Feature: Objects of desire

It's almost a cliche to refer to the job market for a particular IT skill as white-hot -- but in the case of object-oriented programming skills, it's an understatementObject languages such as Smalltalk, C++ and Java have cross-industry demand as they have become the common languages of programming.

Java, C++ and Smalltalk have become the common language of programming in almost every industry, particularly traditionally information technology-heavy fields such as banking, telecommunications and insurance. As a result, opportunities abound -- not just for professionals who already have those skills, but also for people looking to acquire them.

Just about the only field not going wild for objects is the very small embedded systems area, in which people have traditionally been concerned about minimising space.

Hiring managers agree that the object language most in demand is Java. That's largely because Java is evolving quickly and facilitates the ever-popular move toward browser-based interfaces. Equally important: Someone with a background in the more complex C++ can learn Java in just a few weeks. At online wine vendor Virtual Vineyards, for example, director of engineering Cyrus Khoshnevisan has hired primarily self-taught Java jockeys who have C++ experience. Virtual Vineyards uses new Java technologies like servlets to personalise the Web site for individual customers and keep pricing and inventory information constantly updated.

C++ itself is still a sought-after skill, especially for employers like Fatbrain.com, an online computer book retailer that uses C++ as the glue that holds its acclaimed Web site together.

Smalltalk, the oldest of the object languages, seems to be losing ground to its two offspring. Although companies still use Smalltalk, hiring demand has dropped considerably. In Silicon Valley, at least, requests for programmers with Smalltalk experience have dwindled rapidly during the past two to three years.

Credit the explosion of the Web for the dramatic growth in the object-language job market. Companies are hot to explore Web-based applications, especially e-commerce.

Browser-enabled user interfaces are another use for object languages. Companies build Java applets to provide user-friendly access to legacy systems via application servers that have Object Request Brokers. Service Merchandise is one example of a company making broad use of object languages -- in this case, Java.

Senior Vice President and CIO Ken Brame reports that in addition to allowing customers to order via the company's Web site, Service Merchandise uses Java applets on its extranet and intranet to connect with vendors and employees. That helps the company find optimal shipping methods, for example, and automatically generates e-mail that gives preferred shippers the opportunity to bid on deliveries.

As with many IT skills, the career path in object languages leads from designing subcomponents to implementing entire mission-critical systems. Salaries range from $US50,000 per year in low-level positions outside the high-tech hot spots to $120,000 and up for experienced high-end engineers in New York and San Francisco.

Given the demand and pay, plenty of IT professionals are acquiring those skills either by taking classes on their own or by asking for on-the-job training. And though companies are retraining employees to meet the need, they're finding retention difficult, given the lure of other opportunities.

"We think it makes sense to give our internal staff the opportunity to learn this hot new technology," Brame says. "Unfortunately, once they've been trained, it's harder to hold on to them. The first three people we trained left the company."

The most valuable object-language professionals have skills beyond the particular language. Database design and analysis, client/server and soft business skills, as well as an awareness of the industry, increase an IT worker's value. Hiring managers say they want to see applicants with experience designing applications, particularly those that handle high-volume transactions, not just theoretical background.

Virtual Vineyards' Khoshnevisan says. "Even if I'm hiring a Java programmer, I'd rather see someone who's finished a C++ job that went into production than someone who's done a prototype in Java that was never produced."

After all, programmers who know how to design, develop, test and integrate an application are the ones with the long-term career prospects. Those skills will transfer to the next hot technology.

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