Java developers: High in demand, low on loyalty

Java developers are hot commodities, but for how long?

When I began coding with Java back in September 1995, I instantly fell in love with it. I had been a software engineer for many years and worked with languages such as C, C++, Unix shell scripting, and SQL. I could tell right away that Java was more than just a fad. My first program was a rudimentary text editor developed using AWT, java.io, and the java.net.URL class (for CGI GET/POST functionality). This program ran perfectly on both Solaris and Windows without the need to recompile. The simplicity and robustness of the language amazed me.

Now that I've written hundreds of thousands of lines of Java code, I know that Java is also secure, Internet-ready, and highly scalable -- all the buzzwords Java's creators first proclaimed. These are probably the same reasons Java has become very popular for small and large applications. This popularity has of course created the high demand for Java developers.

The employee's perspective

If you have worked in the IT industry for some time now, you know that IT workers come in at least three flavors: regular employees, independent contractors, and consultants employed by solution firms. Many employees have ventured into the contracting world in recent years in order to have the flexibility of picking their own assignments and to receive higher hourly wages. On the flip side, many contractors become regular employees of companies, mainly because they don't like moving from job to job and they want to play a larger role in helping to build a company. Stock options are another draw.

The employer's perspective

The Internet, a virtual world of various technologies, requires technical people of all levels to assemble solutions. This need has significantly raised the demand for Java programmers as well as Perl and Microsoft developers. The need to rewrite non-Y2K-compliant applications also increased the demand for developers. The competition among companies -- both venture-funded start-ups and large companies with plenty of resources -- to hire qualified programmers has been intense and has led to higher salaries and sign-up bonuses.

The supply and demand problem

With the demand for experienced Java developers far exceeding the supply, companies have tried to lure people with inflated wages. Both salaries and hourly rates have jumped as high as 40 percent in the past year. I've even seen job ads for EJB developers that include sign-up bonuses such as a BMW or 5,000 in cash. With companies fighting for the same pool of people and attracting them with these higher wages and sign-up bonuses, many developers seem to have forgotten basic business ethics and lost the sense of loyalty to their employers. We see contractors leave before contracts are completed and employees walk away one month after being hired. Developers have become extremely picky about the technologies they work with and are less concerned with the culture of the company and long-term employment. For example, some Java developers will only do EJB work -- and insist on WebLogic EJB work at that!

The days of working with a single company throughout one's career are long gone, but staying at a company for even three to five years also seems less common. Nowadays, the lure of making more money and working with cooler technologies is reason enough to jump ship.

In the employees' defense, companies in the past couple of decades have not exactly been loyal to their employees either. Layoffs and downsizing are all too common in our industry. In fact, in the past couple of years, many IT companies staffed up beyond their means in order to get a piece of the Internet gold rush action and as a result have had to downsize recently.

What next?

Are the crazy times of the high-tech job market settling down? If so, should Java/Internet developers buckle down? My feeling is yes.

In the past few months, we have seen a major shakeout in our industry. Many dot-com start-ups with poor and excellent business models alike have shut their doors or announced major layoffs. While this probably hasn't affected many Java developers yet, it is bound to, sooner or later. On the Java front particularly, it is common to find people with two or more years of hands-on Java experience; these individuals were quite rare a year or two ago. As the market tightens up and the demand and supply for Java developers evens out, employers will become more picky about who they hire and how much they are willing to pay. They will also look more closely at candidates' employment histories (e.g., how much they have moved around). And many companies are shying away from contractors, who might leave them high and dry in the middle of a project.

Remember, the grass is not always greener on the other side. Many companies that were offering outrageous sign-up bonuses or hourly rates have gone out of business. If you are with a good organization that treats its people well, my advice is to stick with it. However, if you are considering new opportunities, look for companies that have sound business models and are making money, not just companies that are inventing something cool.

Anil Hemrajani is chief technology officer at iSavvix, a technology services firm for full-service Java and Internet technology solutions. He welcomes your comments and questions about this column. Write to him or visit the iSavvix Soapbox forum.

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