Mobile is still first, but the skills you need are changing

The app development industry is booming, and demand remains high for both native app developers and those working with more established programming languages.

Man and woman Mobile Application Designers Test and Discuss New App Features

It took over two decades and a pandemic to get videoconferencing out of the board room and into the daily routine of most people around the globe. The surge in remote working and entertaining saw Zoom’s annual revenue increase by more than four times that of its pre-pandemic figures. It wasn’t the only service that fulfilled a vital need through changing times: Netflix added a record number of new subscribers in 2020, while TikTok almost doubled its userbase in the US alone.

There was one trend, however, that the Covid-19 pandemic reinforced on a grand scale: app usage continues to change drastically from year to year as consumers’ needs and wants change. Travel and navigation app use plummeted, for obvious reasons, while there was a short lived surge in home workout app downloads.

The world is changing again, as more offices and venues reopen and restrictions are lifted. Will it mean a slowdown in growth for medical apps, along with videoconferencing and entertainment streaming? Probably – but not as big as you might think. Since the dawn of mobile app stores, innovation has moved at a breathless pace: apps are quietly shelved while new ones are developed. The Google Play store, for example, sees anywhere from 80,000 to 93,000 new apps published every month. Yet the number of apps available shrank by almost 100,000 a month at the start of 2022.

Away from the big name apps that you check every day, the lifespan of an app is short. Some reports suggest that 71% of users churn after just three months. App development, in other words, is still a rapidly changing field in which trends, technologies and customer needs change fast. So how are those needs changing?

Businesses demand better

Given the need to engage customers and employees, just being “mobile first” is no longer enough.

“I think there's an increased emphasis on the quality and experience of mobile apps and mobile websites, especially as they are an extension of desktop and productivity tools,” says Daniel Katcher, founder and CEO of Rocket Farm Studios, an award-winning product development consultancy. “Look how amazing Zoom and Slack and the like are on mobile. There's definitely a recognition that you have to be great on mobile to meet people wherever they are.”

Demand for skills remains high too: despite a huge effort over the last few years to train more software developers and expand the teaching of STEM subjects, a recent poll of developers and tech recruiters carried out by CoderPad found that employers are still struggling to recruit for tech roles. According to ZDNet, 42% of employers are increasing their use of freelance and contract workers to meet demand for highly skilled talent.

Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has made employees in many sectors reconsider their roles and seek better work-life balance through remote working or turning to freelance. This phenomenon was initially spotted by researchers at Texas A&M University in 2020, and is regularly referred to as “The Great Resignation”.

The demand for highly skilled app developers means that they are in the vanguard of this change in the way we work: they are able to command high wages, move easily between jobs and work remotely.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing for employers, so long as they are aware of trends and manage changes to their working practices to maintain effective resourcing policies.

“I think people are more than happy to outsource when it makes sense for their business goals,” says Rocket Farm’s Katcher. “Usually, speed, quality, and the ability to execute are just as important as the investment required, so it's a business decision. Working with an outsourced company does give you the ability to vary the team and scale up and down when needed. We try to structure our contracts to give clients a lot of flexibility to staff the appropriate team for the moment - because the need does vary over time. Sometimes it's design-intensive, sometimes development-intensive, and sometimes you are in a growth mode which means a mix of everything.”

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The skills in demand

For developers looking to make their CV attractive, it’s important to bear in mind that expertise in well-established programming languages and techniques of business and the web are still growing in demand. Online school Coding Dojo publishes an annual list of popular languages which reflects employer needs: its most recent report showed growth in demand for Python, Java, JavaScript and C++. Native app skills may still be more niche, but there’s an opportunity for those who have them.

"I always advise young software engineers to figure out what they like first – front end, polished UI work, or backend, more service-oriented development - and then get good at that as a starting" point.

“We are always looking for native app developers, such as Swift and Kotlin,” says Katcher, “Flutter is also making a ton of sense for companies, so we're looking for Flutter as an alternative to React Native or other Javascript solutions. I always advise young software engineers to figure out what they like first – front end, polished UI work, or backend, more service-oriented development - and then get good at that as a starting point. The good news is there's tremendous demand for all sides of the equation. And don't ignore all the other software engineering skills you need - Git, Agile process, and working in a team context.”

For those who have the right combination of skills, it’s a seller’s market.

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