Earlier in July StateImpact Ohio spotlighted the Software Craftsmanship Guild, a private company that teaches people looking for a new career direction the skills they need for jobs as entry-level computer software developers. There are thousands of such jobs available, and there are also many jobs as network technicians and administrators. Brad Nellis, head of the Northeast Ohio Software Association, is well-versed about the differences between those two employment tracks and what kind of training they entail. He shares his insights in this interview.
Q: Colleges and universities across the country turn out computer science grads every year. But what I’m hearing is that there are not nearly enough of them.
A: It’s absolutely true. There are thousands of un-met jobs in Northeast Ohio, or unfilled openings, if you will. If you look at OhioMeansJobs.com and if you look at information technology you can sort it by software development or network technician and so forth, the different categories. There are thousands of job openings within 50 miles of Cleveland. Its… I don’t know if it’s amazing but it’s incredibly strong.
Q: We talked earlier about the difference between network administration, which is more of a hardware occupation, and software development, which is writing code. Tell me the difference between those in terms of education, because you’ve got community colleges such as Tri-C, which offers Cisco certification courses, with people in the same boat as those who find themselves at the Software Craftsmanship Guild or Dev Boot Camp [just two of numerous coding boot camps around the country]. All of them are looking for the same thing – a career in technology.
A: On the hardware side, if you’re looking at higher education, those are students that are typically going through an information systems track or management information systems or computer information systems, and it really is more about the infrastructure of a business, managing the computers, the networks, the connection to the internet, the security of their network system and so forth. And all the [community colleges] including Tri-C, Lorain Community College and Lakeland, all offer programs in those areas. On the software side it’s a little bit higher skill level, a little bit more of an analytical approach. All the universities have programs like that. At the community colleges they tend to be a little bit smaller than the network technician programs. So the software folks tend to go to more traditional four-year programs.
They come out with the ability to maybe go work for a custom software development firm, maybe a small company, or work for a small proprietary firm. There are a number of those in the area, like a Brandmuscle or TMW Systems, or Hyland Software. Or they can work in “large enterprise,” which are non-tech companies like Eaton or Sherwin Williams or Progressive. On the programming side, they might work doing development for that company, such as the internal processes, and on the network technician side, they might work in a help desk environment or on network troubleshooting and routing. So there is a lot of opportunity on both sides.
Q: Among those jobs on the network administration side or the software side, which kinds are more plentiful, either here in Northeast Ohio or around the country?
A: There’s probably a little stronger demand for the software development side, and that’s nationwide. There’s a lot of demand for that. There’s strong demand on the infrastructure side too, but not as strong as software. Overall, IT hiring is very robust and has been for about three or four years now, since the end of the Great Recession.
We do a quarterly survey of tech companies and for the last three years we’ve seen on average that 67 to 75 percent of companies each quarter are planning to add staff in the coming year; not just replacing staff that may be leaving, but a net increase in staff. Over the nine years we’ve been doing the survey we’ve never seen a three year run like that over any period of time, so there is really high demand for an extended period of time.
Q: That’s amazing, and of course you can’t really notice as it’s happening. Three years down the road you look back and say ‘Wow this is really something.’
A: Right, and really I think the only thing that would derail it right now is if we dipped into another recession. First quarter GDP was down, so that’s in negative territory. Technically if 2nd quarter is reported as down too, that is technically a recession. But it’s not going to be deep. I’m not predicting by any means that we’re going into a recession, but if we were to that might be the only thing that could slow down demand for software talent. And I don’t think we’re going to go into another recession by any means.
Q: Another thing you mentioned that I wanted to ask you about is the Cisco certification programs that are offered at Tri-C. These are also offered and Lakeland and Lorain County Community College?
A: Yes. I’m more familiar with the Tri-C programs, but I think specifically to Tri-C, it’s important to note that there are two sides to the college. There’s the traditional education side, which is Cuyahoga Community College with programs in a number of different areas: nursing, higher education, childcare, information technology, etc. And then there’s the Workforce Economic Development division which is an adjunct to the college, and through that they do specialized training in a number of different areas, such as robotics, healthcare, and information technology. They also have a specialized program that’s a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to train network technicians.
