.NET results: What you need in the 2003 job market

For a good position in the 2003 IT job market, .NET is your best bet, along with sharp C# skills.

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Want to double your pay next year? You'll need four things on your resume: object-oriented programming, ASP.NET know-how, C# aptitude and the rarest of all job-hunting skills, honest self-appraisal.

As the Windows world migrates to .NET, job opportunities are blossoming for IT workers skilled in Microsoft's latest programming technologies. Large-scale computing enterprises -- particularly those in the banking, real estate, insurance and medical industries -- have stepped up their efforts to hire qualified .NET workers.

But the .NET world is not yet in full bloom. And there are huge fields, such as the defense industry, that remain fallow. "We have a group that's looking at .NET," said a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md. "But we're really not doing anything with it yet." Most of Lockheed Martin's software development efforts -- namely projects for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force -- are Windows-based but do not leverage .NET tools or services. Indeed, of the more than 150 available positions for software programmers and systems analysts at the defense contractor, only 32 mandate that applicants have XML knowledge, and only two specifically demand .NET skills.

The bigger problem, though, is not in finding .NET-hungry employers. It's in finding genuinely .NET-savvy employees. The market is teeming with techies with ASP and Visual Basic experience, and they are applying for jobs requiring ASP.NET and VB.NET knowledge -- skills that are related but hardly interchangeable. "Most of the skills that VB developers learned through years of hard work do not apply to .NET," said Aleksey Nudelman, a theoretical physicist and research and development consultant with Atlas Development Corp., a medical software developer in Woodland Hills, Calif. "VB.NET is a new language that has very little in common with VB."

In short order, wistful programmers find themselves in over their heads. "Programmers see words like 'ASP.NET' and 'VB.NET' and think that it's just the standard [tools]," said Paul Ballard, a freelance programmer and founder of Central Pennsylvania .NET Users Group, Harrisburg, Pa. "You have lots of people who've used the [.NET] beta and have written a Web page and think they're experts. Not so."

The result: VB programmers are writing bulky, inefficient code that doesn't take advantage of all the new features of .NET technology. For example, when Ballard arrived for a three-month programming stint at Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., he reduced 850 lines of VB.NET code, which had been written by the previous contractor, to 300 lines. Not only was the code inefficient, he said, but it didn't take advantage of some of the newer features of VB.NET, such as object serialization.

Of course, there's great incentive for job hunters to claim .NET proficiency: a $35,000- to $50,000-per-year premium over non-.NET programmers. Mind you, such premiums are not yet the rule. Despite an obvious undersupply of .NET workers, many employers now only grudgingly acknowledge that they need to pay VB.NET or ASP.NET programmers two to three times the $25 to $35 per hour they pay Visual Basic and ASP programmers.

Assuming you're in it for the money (aside from the glory of squeezing six months' work into three months), what skills should you add? In addition to ASP.NET and VB.NET -- which are currently the most sought-after skills -- those making the bigger bucks say Microsoft's C# programming is key.

That's because C# has open-source support, runs on Linux and other operating systems, and has exactly the same rapid application development features as VB.NET. "If the adoption of Linux [continues at its] current rate, I expect more and more C# positions both on Windows and Linux," Nudelman said. Many companies, realizing the advantages of open-source and multiple platforms, are actively seeking C# programmers, he noted. For example, Monster.com has 75% more C# positions advertised than VB.NET positions.

Ironically, .NET is also expected to boost the demand for those skilled in the relatively ancient arts of OOP languages, Java and C++. That's because .NET shows VB shops the power of C++ that they have been missing all these years. "In our opinion, the best technical skill to have is in object-oriented programming because .NET requires more structure," which OOP can provide, said Ray Barger, vice president of sales and marketing for CyberSoft Technologies Inc., a Houston-based consulting and software design firm that deals with .NET and wireless technologies.

So, what's the .NET bet for next year? 2003 will see good -- but not great -- growth in the job market for those who have solid experience with two or more .NET languages as well as OOP. The deeper the experience, the deeper the pay. The greater growth will come in 2004.

This was first published in December 2002

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