With the economic downturn on everyone's mind, assumptions about job security come under question, and everyone starts reexamining their skills. There are lots and lots of valuable jobs performed in IT, but some skills are valued even more highly than others. With all the upheaval we're experiencing in IT, many new skills are in high demand or rapidly increasing in value. Here are my Top 7 skills that could help you not only keep that job, but secure an even better new job, positioning you to work on the next generation of IT applications and software products in the era of Web-delivered online applications.
Web application design
I have a passion for great product design and people who know how to do this really well. Designing a great Web application is very different from designing a great Web site. They couldn't be more different in my book. Most UI designers need to be able to work under challenging circumstances -- most people around them won't understand what they do, how they do it, when they should be brought in, what information and resources they need, and how much work it takes to create not only a usable UI design but a useful one, too. You've got to be a resourceful person, someone who can insert themselves into the conversations between architects, developers, users, QA, test, product management and everyone else out there who thinks they can design a better UI mousetrap. UI design is like NFL football: Everyone can recognize a good game when they see it, but very few can actually play the game. And we all have a opinion about it.
One of the best criticisms I received from a customer looking at my product was, "This user interface looks like a developer designed it." That pretty much said it all about what they thought about the ease of use of that application. Now, if you are a developer who thinks you might have an eye for UI design, that could be a pretty insulting statement from a customer. Maybe you are a developer who's a good, decent or adequate UI designer, but you're by far the rare exception. If you think UI design is easy and don't understand what all the fuss is about, you definitely need help from a UI designer.
If you'd like to grow your skills as a UI designer, seek out user groups in information design, build up some human-factors skills, learn how to plan and perform user interviews, develop user personas, and execute well-designed product-testing sessions with users. Most important is to start by knowing who the users are for the software you're building. It's amazing how often very little is known about the true user of a product or IT system.
Web app development
If you write applications that rely on a heavy or installed client, I've got to believe you're probably not in the forefront of where application development is headed. Web applications are where software is headed, with a dash of SaaS and PaaS (platform-as-a-service) to boot. Delivering applications via the Web browser is where the most interesting application development is happening, whether that be with ASP.NET applications, Sharepoint portal applications, LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP), Java, or Ruby on Rails. Add to that capabilities offered by PaaS providers, such as Amazon, Salesforce/Force.com and Google, and things get pretty interesting.
Web interfaces in applications can be a funny thing. Is the Web UI something that's plopped on top of a well-designed application? Does the Web UI design drive the rest of the application design? What's designed first, the back-end or the front-end UI? Well, it's probably a mixture of both, with one very significant driving factor. 7 Habits productivity guru Steven Covey says, "Start with the end in mind." Kind of the idea that you can't get lost if you don't know where you're going. I've adapted Covey's saying: Start with the end user in mind. Creating that effective balance of front-end and back-end design in a Web application is an artful skill to be treasured by those Web app developers who've discovered not only how to find that balance, but also help others on the team see, appreciate and value it.
The number of Web apps we'll be creating in the months and years to come are only going to increase. Teams and technical leaders who can do this well are worth their weight in gold. Do this well and you'll have your choice of projects and companies to work with.