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Why experience trumps mobile development certifications

Robert L. Scheier Principal, Bob Scheier Associates

If you're looking to improve your job outlook in the mobile developer market, there's no lack of certification programs claiming they can give you a leg up.

But according to hiring managers and recruitment specialists, rather than spending time and money getting "paper" proofs of your skills, you should prove your coding ability with real world experience.

With the fast pace of change in the mobile world, companies can't possibly keep pace with the certifications showing competency in all the new technologies, says Tim Collins, president of Stafflink Solutions Ltd., a boutique IT staffing company. "What our clients want," he says, "is people who have hands-on experience developing software for actual clients," rather than "school projects" or those done only to fulfill certification requirements.

Strong Demand

There's a strong demand for mobile developers, although some caution it isn't as strong as in other specializations, such as those in big data.

"Demand for talented mobile developers remains very high," says Thor Bucy, a director at recruitment firm Riviera Partners. In fact, "Companies frankly don't care about certifications at this point because they are struggling to find talented engineers period, and most will pay to train an engineer to become a mobile developer, either in-house or by a third party firm," says Andrew Levy, CEO and founder of Crittercism, a mobile app intelligence platform.

That said, says Bucy, "mobile teams are typically smaller than other teams in the organization. Additionally, general market feedback is that good Android developers are harder to find than good iOS developers."

User interfaces, payments, wearable devices, and secure mobile payments are top specialty areas for developers looking for an edge.

According to Burke Holland, director of developer relations at Progress Software, the most desirable skill is in user interface development, "because mobile apps are so much more visible than apps have ever been before." Mobile applications also "have to look good," he says, unlike earlier corporate applications that had a captive audience of employees who were forced to use them.

"User experience remains one of the most important aspects of building a mobile application," says Bucy. "If the app is difficult to use people will look to the next alternative, and usually there are plenty of alternatives."

Expertise in secure mobile payments is another highly marketable skill, because both standalone payment firms and established players such as banks are competing to handle more payments, says Collins.

The development of software for wearable technology such as watches and fitness devices is another high-demand area, says Shravan Goli, president of online recruitment firm Dice. Health-related applications have been the early drivers for demand, he says, with more everyday applications now becoming more popular.

Companies ranging from Samsung to Verizon and from Honeywell to The Home Depot are making big investments in applications for the Internet of Things (IoT). Companies are looking specifically for mobile apps that allow users to work with the Internet of Things from their smart phones, Goli says.

The need to combine and present data from multiple sources has led to demand for mobile developers who can architect and deploy service layers that make it easy to connect to external and legacy systems, says Holland. This includes the ability to create secure, scalable APIs that can meet demand as the number of users or transactions increases.

Positions that tend to be the hardest to fill are ones requiring a combination of mobile and traditional software development skills, such as C++ and C#, indicating that developers are likely working on more complex applications, says Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a provider of job market analytics.

Another in-demand skill is mobile website development. This is probably the fastest-growing demand area, especially in the enterprise, says Burke, because it's the easiest way to make an organization's services and data available on all devices.

Objective-C and Java continue to be the top mobile development frameworks, says Goli, with interest rising for Apple's Swift programming language, as well as tools that allow developers to more easily write applications that can run on multiple mobile platforms.

Show me the experience

Microsoft's Microsoft Certified Professional Developer, Oracle's Java ME, and Android Advanced Training Consultants' Android Certified Application Developer certifications are among the many mobile development related certifications available on the market.

According to an IDC white paper sponsored by CompTIA, which offers the CompTIA Mobile App Security+ badge, certified professionals are more confident, have more core domain knowledge than uncertified staff with comparable experience, and outperform those without certification in critical job related areas.

Scott Cassity, managing director of the GIAC (Global Information Assurance Certification) program, agrees that potential employees need training and experience as well as certification. In developing its Mobile Device Security Analyst certificate program, GIAC researches the specific security jobs employers need to fill, along with the skills employees need to perform them. As part of its certification examinations, Cassity says, GIAC works to ensure students "...have the ability to not only recall certain facts but the ability to apply the material."

However, several analyses of job postings, as well as interviews with hiring managers and staffing specialists, indicate that mobile development certifications take a distant back seat to experience when it comes to hiring developers.

In the last four months, only five of the top 15 jobs in Monster Worldwide, Inc.'s online listings for mobile software developers mentioned certification. Three of those jobs related to the scrum method of agile and iterative application development (scrum master, scrum coach, and scrum developer), while the other two were for Sun Certified Java Programmers and Avaya Certified Specialist.

"As mobile development is a newly emerging field, there has not yet been time for industry certifications to take hold and become widely requested and valued by employers," says Sigelman. "While several certifications exist, fewer than three percent of job postings for mobile app developers request a certification," he says.

Employers "want people who have been in the trenches," says Collins. That includes dealing with system outages, websites that don't scale, or requests for features that can't be delivered within the development budget. Such real-world proof is important, Collins says, because it's difficult to simulate demands such as excessive website traffic.

"Projects validate the real world skills pretty fast," says Goli. Some companies assess prospective employees by looking at code they've built or even through a coding test.

Burke agrees that mobile development certifications can be useful because they show that inexperienced developers have the initiative required to learn new subjects. Certifications can also be valuable in proving an applicant's skill in emerging or specialized areas. But Burke recommended against "just stocking up" on too many certificates without becoming an expert in one particular thing or appearing to be overly specialized.

Providing real-world proof

Once you have your field experience, make sure it's visible where today's employers are looking: in an online code repository or a popular app store.

A profile on developer communities such as Stack Overflow or a networking site such as LinkedIn, or code posted on repositories such as GitHub, has much more value than a certificate, says Collins. Online code repositories allow a potential employer to "look at that person's code samples, see how their code is rated, and look at how many people reused the code." In the application process, many employers actually ask for links to such profiles, which Collins says are equal to or better than a resume.

To prove your skills, nothing beats having apps available for download in an app store, says Burke. Having multiple apps in an app store proves a developer knows how to build and publish an app from start to finish.

If all else fails, says Holland, consider doing freelance work or find opportunities for additional training: "Going through a coding boot camp or an online training program with a self-assessment process is also valid," says Goli.

When it comes to hiring, Goli says that real world development experience is more important than certification. Or, as Burke puts it, when it comes to proving your mobile development chops, "Actions speak way louder than words."

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