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Handheld programmers hard to come by

Recruiters are desperate to lure talent in a small but explosive niche of the technology sector: programming for wireless.

In the new cyberthriller "Antitrust," recruiters at a mythical software company are so desperate to hire a hotshot programmer that they commission a knockout girlfriend to help woo him.

Although real-world recruiters aren't going quite so far to hire talent, they seem just as desperate to lure programmers in a small but explosive niche of the technology sector: creating software for wireless handheld devices.

Market demand for handhelds has mushroomed and will continue to do so as cellular networks upgrade to third-generation, or 3G, networks, which will allow handheld computers to have always-on online access. At the same time, the market is so new that few people have direct experience writing code for this market in particular.

The extreme imbalance in supply and demand for wireless code writers has headhunters on the lookout, and it has pushed salaries of some wireless programmers beyond the relatively lofty levels of regular software developers.

How lofty? Recruiters say programmers with wireless experience can expect to command a 50 percent salary premium.

"If a director of software programming in the computer industry maybe makes $100,000, in the wireless industry they're commanding $150,000 but they're also making astronomical figures when it comes to stock," said Steve Wentworth, a recruiter with Active Wireless Executive Search Group in South Daytona, Fla. "It's a supply and demand thing. There aren't enough software programmers that have wireless experience out there to fill the jobs."

Darryl Pierce said he started receiving calls from recruiters within 30 minutes of posting his resume on career site Although Pierce had no experience programming for wireless devices, he started work three weeks later at HiddenMind Technology, a company that develops back-end systems for corporate customers to communicate wirelessly with their employees.

"Their initial response was, 'He doesn't have any wireless skills,'" Pierce said of his HiddenMind interviewers. "But after my second interview, they said, 'Keep your cell phone handy.'"

Racing for top spot
The reason recruiters and executives have become so enamored with wireless programmers--and with those who don't yet have experience in the skill--is simple: Whoever hires the best programmers is most likely to produce the best product. Whoever produces the best product is also a likely contender to become the industry standard in the hot wireless handheld market, a lucrative position as market share increases.

And that opportunity is wide open. To date, no single browser has been adopted as the standard for accessing the Internet from mobile devices.

"The same browser wars that took place with Mosaic and Netscape years ago, those are the browsing wars that are taking place in the wireless world today," said Don Shirley, CEO of Brightpod, an application service provider for wireless software products. "It's really not clear yet which of these browsing standards are going to come out on top, but clearly there needs to be one."

Without a single standard, companies that develop software applications and other technology must make programs compatible with each of the different browsers and operating systems. Having one or two standards would make this process much simpler.

"If we have an application that we would like to use drop-down dialogue bases, today's WAP phones typically don't have enough display to support those features, so we have to move from drop-down features to menu boxes even though most PDAs have plenty of space," Shirley said. "If we're trying to create applications for all the platforms, we have to operate in the lowest common denominator."

Some of the popular wireless browsers include Pocket Internet Explorer for the Microsoft Pocket PC operating system; WAP (wireless application protocol), used by most of the major cell phone manufacturers; UP, developed by; I-mode, developed by NTT DoCoMo; Blazer, developed by Bluelark Systems to run on the Palm OS; and AvantGo, which comes with many Palm devices and also as a link on Pocket PC.

The market opportunity: 33 million PDAs
In 2000 alone, the number of PDAs (personal digital assistants) sold nearly doubled to 6.9 million units from about 3.6 million units in 1999, according to IDC. Sales are expected to reach a whopping 33.5 million by 2004.

With more devices on the market, demand for software to run on these devices has expanded too. But the number of programmers fluent in wireless handheld code writing has not grown proportionately.

"We hire so few people compared to the number of resumes that we get, it's a tremendous challenge," said Linus Upson, chief technical officer for AvantGo. "There aren't a lot of people out there who have experience programming handheld devices."

The situation is less dire than the general programmer shortage of the latter 1990s. Programmers are now available, but they lack the direct experience developing software for wireless and mobile devices. Thus, companies such as AvantGo are extending offers to bright programmers from other fields in hopes of schooling them in the emerging craft.

"People we end up recruiting often have experience writing big server code," Upson said. "Often the concerns about memory you worry about, such as scaling and maximum efficiency, are the same types of elements needed in programming for the handheld."

John Miano, chairman of the New Jersey-based Programmer's Guild, said companies' willingness to take chances on untested programmers is logical: It's impossible to expect a ready-made applicant pool for a brand new technology. Companies should look for strong fundamental skills and understand that good coders will have a short learning curve, Miano said.

"If a company goes out and puts out an ad and says, 'We want someone with handheld wireless experience,' yeah, they're going to have a hard time finding someone," Miano said. "But if they say, 'We want someone willing to deal with limited memory,' they'll have more luck."

Handheld software developers want to see more programmers not just for themselves, but for their customers too. Many AvantGo corporate customers, for example, use in-house staff to maintain their AvantGo products. The lack of information technology workers experienced in small-format devices at some companies has resulted in AvantGo losing some sales, according to the company.

To work around this roadblock, AvantGo recently partnered with Brightpod, which sells and maintains AvantGo software for corporate clients.

Have to write tight
AvantGo and others in the niche are willing to look at inexperienced talent because the key difference between writing code for handheld devices vs. for PCs is relatively straightforward: size.

Whereas PCs typically contain 64MB to 128MB of RAM and a 10-gigabyte hard drive, handheld computers come with a paltry 4MB to 8MB of memory, forcing programmers to write tight code.

"It's almost like taking a 12-year step backwards in time," said HiddenMind's Pierce. "Back in the days of DOS, before Windows and Linux, you had anywhere from 384K up to 600K for a single program to run in. Back then people wrote very tight code, they had very little elbow room."

AvantGo's Upson said he sees many resumes from programmers experienced in Java and Visual Basic. These languages, he said, are not ideal for writing software for handhelds.

"Because of the limited resources, these higher-level programming environments don't perform well on the handheld," Upson said. "You end up having to write software in a lower-level language like C."

But size isn't the only difference. Wireless handheld programmers also have to be creative and flexible, keeping in mind what people want in a handheld device vs. a desktop or laptop computer.

"The biggest fallacy of the mobile world is that it's the PC with a small screen," said AvantGo CEO Richard Owen. "People are going to use mobile devices in a different way than they use PCs. There's no way I'm going to chuck my PC and surf the Internet with (my handheld) instead. It needs to be complementary and useful."