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Should you hire a mobile developer, or an all-arounder?

Peggy Anne Salz Chief Analyst, MobileGroove

The rapid rate at which mobile has evolved to become the primary way that content, services, commerce and critical business applications are accessed and activated doesn't just turn up the pressure on companies to anchor more applications on mobile platforms. It moves their efforts to attract the "right" talent to their teams into overdrive.

That raises a good question: Should companies hire more generalist developers that allow them to fluidly put resources toward apps and software when and where they’re needed most, or should they focus on recruiting specialized developers who were "born mobile," with the skill set to match?

A bigger question: Do they have a choice at all?

Phillip Connaughton, Director of Software Engineering for Runkeeper, the mobile fitness platform that lets users track workout performance, writes in a recent blog post:   

"Hiring mobile developers is tough. There just aren't that many of them out there."

To ease the squeeze Runkeeper's strategy has been to "hire great developers, not necessarily great mobile developers." Rather than silo employees into camps of either Android on iOS developers, Connaughton says his approach is focused squarely on building teams that do it all.

"We hire full stack engineers, and they are not only expected to work on Android and iOS; we want them to be able to work on the back-end."

The experience builds broad expertise and makes developers confident and "excited and eager to learn more and ship more."

Mobile developers are in short supply, Connaughton notes in his blog. "But if you have the right team put together you can quickly get web and back-end developers up to speed and shipping scalable mobile apps."


The driving forces behind hiring decisions

For many mobile app and software solutions companies, the answer whether to hire great developers or great mobile developers is a question of economics, not personal preference.

It's all about keeping the pipeline full and the company profitable, according to Ric Hill, Founder and Managing Director of the Bristol arm of Softwire. Hill explains:

"The lines between mobile and Web are blurring, and technology is pushing us all to be broader in everything—including how we recruit talent."

Hiring a team of mobile-focused developers, he says, is "tightly wedded" to a platform or operating system can also cost companies' clients and money.

"In practice, you are not going to be able to keep all your developers busy on projects if they have a narrow skill set. And, if everyone in the team can't be assigned to projects, then you have a company that is not going to be profitable and—ultimately—not be able to do the best for its clients."

That's why Softwire hires multi-tech developers who can do both mobile and non-mobile development. "We encourage continual learning to enable this flexibility," Hill says. But the unexpected and positive outcome is the impact on retention of staff.  "The senior guys like to train and mentor, and the junior guys are knowledge sponges, so we can attract, train and retain talent that stays with our company for the longer term."

Mubaloo, an enterprise mobile consultancy and app developer in the U.K., likes to mix it up, says Gemma Coles, the company's Managing Director.

"You have to have a mix where you've got the core developers, developers who know their specialty, with a load of energy and enthusiasm to make change happen at delivery level, and a layer of broad leadership directing this thinking at initiation.”

"It's healthy to have mobile developers with specialist skills to make the most of each platform. But the challenge is they can also be too niche, a little less receptive to change, if you let them work only in their silo," Coles explains. "So you really need to top and tail that with some senior people and some junior people who want to keep continually learning—and learning from each other."

Flexibility is key in the age of agile development

Developers also need to go with the flow as companies make the shift from waterfall methods, where projects followed a rigid structure and schedule, to adopting more agile methods. "The bulk of our teams involve developers more deeply in strategy, consulting and design in order to offer clients programs, not products," Coles says.

The end goal is to hire polyglot talent that  is more broad-minded than narrow- focused. "It's much better if your team is adaptive and can wear different hats, " she adds. Currently, iOS accounts for 60% of projects at Mubaloo. Android comes in at about 30%, and the rest is led by Windows.

Flexibility is also a must for Ansible. "We hire developers who are flexible and open to adapting to the rapid speed of change," says the company's Global Chief Technology Officer, Luigi Iuliano.

Whether it’s Java, iOS, Android, Microsoft, Linux, Salesforce, Adobe or any other platform, hiring developers with the right mindset comes first, Iuliano says.

"The marketplace is evolving, the understanding of mobile is changing, and there are few standards because everything is in a state of flux."

The dynamics of the market, and the demand of client base that wants to grasp the role mobile plays in their marketing, or indeed in their broader business, makes it necessary to hire developers who work and think "more like mechanics," with a mindset that allows them to be comfortable with the task "picking, pulling and integrating [elements] together that work together," he adds.

Be hungry to keep learning

Josh Hartwell, CEO and co-founder of mobile games company Mobile Deluxe, and Vice-Chair of the Board of the Application Developers Alliance, agrees that it's essential to hire developers with an appetite for learning. "But we also look for experience and typically hire computer science majors. We feel it's a strong indication that someone has gone through the training and has the right mental framework for dealing with problems and finding solutions."

That may be how Hartwell handles hiring now, but he admits change is just over the horizon. "The 'years of experience' side of the hiring equation is being driven down because developers are getting greener," Hartwell explains.

Hartwell is referring to the potential impact of an influx of new developers with less than a year's experience, a dramatic shift in developer demographics documented in the Q1 2016 State Of The Developer Nation developer survey and report produced by VisionMobile.

The new mobile development landscape: challenges and change

"Overall," the report states, "we can see an industry that is growing fast, with new developers entering the business at an accelerating rate, which is pushing the balance in favor of those with less experience."  Much of this momentum is due to the high proportion of mobile developers joining the industry for the first time, pushing the other numbers down.

For example, the survey of 22,000 developers in 150 countries reports that the percentage of total developers who have been creating software for more than six years has dropped from 48% to 40% over the last six months. Meanwhile, the total number of developers with less than a year experience has increased from 14% to 17% over the same period.  The report concludes that this is a "good sign for the industry," which needs a constant supply of fresh talent to offset areas such as high-level languages, where demand continues to outstrip supply.

But the flow of new software developers into mobile may also turn the industry into what the report calls, a "playground" where developers learn by doing—achieving varying degrees of success. That means two things: the ideal mobile developer will likely be more in demand, and the gap between the level of experience developers need and the acceleration of technology they have to keep pace with will likely widen. Either way, the only solution will be to build teams with developer talent that enjoys a challenge and embraces change.


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