Dmitry Nikolaev -

Web skills are where it's at

The e-business savvy programmer is a far cry from the techies of old. Jane Dudman introduces the millennial programmer

The e-business savvy programmer is a far cry from the techies of old.  

IT directors looking to retrain their software developers in the new online skills got some bad news recently. The Gartner Group estimates that it could cost up to £40,000, in training fees and lost productivity, to reskill programmers in Java.

Many IT directors were once programmers themselves. They may have faint memories of Cobol or Fortran. But in today's online world, companies need web skills and IT directors now have to look for programmers with very different skills in areas such as Java, wireless application protocol and XML development.

"This is a minefield, because unless they are outsourcing their web presence, virtually every company is looking for these people," comments Paul Butler, managing director of training company Knowledgepool. "They are in big demand and short supply."

One way to address that shortage is to retrain existing programmers.

But, as Gartner has already noted, not only is it expensive to retrain old programmers in new skills, it may not work. "We run a number of courses on Java programming and the latest design tools and we have focused on good old Unix programmers or even further back, thinking we would be able to generate business re-skilling these people," says Butler. "But it has been an uphill battle to reskill people who have a very traditional, disciplined background into using these new, creative tools."

Creativity premium

The main reason for this is that the personal skills needed in today's programming environment are different from those needed before, says Butler. "They are still programming languages, but now creativity is at a premium," he comments.

Jeff Lord, development manager at Merant, has had to tackle this challenge head-on. The company develops and sells online business enterprise software and has a team of 24 programmers in the UK. The company wants people with database skills, SQL, Visual Basic, C++, Java and HTML, but Lord says it is not just these new skills that are important. "There has been a view in e-business that everything is brand new, but we believe we still need some programming discipline," he comments.

In particular, the dreaded scope creep that has scuppered deadlines and budgets on so many IT projects, is still a major problem in this new development environment. "Customers can see what is possible and they start to want more and more," Lord points out. Project management is still important, he says, adding that while most Merant programmers are in their early 20s, there are one or two project managers with grey hair.

Lord also says that while programmers now display different social skills, they are still programmers, not graphic designers. "Our lead developers work closely with the creative people, but we believe the functions are separate," he comments. The most important aspects of modern programmers include the ability to work as a team player, to adapt quickly to new technologies, and to have good customer-facing skills, which were not always necessary in the old days. "The old anorak developers tended to be introverted," admits Lord. "Programmers today are more confident and more motivated about IT in general. Before, people tended to drift into IT. Today's programmers are more self-sufficient."


Today's programmers are certainly more self-confident, if 23-year-old Nadeem Shabir is anything to go by. Asked which skills he wants to learn to further his career, Shabir laughs. "I know everything," he says.

Recently promoted to deputy head of innovations at Nottingham-based new media firm BYG Systems – which has developed online systems for customers such as BHS, Sainsbury's, Boots and Anglian Water – Shabir has a four-year degree course in artificial intelligence and computer science and an impressive knowledge of programming languages and environments, including HTML, Javascript, web authoring skills, Java Server Pages (JSP), Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) and C++.

Shabir takes a pragmatic attitude towards the rapid pace of change in this environment. In his new job, one of his roles is to look at projects coming in to the firm and prototype the most appropriate technology for each one. "You've got to avoid jumping onto every bandwagon that comes along," says Shabir. "There are new technologies out every couple of weeks: you can't possibly learn everything. As long as you stay aware of what's out there, you can pick it up when it's clear which ones are going to be important." At the moment, that would include technologies like JSP and ASP, he says. This ability to adapt is the really big difference between programmers now and their forerunners.


"Back then, if you learned a language like Cobol or C++, you could be certain of getting a job. Now, if you only know one programming language, you're unemployable. You have to pick up new skills all the time, very quickly, and transpose the skills you've learned in one language to another that you may never have seen before."

Shabir, who earns £23,000, has had offers of at least £10,000 more from other companies, and expects his pay to go up "significantly" in a couple of months' time.

To justify that kind of money, Shabir says programmers today have to provide their employers with a level of flexibility and adaptability that was not, perhaps, so necessary in the past.

Ed Arnett, managing director of training company InterQuad, says increasing demand for flexible programmers also means increasing demand for courses in e-skills, particularly as major suppliers like Microsoft and Sun position their entire business around e-business and e-commerce. InterQuad already runs some certified webmaster training courses and general courses in these areas. The real demand will come once major suppliers provide certified e-skills courses, says Arnett, which programmers will want to have in their portfolios.

Top internet skills

Which skills are top priorities for today's programmers?

  • Active Server Pages
  • XML
  • C++
  • Visual Basic
  • HTML
  • Java, especially Javascript, Java Server Pages and Enterprise Java Beans

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