App development skills not enough to meet S'pore demand

Huge demand for mobile apps in Singapore but development needs not sufficiently met due to recent mobile phenomenon, scarcity of skills and lack of relevant curriculum and established companies, industry voices note.

Singapore is experiencing a severe drought of mobile app developers, much less skilled ones, according to industry voices who attribute this scarcity to factors such as the lack of academic syllabi and prevalence of small startups--all of which stem from the fact that mobile apps, while seeing exponential demand, are still a relatively new phenomenon.

Erwan Mace, a mobile app developer and founder of Bitsmedia, told ZDNet Asia that there is a "big time" shortage of developers worldwide, more so in Singapore where smartphone penetration is ranked third-highest globally.

"There's a rush to find developers everywhere in the world [but] there are more companies looking for mobile talent than there are people offering such services," Mace said in a phone interview.

Singapore-based Bitsmedia has a current headcount of four full-timers and one freelance worker, he said, adding that he is aiming to increase the number to 12 over the next year but "it's going to be difficult". "For reasons I don't completely understand, it is very difficult to find good developers in Singapore," he said, adding that most candidates hail from India, China and the Philippines.

The company constantly posts job vacancies on its Web site and recruitment portals, and Mace said he even carries an employment contract in his pocket so that he can make an offer immediately if he meets "a good, talented developer".

That said, he noted that Bitsmedia has a "very strict recruitment process" to ensure it provides quality development services and apps for its clients.

Mace attributed the severe shortage of mobile app talent to the fact that the mobile traction is a recent phenomenon, noting that the Apple App Store opened in July 2008, which is just two-and-a-half years ago, while Google Android Market launched only in October.

Mobile app development skills, therefore, would unlikely be included in academic curricula, he added. This means that experienced and skilled developers make up only a "small community of very passionate people who had picked it up on their own", he said.

Temasek Polytechnic is one local education institution that does offer mobile development courses. Benny Chin, course manager for the polytechnic's Diploma in Mobile & Network Services, said formal training for mobile app development will allow graduates to learn the correct principles and structure in writing clean, efficient codes to run apps, as well as to acquire design techniques to develop suitable user interface on mobile devices. Without such knowledge, they may not be able to figure out proper app development by merely trial and error, Chin added in an e-mail.

Sam Ho, product and communications manager of location-based apps developer ShowNearby, added that local schools have only just begun to recognize the demand for skillsets in mobile application development. Furthermore, development skills taught in schools may not always include the latest technological platforms, Ho noted in an e-mail.

"A slight lag in education institutions can [therefore] affect local supply," he said, adding that this also leads to graduates entering the job market without the full set of development proficiencies. He noted that ShowNearby, currently staffed with 10 developers, often looks "beyond Singapore shores" for talent.

Limited market, monetization
According to Ho, the talent scarcity is further exacerbated by the fact that more experienced programmers in the country tend to join bigger and more established companies.

He explained that since mobile development is still relatively new, most businesses in this market are typically smaller-sized start-ups and have to compete against big corporations--which can offer wider benefits, training and bonuses--to recruit talent.

Willson Cuaca, CEO of Apps Foundry, added that because there is a limited number of established companies looking to hire mobile app developers, few are willing to join the profession.

"Many senior programmers haven't made up their minds to jump into the mobile app space," he said in an e-mail interview. Cuaca also agreed that this industry segment is currently occupied mostly by startups, and freelancers or fresh graduates are typically the ones building apps instead of seasoned programmers.

Bitsmedia's Mace added that aspiring developers could potentially face a "tough" road ahead. "We read in the press that the apps market is the new goldmine but success stories like Angry Birds are very rare, and everyone talks about the same few ones," he noted.

Professionals would not want to invest energy to develop apps only to struggle later to get their apps noticed, downloaded or monetized, Mace said, adding that Google only recently expanded its paid apps ecosystem in Asia.

Mobile apps hot commodities
For Lim Der Shing, CEO of online job portal JobsCentral, the current shortage of mobile app builders is also due to only a handful of people "curious enough" to learn app development, coupled with the huge demand for such skilled developers.

The mobile app market not only came about "aggressively" in just last couple of years, this space is occupied with several "competing mobile platforms" including Apple iOS, Google Android, BlackBerry OS, and Windows Phone 7, Lim pointed out in an e-mail.

He observed that the "explosion in demand" for mobile application developers in Singapore is a causal effect of "ubiquitous" smartphone and mobile app usage among consumers, so companies increasingly view the mobile platform as a viable channel to "interact and even transact with their customers", particularly for iPhones and Android handsets.

To meet demand, companies mainly outsource the development work to specialized vendors, rather than form their own internal manpower for app-building, as this is the quickest way to get their brand and content onto the mobile platform, he explained.

App developers shared the same outlook.

ShowNearby's Ho said: "Just like how companies were scrambling to build a Web presence with their own site a decade ago, there is now great demand to build a mobile presence."

"[It's] clear that mobile is really entering our lifestyle in a big way as devices and connectivity get more powerful, and data plans cheaper," Cuaca from Apps Foundry added.

Mace agreed, noting that mobile apps are "the hot commodity of the moment". "Everybody is going mobile," he said, adding that this is especially true in Asia where more consumers access the Internet via mobile, not desktop, devices.

Good news is, Mace said, the skills shortage will not be permanent.

While mobile apps are seeing hot demand now, competition among developers is intensifying, particularly with talent from India and China available at lower prices, he pointed out.

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