If corporate computer training specialists are any gauge, 2003 could be the year in which more developers augment their skills by learning the sophisticated Visual Basic .NET and Visual Studio .NET programming environments. And learning more skills could lead to cashing more checks as .NET demand grows.
These tools are part of Microsoft's .NET framework, an object-oriented programming environment to help companies use the Web, rather than their own computers, for various services. Sun Microsystems Inc. created the first commercially available object-oriented language, Java, using its J2EE development platform.
.NET in demand
Tom Barnaby, a lead instructor with Intertech Inc. of Eagan, Minn., said his company has experienced a surge in demand for .NET training. That could be good news for developers who are searching for new jobs or who are simply wishing to advance their careers by adding new programming skills to their arsenals.
"Typically, training leads the industry by about six months," Barnaby said. "We are seeing a big pickup in [demand for] .NET training in the last few months, and 2003 looks like one of our best years ever."
Much of the demand seems to be coming from companies that plan to add .NET projects to their computing enterprises this year. Barnaby said the increased need for training can mean only one thing: the job market for software developers is likely to improve in 2003, after two straight years of decline.
Rockford Lhotka, a consultant with Magenic Technologies in Eden Prairie, Minn., agreed that the hard times for software may be ending. He said that in early 2002, only about 5% of enterprises reported doing or researching pilot projects using the .NET technologies. By the end of last year, he estimates, 30% to 40% were doing them.
Why is .NET significant, and why should developers care? John Smiley, a computer science professor at Pennsylvania State University and head of John Smiley & Associates, encourages his students to immerse themselves in .NET technologies so they can be better positioned to compete for an expected rash of new jobs.
Right now, Smiley acknowledges, .NET programming jobs are few and far between. That could change rapidly, however, as Microsoft muscles into Sun's Java-dominant turf. "Over the next year, there will be increasing opportunities in the .NET world," Smiley said. "If you're one of the few people with the skill set that's needed, you can come into an organization, really shake things up and command higher rates."
Still, Smiley said that there are reasons to be cautious. .NET certifications provide a foot in the door for neophyte programmers, but "are for the most part useless to people who are already working in the industry."
As more developers learn .NET languages, especially younger college-trained programmers, supply eventually could outstrip demand. There is ample evidence to illustrate how developers become commoditized when that happens, Lhotka said.
Power Builder programmers were once the rage in the mid-1990s, but "now, who would hire one?" Similarly, Visual Basic developers briefly commanded a premium in 1997 and 1998, before the Internet ushered in the era of application service providers, and VB programmers' market value plunged. Java developers, too, were in high demand when J2EE was first unveiled, but some have had to cut billing rates as the economy flirts with recession.
Lhotka said that serious developers don't have to learn about .NET or Java. "People still have jobs doing COBOL," he noted, but they should recognize that object-oriented languages are expected to become pervasive in many corporate computing environments. "What I tell people is, whether you learn .NET now or learn it later, you're going to have to learn it. Or you're going to have to switch to Java, because .NET and Java are the only vibrant technologies [for object-oriented programming]."
Then there is the issue of acquiring those .NET development skills. First, it can be expensive: the entry-level version of VB.NET only costs about $100, but you will have to find a machine with an operating system powerful enough to run .NET. "Some of my students are still running Windows 95 or Windows 98, and the .NET products don't really run on those platforms," Lhotka said.
Shake it up
If you are working, Barnaby said, ask around to find out whether your company plans on doing any .NET pilots. If not, consider proposing one, after quantifying any specific business benefits -- such as Web services, higher productivity and quicker deployment of critical applications -- the .NET framework could give your company.
"I know of a very large national retailer that made a strategic commitment to Java, but in the last few months decided to run a couple .NET projects to see how it goes. This wasn't something that came from topside down; it [originated with] developers who said to management, 'We want to get this thing in-house,'" Barnaby said.
Garry Kranz is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.