Careers in Tech – Firms need soft skills, software degrees

PIT-HotCareers_IMAGE-0421Article Written By Jason Gray

Tech skills are a hot commodity in any workplace in today’s economy. But even in Philadelphia’s extensive tech economy, companies hiring computer programmers, mobile application developers and software engineers want well-rounded applicants.

They are seeking strong communication skills, an ability to collaborate and innovate. They are looking for an overall sense of professionalism. In most instances, they also place a high value on industry-specific knowledge.

“We want people to have real skill sets,” said Karissa Justice of Azavea, the Philadelphia-based geospatial tech company. “People may have a degree in the tech field but no skills.”

Such skills can be essential for recent graduates to find a job and enjoy long-term professional success. In some instances, it may even allow someone to secure a position for which their technical background isn’t exactly right. Some companies may be willing to hire someone who has excellent soft skills and can be developed on the technical side.

Technology is constantly changing. Preferred programming languages and best practices change often.

Critical thinking, willingness to learn and teamwork skills can be critical. “We hire one out of every 30 to 35 people we interview, because it ultimately comes down to fit,” Rappaport said. “The people we hire like to teach – they’re the go-to people at their last position — but are still hungry to learn from the people around them.”

Mike Rappaport, CEO of Chariot Solutions, urges people hoping to enter the industry to develop their soft skills in addition to their software skills. “For soft skills, our consultants have to be well-rounded,” he said. “You can be deeply technical but not have the people skills or understand business as we need to.”

Potential benefits for a well-rounded candidate
Demand in the Pennsylvania area for technology professionals is strong, as it is in most other parts of the country. These jobs generally pay well.

Consider computer programmers and software engineers who write the code behind software programs. Most programmers specialize in a couple programming languages. They earn a median wage of $74,280, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Software developers and mobile app developers are the creative minds behind programs. Developers usually need more experience or education to be successful. The median wage is $90,000 with the top 10 percent of developers making more than $138,000, according to the BLS.

Software and app programmers are in particularly high demand in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Workforce Development agency lists the careers as one of the Statewide High Priority Occupations. “There’s a sense of urgency in this state,” Rappaport said. “Everyone has plans and are moving forward in ways completely reliant on software and infrastructure development. It’s about the hospital systems, insurance companies — people we don’t think of as tech companies. We want more companies to make their home in Pennsylvania, and we need to bring more tech into the area to support them.”

Many of the job openings at tech companies around Philadelphia ask for at least an associate degree. “I’d say having a degree is a big plus and makes life a lot easier to get the first job,” he said.

Internships to develop industry-specific skills
Rappaport added that companies need “skills related to the industry in which they work.”

This may include knowledge of finance for individuals who are looking for banking technology jobs, manufacturing processes, retail and a range of other industries.

Indeed, internships and volunteer work are often accepted as experience if the work fits the company’s market, even if the work does not directly involve software development. For example, Azavea hosts a three-month fellowship for students interested in geographic information systems.

And Chariot has an apprenticeship program that grew from a training program they offered to other companies. “I can’t put someone out to my customers if they haven’t proved they’re the real deal,” Rappaport said. “We believe they have the ability – we’re trying to give them the experience in addition to the classroom training.”

“I understand job seekers frustration that you need experience to get experience, but in the field of software development, experience doesn’t just mean holding a job with a title,” Justice said. “There are many open source projects or small personal projects people can work on to get hands-on experience actually making something.”