Guest Opinion

Show Me The Money

With a long recession looming, what can software developers do to soften the blow?

My original plan this month was to write about economic factors in software development, but as I took pen in hand (metaphorically speaking) on a day that set new records in stock market declines, I realized that a far better topic might be economic factors for software developers. I don't know what the economy will be like when this column is published, but with the most optimistic economists forecasting a long recession, it's likely that as you read this you're as concerned about 401(k)s and mutual funds as you are about the latest rumors on the next version of Visual Studio.

So let's talk about what it means to be a software developer in tough economic times.

The most important thing to remember is to keep up the one surefire investment that's guaranteed to give you great returns: yourself. Take care of yourself. It's easy to be overwhelmed by stress when your stock options are deep underwater, your investments on a roller coaster ride, and your boss is spending long hours holed up in executive meetings and looking nervous. It's easy to be sucked into working 60-hour weeks to meet impossible schedules when you're worried about keeping your job. But if you aren't taking time for the basics -- sleep, family, fun -- you'll find yourself melting down faster than the Dow on a bad day.

Invest proactively; invest in your education. The economy might slow down, but you can bet that the pace of technological change will not. If the job market is going to get tight, you want to be where the demand is. Of course, figuring that out is the tricky part. Technologists have about the same record predicting which technologies will succeed -- and the timing of that success -- as economists have predicting the time and duration of booms and busts. But there are some trends that you can count on.

It's a safe bet that the Internet will continue to grow. In tough economic times, anything that reduces costs or prices will have an advantage, and the 'Net does both. If you haven't yet learned Web technologies, now's the time. The trend to smarter phones is likely to continue, though lower consumer spending might slow adoption a bit. Now might be a good time to learn how to make Web applications look good on phones, or how to write phone applications. As for corporate IT: Your guess is as good as mine.

Investing in education sounds easy, but you don't have time to learn every technology and platform -- especially during tough times, when you'll probably be working extra hours whether you like it or not. Don't forget to look at non-Microsoft technologies; Microsoft doesn't dominate the software world as it did during the last recession. Windows Mobile is popular, great, and familiar, but the iPhone has momentum and Android might gain traction. Software as a Service is spreading like wildfire, and the technology becomes even more compelling when cash is tight; many of those platforms are outside of the Windows world. Silverlight looks great, but the whole world still runs Flash.

Even within Windows and Visual Studio, you don't have time to learn every technology. Is it time for Windows Presentation Foundation, or can you stay with Windows Forms for a bit and spend your time studying Windows Communication Foundation? Entity Framework is powerful, but is there going to be a market for those skills in the near future? LINQ gets a lot of hype, but maybe it's time (finally!) to learn to use the testing tools built into Visual Studio instead. Remember: Microsoft can afford to launch multiple technologies knowing that only some of them have to succeed. You can't afford to learn them all, and becoming an expert in a technology that doesn't get widely adopted -- or whose adoption is still some years away -- will do you little good if you need a new job tomorrow.

The one thing you can count on is that tough economic times drive companies to become more efficient, and one of the ways they do that is by investing in technology. Gain expertise in the right technology, and your investment is sure to pay off.

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