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Preparing for a Career in Web Services

It takes new specialist skills and old-fashioned programming to make it in Web services.

By Amy Helen Johnson
May 19, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - If you don't know what SOAP is, you could be missing out on one of the critical new trends in application development: building Web services.

Knowledge of Simple Object Access Protocol and its extended family of protocols, languages, frameworks and tool kits is necessary for IT professionals to create these code packages, which perform real-time operations and exchange information over the Internet.

"Five years from now, it's definitely something that developers will want on their resume," says Brent Zempel, CIO at Life Time Fitness Inc., a health and nutrition services company in Eden Prairie, Minn. "It will set them apart from other developers."

Skills
Wesley Bertch, director of information systems at Life Time Fitness, says the company looks for candidates with knowledge of Web architectures, Internet technologies and Java 2 Enterprise Edition. Those developers are familiar with component-based applications, which are the foundation of Web services, he says.

Key skills for building Web services interfaces include knowledge of XML and SOAP, Bertch says. Research from Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. adds to that list the J2EE and Microsoft .Net platforms, the Java and C# languages and the Visual Basic .Net development environment.

But these aren't the core capabilities developers need in their portfolios, according to a recent Gartner report. Many Web services components will be legacy applications wrapped in Web services interfaces. Programmers still need a firm grounding in established programming languages like C++, Cobol, Visual Basic and widely used business applications like Oracle Forms and IBM's CICS.

That need for expertise in older business technologies was important when Swiss Interbank Clearing Ltd. was developing Web services, says Thomas Grutter, head of the IT department at the intrabank services provider. The Zurich-based financial firm uses Cobol applications and newer client/server software based on object-oriented programming techniques. The diversity of the underlying programming languages meant that each Web services project required separate specialists familiar with the dissimilar technologies.

In terms of skills, Web services programmers are old-fashioned developers with extra technical knowledge, says Doug Falk, CIO at National Student Clearinghouse. The Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit consortium of colleges and universities provides an electronic registry of current student and alumni records. "One of the things we learned along the way was that once you get over the terms and standards, it really comes back to developing basic applications," he says.

Training
Falk says finding training programs that teach Web services technologies was pretty easy. He picked the top developer on his nine-person team and sent her to a three-day Java course offered by Sun Microsystems Inc. and a one-day SOAP class offered by Sys-Con Media Inc. in Montvale, N.J. Other team members engaged in informal self-education projects, using books and online materials to learn about topics such as XML schemas.

But experience trumps certifications, says Gary Lien, a systems architect at Life Time Fitness. "Having a certification doesn't mean anything in terms of real-world experience dealing with distributed applications," he says.

Job Market
There's noticeable demand for Web services managers and programmers at companies around the world. For example, some recent job postings at Monster.com included openings at a TV entertainment company in Los Angeles, a geographic information systems data provider in Dublin and a telecommunications company in Hong Kong.

Swiss Interbank's Grutter notes that companies have passed through the "new toy" phase of the emerging technology. The focus is now on writing production applications. "Web services must be paired with a business need," he says.

Salary
Although IT managers agree that demand for Web services programmers is rising, there's no consensus on whether these skills translate into higher salaries, only that they're "definitely valuable," says Zempel.

The European market, says Grutter, won't necessarily pay bonuses to applicants who list Web services project experience on their resumes, because unemployment has brought down salaries about 10% overall.

But in the U.S., Falk places a 10% premium on hires with Web services experience. However, he says he wouldn't offer any more than that because he places more weight on developers' core application programming skills than on knowledge of Web services. A transaction involves the Web services interface for only a short period of time, he explains. Once the data is consumed by the business application, it turns into a normal transaction, where established coding skills still mean the most, Falk says.

"When you get down to it, you need someone with good skills at designing applications," says Falk. Johnson is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at amy-helen@pobox.com.


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