Q: Which programs does that grant money go into? It comes from H-1B fees, right?
A: Correct. Any company that sponsors an employee on an H-1B visa, the employer pays a fee for that. Those fees are aggregated and accumulated by the federal government. Then periodically – annually or maybe a couple of times a year – those funds are released in the form of grants that are specifically designed reduce unemployment by offering retraining services. The ones that we’re partnering with at Tri-C is on network technicians – to take people who have a certain level of IT skills that are perhaps out of date since they’ve been out of work for at least six months. This program is a boot camp program that enables them to refresh their skills, gets them certified in Cisco’s current technologies, and better prepares them for a current job.
Q: There are three levels of certifications, and a number of certifications at each level. If one was to go back and engage in one of these programs, how many certifications would they come out with?
A: To my understanding, the students come out with at least one certification if they can pass the certification test. As part of the program, they’re prepared to understand what it takes to be a network technician, and they take at least one certification test as a part of the cost of providing the training. So it’s kind of covered by the Department of Labor grant. If they can pass the test, they come out with at least one certification.
Q: I’ve also heard that many students coming out of four-year computer science programs aren’t gravitating to coding jobs. I’ve heard these kinds of jobs described as grunt jobs, with a row of cubicles and a boss saying ‘You’ve got to write this much code in the next eight hours, or there’s ten people lined up outside the door waiting to take your job.”
A: Well, quite frankly, I’ve never heard it described that way, [but} in software development, it is a little bit of a production environment. When you think of manufacturing, definitely a production environment, as you’re producing parts in a factory. In software, it’s production as well – the developers are producing code. They work in a team environment, and it is cubicle oriented, no question about that. But there is a lot of interaction. The old-style view of the software developer was the person that sat in the back of the office and didn’t talk to anybody all day, just sitting at their computer hunched over, writing code for eight to ten hours a day, and then just leaving. Those days are gone, so people that work in software development really have to understand their product and how it solves their company’s client’s needs. So they work together a lot in teams, and not just development teams, but marketing teams as well. There could also be finance teams, teams that are focused on solving business challenges. So it’s a much more holistic approach in software development than it used to be. To that end, there are deadlines, most definitely, and there can be a lot of time put into it and a lot of after-hours work when necessary. Because if you’re working in any kind of business where you’re meeting clients’ needs, you’ve got to meet their needs when they need to be met, not when you want to meet them.
Q: If you’re working as a software developer, are you writing new programs? Or are you working on existing programs and modifying or customizing them for clients?
A: It’s a lot of both. We generally classify it on the software company side, from a small business perspective, they’re either a proprietary software company, in which they have their own products that they sell, like a Hyland Software with document management, T&W Systems with trucking fleet management, MRI Software, whose software helps property owners manage investment properties. Those are set products that are branded for them and they sell them. And so if you’re a software developer you’re mostly working on those existing products, modifying them, improving them, and ensuring that they’re up to current standards for technology. If you’re with a custom development shop where you’re doing essentially software project work for a client, you’re working on new software development projects all the time, where your company engages with a client, who needs software that does x, y and z to support these processes. Your company supplies basically the expert resources that produces the software. And then you sell it to the company and they own it. So it depends on the type of business that you’re working in.
Q: Are the more experienced code writers typically the ones working on the new programs?
A: My sense is that there are high levels of experience on both sides. The skill sets might be a little bit different perhaps, maybe a little bit more imaginative if you’re writing new software all the time. But I think the fundamentals of the job are fairly similar.
Q: So when we look at the programs we use and think ‘I wish it did this,’ and updates come out for those programs, those are the workers we’re talking about, writing new code to make them do the things we want them to do?
A: Right. Because business needs change over time, and you have to ensure that your product that your company is using changes with those changing business needs. Otherwise they’re going to buy a different product and replace yours.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: We want to make sure that people understand that there’s a lot of demand for software talent in Northeast Ohio. It’s a really vibrant community here. We have a lot more entrepreneurial tech firms than people know about: 2,000, maybe 2.500 small tech firms in Northeast Ohio, coupled with a lot of Fortune 500 and mid-market companies that are all using technology and enhancing their abilities with technology. We’re a much more dynamic market than people give us credit for in Northeast Ohio.