The tech jobs hiring boom is real -- for these skills

After some tough years for IT and tech pros, high demand for tech workers is here in some areas -- and is expected to continue

It's not a myth. The technology industry is in the midst of a hiring surge stronger than any we've seen since the days of the dot-com boom. InfoWorld's interviews with economists, technology executives, job seekers, and hiring board managers indicate that employment in the tech sector is up a solid 10% this year -- by some bullish estimates, closer to 20%. And despite the tendency of the media to fixate on California's Silicon Valley, the hottest job markets are in places like New York and Washington, D.C., where firms in financial services and the federal government hire droves of IT hands.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that jobs are going begging. They are not. Landing a position as a programmer, developer, database analyst, or support desk jockey still takes the right experience, the right education, and a willingness to chart a new career path when necessary.

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If anyone exemplifies that last point, it's Cyril Fluck, a 33-year-old software engineer now employed by Vertical Response, which does email marketing surveys.

The French-born Fluck came to the United States in 2008, armed with a master's degree in computer science and more than seven years' experience coding in C++. He quickly found out that a job seeker in 2008 was facing one of the worst markets in years, and his prospects were even dimmer because employers wanted people conversant in newer programming languages.

Fluck applied his analytical skills to the problem and realized he had to upgrade his repertoire and bide his time until the tech outlook improved improved. His survey of the job market convinced him that he should learn Ruby on Rails, the hottest language in the industry. (InfoWorld's Peter Wayner has surveyed Ruby and the other six ascendant programming languages. He's also surveyed which scripting languages are worth investing in.) Rather than returning to school, he founded his own company and developed a website called Footbalistic crammed with soccer statistics for the rabid fan. It was hardly a coincidence that its architecture is based on Ruby.

Footbalistic failed, but not before Fluck had mastered Ruby on Rails and gained more than two years of demonstrable experiencing using it. By last spring, he was ready to attack the job market again. He posted his résumé on a Monday evening and by 7:30 a.m. the next morning had gotten at least 20 calls, some from recruiters with leads to multiple positions. "If I hadn't taken down my résumé, I would have had to hire a secretary," he jokes. Before long, he had a trio of actual offers, then a new job.

How strong is the tech jobs boom? Right now, the market for men and women in high-tech looks very strong. "It feels a lot like the late '90s," says Axel Kratell, who had little trouble landing a job as a product manager at Kaazing, a company developing applications of the HTML5 WebSocket protocol, after a stint with Cisco Systems.

Talk to anybody in tech and you'll hear analogies to the dot-com boom. A lot has changed since then, but today's job market is nearly as hot.

One way to gauge the growth is to look at job listings on Dice, one of the oldest and likely the largest techie job board in the country. At the beginning of 2010, there were 48,571 listing for tech jobs, including contract and part-time positions. That total has climbed steadily every month. At the beginning of October 2011, Dice listed 83,567 openings, an increase of 72% over January 2010, and 18% higher than October 2010.

Dice is admittedly an imperfect barometer of the job market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were just under 3.3 million people working in IT-related technology jobs in the United States as of May 2010. But because the bureau has been hurt by budget cuts, it will not publish more current statistics until well into 2012.

Amar Mann, the chief regional economist in the bureau's San Francisco office, estimates that the tech job market has grown about 10% in the last year, slower than the Dice estimate, but given that overall unemployment in the United States has been stuck in the 9% range for some time, it's a very bright spot in the national economy, he adds.

In any case, employers are having to work harder to find the new hires they need this year. "It is an incredibly competitive job market. Finding the right people is hard," says Woodson Martin, Salesforce.com's senior vice president for employee success. Martin has a lot of jobs to fill. At the end of October, the company's career site listed 718 openings, including 36 under "information technology"; 30 in "technical operations," including the likes of Linux network system administrators; and 127 under "research and development," with jobs for software engineers in security and user interface development.

Akamai, which provides a platform for the delivery of Web content and applications, has about 200 job openings at the moment, about half in engineering, says Harold Prokop, senior vice president of the company's Intelligent Platform Group. Many smaller companies are hiring aggressively as well.

"Software engineers are the hottest," says Bill Reichert, managing director of Garage Technologies, a venture capital firm. "The higher the software level, the harder it is to fill those jobs."

Not surprisingly, salaries are inflating, sometimes significantly, says Reichert. How much they're increasing is hard to quantify; anecdotal evidence indicates that although there's good money to be made, companies are not repeating the mistake (from the employer's point of view) of paying unsustainably high wages. It's worth noting that a too-rapid, and too-expensive, ramp-up of the workforce helped kill many of the Silicon Valley startups founded in the year 2000, the height of the dot-com frenzy, according to a recent report by Mann and colleagues at the BLS. Tech companies have seemingly learned that lesson.

The tech jobs boom favors developers, cloud experts, and business strategists Are we back to better times in the tech job market? Certainly. But that's not to say everyone who wants to work in tech is employed. In June, for example, 9.9% of the full-time workforce in Sunnyvale, San Jose, and Santa Clara, the California cities regarded as the Silicon Valley tech heartland, found themselves unemployed. It's unclear how much of the out-of-work population are techies, but given the heavy concentration of IT-related jobs in those communities, it's likely that the hiring boom has yet to make up for the massive job losses in tech that followed the financial crisis of 2008.

