Grit your teeth, retrain for Java

Demand for Java skills is phenomenal - and the Java boom is feeding off its own momentum. As the Java skills shortage boosts rewards, one US software chief...

Demand for Java skills is phenomenal - and the Java boom is feeding off its own momentum. As the Java skills shortage boosts rewards, one US software chief said this week that college leavers would accept nothing but Java jobs.

What's so good about Java? Once touted as the code that would kill proprietary platforms, Java in the end stormed the programming heights by being right for Web-enabled business applications.

It is suited to smaller apps, short development cycles, cross-platform environments and team development work. And, as one Java Web site admits, "even crappy programmers tend to write decent Java code".

So, love it or hate it, you are going to have to live with booming demand for Java skills. You need a strategy to recruit, retain and - importantly - retrain your staff.

Gartner Group last week estimated that it could cost £40,000per person to retrain a Cobol programmer as a Java specialist. And for the best part of a year after that "Cobol migrants" will, on average, deliver less than "Java veterans". Nevertheless, if you take a strategic view, this is money well spent.

You can't do e-business without a Web-enabled back-end system. And, for now, its hard to do that without Java. It is that simple.

The first step is to leave nothing to chance as far as retention is concerned. In the Java skills race you are not just up against rivals in your UK industry sector. You are up against the whole world economy - and specifically the surf-kissed sands and the Playstation-ridden offices of California.

Tell the chief executive who wants to splurge millions on a new e-commerce strategy that it will be dead in the water unless they put their hand in their pocket for significant retention packages for your Web team.

When it comes to alternatives to retraining existing staff, the picture looks bleak. Outsourcing means the skills are monopolised by someone else, with no guarantee that the best people are being deployed on your projects. There are not enough ready-trained Java specialists - and rival programming environments are just not up to the task, given the Web's demand for quick and dirty solutions.

In the medium term, Java programming has got to be done by more stratified teams, with more shrink-wrapped components. For that to happen, Sun has to let go the last vestiges of proprietary control and submit Java to the ISO.

In the long run, Java itself may be eclipsed as programming goes through another cycle of "dumbing down".

Industry chiefs are currently gnashing their teeth at Microsoft over its plan to replace Java with C#. In the short term, they see it as replacing a language that too few people know with a language nobody knows. But if the Java shortage continues the option of a language with Visual Basic-style support, certification and shrink-wrapped components will become more attractive.

The long historic curve is towards simpler, more automated programming environments. But until that downward curve meets the rising ability of school leavers, the UK's skills strategy has to deliver large numbers of college leavers who are capable of doing more than operate a mouse - and the job of industry is to attract a lot more of them into the IT profession and keep them there.

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