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How to close your software development skills gap

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Gary J. Beach Guest Columnist, Tech Talent, Wall Street Journal "CIO Journal"

Software may eat the world, but software developers will rule it.

That's the opinion of Frank Gens, senior vice president and chief analyst at the global research firm International Data Corporation. The way Gens sees it, which software platforms and languages developers embrace will determine the future trajectory of the industry and underscore which software development skills organizations must hire for and retain.

Feeling good? You should! Your work and your development skills matter, now and in the future. And here's more good news: careers in software development will pay well in 2015. The recently released 2015 Computerworld Salary Survey claims the national average salary for a software developer will rise to $90,657 this year. And here's more good news. Your profession will remain relatively immune from encroachment by robots, computers, and sensors. The days of robots having "face-to-face" conversations with software developers and their business partners about some agile development project are some 20 years away.

But there's a caveat.

Do you like to be the center of attention? If you do, the limelight is coming your way. If you don't, exit stage right and find another profession. Eight years into the consumerization of IT, the CEO, the board, your business colleagues, your customers, and your competition all know about the power of software and talented developers with the right skills to make companies more competitive, agile, profitable, and secure.

Supporting that observation is data from an IBM report that says "technology" is now the most "important factor" CEOs rely on before making major decisions. Count on business' reliance on technology to increase exponentially as the software-driven "anything-as-a-service" era continues to evolve and big data, analytics, cloud, mobility, the Internet of Things, information and cyber security, and social media become the digital pillars of business.

However, there's a fly in the good-news ointment. When I started my career, one of the best pieces of advice I received from my manager at McGraw-Hill was this: "The path of your career will be more determined by whom you hire and whom you fire than on anything thing you do."

People are people

As agile and DevOps developers, you know the importance of people skills. Communicating and collaborating is second nature to you. What I'm addressing is a different "people" issue: How do you make sure they're getting the best corporate training and development?

The competition for software developer talent is so fierce that HubSpot, a digital marketing firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently rolled out a unique employee referral program that offered $30,000 to any employee who referred a software developer who was hired and retained for six months. A small dog-sitting service in Seattle, having to battle that market's fierce hiring competition, offered a free puppy to employees who referred talent with the right software development skills.

The wait to hire software developers is long for good reason. The most recent HackerRank's Hiring Trends report asserts that 94 percent of hiring managers claim they're currently looking to hire software developers. Think about that number for a moment. Walk down any street, look up at any office building, and you can estimate that more than nine out of the 10 firms in the building are looking for software developers. You're competing with everyone for talent.

Computerworld's 2015 IT Salary Survey tallies how long the wait can be. For overall open IT positions in the last two years, 36 percent of respondents say it took "less than three months" to fill a job and a remarkable 15 percent said it took more than six months to find the talent they were looking for.

The wait is costing your firm big bucks. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., Thomas Monahan, CEO of CEB, a large global consultancy, said research at his firm indicates that the inability to rapidly hire IT talent results in a 10 percent hit to the overall productivity of a firm. That's a hit to the entire company, not just the IT department.

So what should you do?

Read current and recent software developer job postings at your firm. Are you requiring a successful job candidate to have a bachelor's degree or more? I have a simple question for you: Why? I have asked that question to scores of CIOs and most don't have the answer. Here's what's happening. In the post Great Recession period, companies control the hiring process, and with so many Americans still unemployed or underemployed (about 16 million people), they can require a job candidate to have many skills.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, most software developers have a bachelor's degree. Others in the job market have outstanding software development skills but no degree in the field. Some call that the "credentials gap." Step back and make sure you don't fall into it. In the future, ask yourself whether a position really needs a candidate to have a bachelor's degree before letting human resources just add it to the job description.

Companies have gotten lazy in the hiring process. Go to your favorite job posting site and spend 10 minutes reviewing jobs for software developers. I guarantee you it won't take you that long to find a posting composed of 800 words or more.

That's ridiculous. Work hard to edit your job postings for software developers. Keep them below 400 words if you can. You'll get more candidates to read it and respond.

OK, you work in the IT department. But we're all marketers, too. What are you doing to brand your company as a great place to work? Too many IT people forget this critically important responsibility. Do you have a generous benefits program? Is your firm involved with a local or national nonprofit that is doing well? Are you aggressively making the rounds at the local community and four-year institutions and participating in their job fairs? Branding helps attract candidates to your company, but it also does one other thing: it helps retain top talent.

Step out of the box

Here's an out-of-left-field piece of advice for hiring a software developer talent: tell job candidates to ditch their resumes. Instead, have them bring along a portfolio of their work. The resume is an outdated tool, engineered to be the perfect representation of the candidate. Talking with the candidate about what they have done is much more relevant. Moreover, make sure to review the candidate's social media presence. As one IT hiring manager shared with me recently, "Give me 60 seconds on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, and I can instantly tell if a candidate will be a cultural fit for my firm."

Dr. Klaus Schwab is the cofounder of the World Economic Forum, the annual conference held in Davos, Switzerland each year. Opening that conference last year, he said, "Talentism is the new capitalism." Whom you attract, whom you retain, and whom you let go is your new coin of the realm and will determine the success of your career in software development much more than your ability to write code. Talent matters.

There's a Chinese proverb that says, "If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow a tree. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people." Here's to a successful career "growing people."

Image source: Flazingo Photos/Flickr

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