IT career roadmap: Mobile app developer

Looking for an IT job for all seasons? The demand for mobile app developers is steady and growing.

How to become a mobile app developer

Mobile devices play a large and growing role in nearly every aspect of our daily lives, so it’s not surprising there would be a growing need for mobile app developers.

Mobile app developers create applications for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. This might include creating mobile versions of web or computer-based applications. It might also involve developing applications specifically as mobile-exclusive software.

The responsibilities of a mobile app developer vary based on the role, according to the career site Common duties include meeting with senior employees or client representatives to discuss the desired features of an application under development; creating a project plan and budget for the coding, testing, and release of an application; writing and debugging code; developing and releasing patches; and updating existing mobile apps with new features and upgrades.

Alan Sproat IDG

Alan Sproat is a senior mobile application developer with Anelto.

A mobile app developer needs analytical abilities, good communication skills, experience with computer programming and programming languages, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. The average salary for a mobile app developer is $120,221 per year, Indeed says. This field is expected to continue to grow in the years to come.

To find out what’s involved in becoming a mobile app developer, I spoke with Alan Sproat, senior mobile developer at Anelto, a provider of remote patient monitoring technology.

Education and early years

Sproat earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems from Purdue University in 1988. During his college years he had no doubts about pursuing a career in a technology-related field.

Sproat says he is sometimes amazed by how few people in tech set out to have a career in the field. “I was in a manager's meeting once with seven other people. I was the only one working in my major.”

Interest in technology and development in particular came early on for Sproat. “The summer after fourth grade, my mom—who was a librarian for a middle school—brought home a [Commodore PET personal computer] and some educational games for the summer,” he says. “I wanted to play the games but they were broken, full of bugs. The first thing I had to do was follow the included course in BASIC programming so I could fix them and play them. I've coded ever since.”

Employment history

During his college years, Sproat worked with NCR and then joined the company after graduating. He went from that position to a startup and then to another company in the same geographic area. That company transferred him to Dallas, where he remains today.

Sproat then moved into web development, which he says threw him into the dotcom bust, during which he worked at no fewer than 10 companies over a five-year period. “Only two of those still exist,” he says. Next, he started a company with a former boss, which closed after three years. “I'd do it again, [even] knowing it would fail, because of the breadth and depth of non-technical knowledge I gained,” he says.

In 2010, Sproat joined Targetbase as a senior engineer, and for the first time was given the opportunity to start working in mobile development. In this role he designed, constructed, and supported web-based, database-driven business applications and web services for various clients. He also designed and developed iOS demonstration applications using web services for data sources and presented them in mobile-friendly interfaces.

Following this, Sproat joined Nerium International as mobile application team lead, where he organized and lead the development of native mobile iOS and Android apps among other mobile development tasks. He led the architecture design of mobile apps.

This position was followed by others in mobile application development, eventually leading to his current role as senior mobile developer at Anelto.

A day in the life of a mobile app developer

“I work closely with the project manager and QA [quality assurance] teams to make updates to the custom software for the custom hardware my company builds,” Sproat says. “I'd say I spend 80% of my time developing right now.” That includes fixing bugs and creating new features. “The rest is in scheduling, status, mentoring the recently hired other mobile developer, and other administrative tasks,” he says.

Learning on the job

“I found out fairly early in my career that putting in the effort to make your team work more efficiently and effectively is appreciated and rewarded in many ways by almost everyone,” Sproat says. He discovered this when he created a tool to reformat code automatically “so that it would be easier for everyone to read and people didn't have to spend time doing it by hand while coding,” he says.

“Leaving my first job out of college was difficult for me because both of my parents worked for the same [organization] their entire careers,” Sproat says. “I had never seen a career change in my childhood, so I didn't know it was allowed or ethical. My parents literally had to sit me down and tell me that their situation was unusual.”

Inspirations and advice for others

“My first programming professor in college showed me that my enthusiasm for programming wasn't strange or silly,” Sproat says. “My first supervisor as a co-op, who was also my first manager out of college, showed me how a manager should work with their team.”

“My grandfather told me always to fulfill my promises and responsibilities,” Sproat says. “When you are angry or exhausted when you get home from work regularly, you need to change jobs as soon as possible. Don't be loyal to a company; be loyal to individual people. Companies do not remember things. People do.”

“It is okay, potentially even great, to remain ‘just’ a programmer,” Sproat says. “It is a constantly evolving field with multiple paths opening all the time. Also, learn to say no, even if you could fulfill the request, when it's not your job and/or you have other priorities. Don't let the theories you've learned get in the way of creating maintainable and useful code in a timely manner.”

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