Beyond fad frameworks: which programming skills are in demand?

Which programming skills should spend your limited time and energy on, which engineering skills are really in demand? There will always be another fad framework that will soon fade from memory; the time you spend learning it might turn out to be wasted. And job listings ask for ever-changing, not very reasonable combinations of skills: “We want 5 years experience with AngularJS, a deep knowledge of machine learning, and a passion for flyfishing!”

Which skills are really in demand, which will continue to be in demand, and which can safely be ignored? The truth is that the skills employers want are not the skills they actually need: the gap between the two can be a problem, but if you present yourself right it can also be an opportunity.

What employers want

What employers typically want is someone who will get going quickly, with as short a ramp-up time as possible and as little training as possible. While perhaps short-sighted, this certainly seems to be the default mindset. There are two failure modes:

  1. Over-focusing on implementation skills, rather than problem solving skills: “We use AngularJS, therefore we must hire someone who already knows AngularJS!” If it turns out AngularJS doesn’t work when the requirements change, hiring only for AngularJS skills will prove problematic.
  2. Hiring based on a hypothetical solution: “I hear that well-known company succeeded using microservices, so we should switch to microservices. We must hire someone who already knows microservices!” If that turns out to be the wrong solution, hiring someone to implement it will not turn out well.

What employers need

What employers actually need is someone who will identify and solve their problems. An organization’s goal is never really to use AngularJS or switch to microservices: it’s to sell a product or service, help some group of people, promote some point of view, and so on. Employers need employees who will help further these goals.

That doesn’t necessarily require knowing the employer’s existing technology stack, or having a working knowledge of trendy technologies. Someone who can quickly learn the existing codebase and technologies, identify the big-picture problems, and then come up with and implement a good solution: that is what employers really need.

This can build on a broad range of skills, including:

What you should do

Given this gap between what employers want and what they need, what should you do?

  1. Learn the problem solving skills that employers will always need. That means gathering requirements, coming up with efficient solutions, project management, and so on.
  2. Learn some long-lasting popular technologies in-depth. Relational databases have been around since the 1980’s and aren’t going anywhere: if you really understand how to structure data, the concurrency model, the impact of disk storage and layout, and so on, learning some other database like MongoDB will be easy (although perhaps a little horrifying). Similarly, decades after their creations languages like Python or Java are still going strong, and if you know one well you’ll have an easy time learning many other languages.
  3. Dabble, minimally, in some trendy technologies. If you occasionally spend 30 minutes going through the tutorial for the web framework of the month, when it’s time to interview you say can say “I played with it a little.” This will also help you with the next item.
  4. Learn how to learn new technologies quickly.

Then, when it’s time to look for a job, ignore the list of technology requirements when applying, presuming you think you can do the job: it’s what the company wants, not what they need.

Interviewing is about marketing, about how you present yourself. So in your cover letter, and when you interview, emphasize all the ways you can address what they want in other ways, and try to point out ways in which you can help do what they actually need:

  • Getting started quickly with minimal training: “I can learn new codebases and technologies quickly, as I did at my last job when I joined the Foo team, learned how to use Bar in a month, and built Baz in just two months.”
  • Needs that are implicit in the company’s situation: “I see you’re a growing company; I have previous experience helping an engineering team grow under similar circumstances.”
  • Needs that are implicit in the job description: “I identified this big costly problem, not unlike yours, and solved it like this, using these technologies.”

Learning every new web framework isn’t necessary to get a job. Yes, technologies do change over the years: that means you need to be able to learn new technologies quickly. But just as important as technology skills are those that will make you valuable—the ability to identify and solve problems—and the skill that will make your value clear: the ability to market yourself.

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