9 key career issues software developers face

Developers looking to cash in on a healthy hiring market should also consider building a career

The path from birth to death is filled with choices about where to work and what kind of work to do. Sometimes the world is nice enough to allow us some input. These days, developers have a lot more say in their employment, thanks to rising demand for their services.

Whether you're an independent contractor or a cubicle loyalist with a wandering eye, programming want ads abound, each stirring its own set of questions about how best to steer your career. For some, this is entirely new territory, having fallen into employment with computers simply as a means to scratch an itch.

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The following nine concerns are central to charting your career path. Some target the résumé. Others offer opportunities for career growth in themselves. Then there are questions of how to navigate unfortunate employment issues particular to IT. Thinking about your answers to these questions is more than a way of preparing for when someone comes to ask them. It is the first step in making the most of your interests and skills.

Will certification give you an edge?

A common dilemma facing career-minded developers is how much attention to pay to certification. After all, employers always want to determine if you really know what you claim to know, and tech companies are always stepping forward with certificate programs to help them.

The programs are aimed at teaching a given technology, then testing your competence with what was taught. They focus on practical solutions, not theoretical conundrums like most university courses. Thus, they appeal to companies looking to vet candidates in their ability to deliver real-world solutions.

The key question for developers, though, is whether there's any real demand for a particular certificate. Most cutting-edge technologies are too new to be testable, so employers look for other evidence of ability. The real market for certification will always be in bedrock tools like running an Oracle database or maintaining a fleet of Microsoft boxes. Companies that depend on Oracle or Microsoft will usually pay extra for people who've already demonstrated a skill. When your certification and the employer's needs align, everyone is happy.

But developers need to choose carefully. Preparing for exams takes a fair amount of time, and the questions often test trivial knowledge -- the kind usually provided by automatic tools built into today's powerful editors. I've taken several exams about the Java stack and thought to myself: Knowing that fact is Eclipse's job, not mine.

Certificates often have a limited window of usefulness as well. Being an expert on Windows XP was great 10 years ago, but it won't help much today -- unless the company is sticking with XP until the bitter end. You can often find yourself getting certified in versions 1.0, 1.1, 1.2 of a product.

What is the true value of a computer science degree?

If it's hard to discern whether a professional certificate for a particular technology is worth earning, it's almost impossible to decide whether to invest in traditional collegiate degrees. All it takes is one look at leaders like Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg to know that a bachelor's degree is not a prerequisite for changing the world.

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