As job-seeker-turned-Ruby-developer Fluck discovered, the seemingly endless appetite for new mobile applications has spurred strong demand for programmers with skills in Ruby and JavaScript. Dice's listings for those two languages alone increased year over year by 67 and 53%, respectively. "But even people with C++, an older language, are hard to find," says Garage Technologies' Reichert. Akamai's Prokop seconds that opinion and added Python to the list of important skills for the times.

But what's hot is not limited to modern application development. Salesforce.com is eager to find employees with experience working with the cloud. "Cloud computing is not something people have built their careers on. Experience with it -- building or selling or marketing it -- is in high demand," says Salesforce.com's Martin.

Although Salesforce is looking for "skills across the board," Martin raises a point voiced by many technology executives: A grasp of business needs, both the customer's and the employer's, is key to landing and keeping a good job. "People need to be attuned to the use of technology," he says.

That goes double for smaller technology providers where everyone needs to think strategically. "We don't just build features in a backroom -- we try and figure out what users want. We create top 10 lists of things our customers say," says David Galvan, the president of Schedulicity, a young company focused on apps for scheduling appointments for small businesses, such as hair stylists.

Rachel Delacour, CEO of We Are Cloud, a French startup producing the SaaS BI application Bime, says, "We need support engineers who not only have the technical chops, but can get a sense of the customer's business and sell the benefits of cloud computing."

Is the tech jobs boom only for the young? Age discrimination in tech is one of those issues that's always out there, but is rarely dealt with openly. Naturally, no company will admit to discriminating against older workers -- it's against the law. And when you don't get hired, it's a rare company that tells you why.

Kratell, that new hire at Kaazing, is 45 years old. "I applied to Facebook, and my friends laughed and says I was told old," he says. Despite a strong résumé and nibbles from employers like Google, Facebook didn't even give him an interview. Ageism? Kratell thinks it may have been, but there's no way to know for sure, and he says he's delighted with his new position.

Other job seekers tell similar stories and worry that complaining will make it even harder to find work. Gayle (she asked we withhold her name to protect her), a former manager in Hewlett-Packard's storage division, put it this way: "There is not much tolerance for age in this business. Older does not mean wiser in tech. It just means older."

Along with the anecdotes, there is some hard evidence that age discrimination really does exist in tech. The Bureau of Labor Statistics looked at the issue in a study released in early 2011 that shows that older IT workers have higher rates of unemployment than both younger IT workers and older workers in other professions.

In the category of computer and mathematical occupations, the overall unemployment rate for people 55 and over jumped from 6% to 8.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to the data. For those 25- to 54-year-olds in that job category, the unemployment rate fell from 5.1% in 2009 to 4.5% in the same period.

Those figures are particularly striking when compared to the overall population, where 55-plus workers had lower unemployment rates (7%) than the 25- to 54-year-olds (8.5%) in 2010. (Learn more in InfoWorld's in-depth look at the tech age discrimination issue.)

There is, though, a growing recognition in the tech industry that older workers bring something valuable to the table. "People who have made the shift from, say, Cobol to C+ and then to Ruby and Java are very valuable," says Salesforce.com's Martin. "They have seen change and adapted to it."

Indeed, youth -- or at least the inexperience that comes with it -- can be a drawback, says David Bianco, a database analyst at entertainment ticket distributor TicketNetwork, who found that until he approached fours years of experience it was difficult to find work. "A lot of companies really want seven years or more," he adds.

Small companies often do not have the time to bring younger workers up to speed. "We want seasoned pros. There is no time for us to train," says Eric Hansen, CTO of FluxxLabs, a firm that's developing a platform to access business data in the cloud.

What do employers really want from tech employees? You've heard it all before, and InfoWorld heard it again as we interviewed employers about their needs and desires when hiring: They will tell you they want team players, self-starters, people with enthusiasm, and so on. Although those are all clichés, employers probably mean it, so don't think you'll cruise through the interview process simply on the strength of your schooling and your charm.

"Working on our engineering side means dealing with a high-pressure environment. We do want team players and self-directed people who can find solutions. We want a strong technical background. If you are working in the same market we are and have all of these, you can choose your job," says Akamai's Prokop.

How do you demonstrate all of these wonderful attributes? In part, use social media. Kaazing looks for people who show leadership on discussion boards and networking sites like LinkedIn, says Yuan Weigel, Kaazing's marketing vice president.

Other managers give similar advice and say job boards like Dice and Monster, although still important, are losing ground to social media. But Angel Chen, who heads HR for TicketNetwork, cautions job seekers to remember the basics: "We do look for a professional résumé. Formatting is important, and the cover letter shouldn't just regurgitate what's in the résumé," she says.

That may sound old school, but why not do your résumé right? Every edge you grab from the competition puts you closer to the job you desire. After all, tech jobs may be in abundance in certain areas, but that doesn't mean you're guaranteed to get the one you want.

This story, "The tech jobs hiring boom is real -- for these skills," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in IT careers at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

This story, "The tech jobs hiring boom is real -- for these skills" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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