is a much smaller company, Reuters TV, that has plans to reinvent video news for the next generation. The startup, which has reporters around the globe, aims to offer personalized, on-demand TV news delivered via mobile devices. They need developers to pull it off.

Cervoni was initially concerned about filling the technology roles there. "I thought, 'How am I going to sell Thomson Reuters to that kid who wants to work at a super-exciting company?" Cervoni says. "I met with the mobile lead last week and he told me, 'You don't have to sell Thompson Reuters. You're selling Reuters TV.' " And the $200,000 annual salary doesn't hurt.

Don't rule out an established company or what appears to be a shrinking or dying industry. These organizations, perhaps more than any other, are looking to shake things up—whether as a matter of survival or a way to stay on top. And they offer programmers the opportunity to solve big problems at a larger scale than they might find elsewhere.

Insider tip: A diversified project lab may be more interested in mindset and approach than in specific technical expertise, while a focused business startup (like Reuters TV) is looking for mobile developers with experience in the domain (streaming video) that can hit the ground running.

4. Business/IT services

Consultancies, IT professional services providers, and diversified systems integrators have always been the biggest consumers of development talent. That remains true in 2015, though to a slightly lesser extent than in previous years. Business services firms, which once snapped up 95 percent of IT workers, still hire about 85 percent of IT professionals today, according to Foote Partners. These firms aggressively hire people just graduating from college. "They're hiring a ton of developers," Foote explains. "They want to take young IT professionals, inculcate them into their specific culture, and grow them over the years. They know they can't just recruit talent from the outside and expect miracles." So you might be a Hadoop master, for example, but if you can't hack it in a hierarchical culture in an old-line company in Charlotte, NC, this industry isn't for you.

Insider tip: Services firms love a master's degree, whether it's an MBA or a master's in computer science, information management, or a related field.

5. Silicon Valley high-tech

If you want to work for a technology-driven, innovation-focused company in Silicon Valley, there are plenty of options outside of Google or Facebook. There are countless startups and both early stage and established digital companies searching for creative and hard-working software engineering talent. They're willing to pay a premium and even offer Google-esque perks.

At the San Francisco headquarters of Asana, maker of cloud-based project management and collaboration software, you'll find yoga classes, a nap and meditation room, and a professionally staffed kitchen that might serve strip steak and oysters on a Friday. "They've created a culture where it's tough to leave," says Cervoni of Asana, which was founded by Facebook alumni. "Programmers can stay and focus on their work and be more productive."

Thumbtack, an online marketplace for local services, has a valet service for employees arriving and leaving their SOMA office space. If you work at Evernote in Redwood City, you get a twice-monthly professional housecleaning. Employees at ThousandEyes, an IT performance management firm, get free massages every two weeks.

Of course, there are strings attached. If a company is offering you round-the-clock dogsitting or vacations with your coworkers, you're going to be spending a lot of time in the office. So make sure you're on board with the mission and the people.

Insider tip: Silicon Valley firms are fond of pre-employment tests, so don't be surprised if you have to pass one before talking to anyone. Also, these companies don't care what programming languages you've mastered or your long list of certifications. Emphasize your creative problem-solving skills instead.

6. Government and defense

If you have decided to focus on secure software development, you have to consider the government-industrial complex. Everyone from municipal and state governments to federal agencies and government contractors are aggressively hiring secure software programmers and looking for related cyber-security skills and certifications.

"If you've decided to take that tack, this is a huge area of demand," says Foote. "Everyone wants them, and they can't find enough of them." In these roles, you'll also accumulate further certifications and government clearances to pave the way for a long tenure in government-related work. In addition, industries that are currently underinvesting in secure coding will eventually be seeking out professionals who've spent time in governmental organizations. In addition, government agencies, Foote says, "have plenty of money to spend."

Insider Tip: You've got to have the right personality for secure government coding work, Foote says. In addition to deep technical skills and required certification, developers who succeed are tenacious, persistent, deliberate, and uncompromising.

Topics: Dev & Test
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