Wireless Wizards

What you need to do to land a job and keep your skills fresh in the wireless field.

Employer Spotlight

• Name: Sheila Davis

• Title: Manager of IT, PowerPad project

• Employer: FedEx Corp., a Memphis-based international express delivery company

• Number of IT professionals: 5,000-plus

• 30-second resume: Davis joined FedEx eight years ago after spending five years on the technical staff at Morristown, N.J.-based Telcordia Technologies Inc. (formerly known as Bellcore). She started in FedEx's messaging infrastructure group, then transferred into application development. Davis moved into management two years ago, working with Java and WebLogic servers. She now manages the team that's creating applications for a new wireless device, called PowerPad, for FedEx's couriers.

• Skills boost: "Wireless doesn't have a real big learning curve," says Davis. FedEx sends programmers for specific training as needed. The developers generally rely on their basic programming backgrounds as they create object-oriented applications for the PowerPad. Davis says she's learning to work with development, testing and debugging tools that are less mature than those available for client/server development.

Davis says she has especially enjoyed working with the PowerPad's Bluetooth interfaces to phones and printers. "It's nice getting into new wireless technology," she says. The Bluetooth capability will allow couriers to transmit data without docking their devices in their trucks.

Davis says she expects wireless programming opportunities to grow as the cost of personal digital assistants drops, but she doesn't foresee wireless devices becoming a specialized area. "In my own group, some [IT workers] have said they don't want to do only communications-interface work," Davis says.

Instead, she envisions wireless programming skills as additional layers on top of core skills such as C++ and Java. Developers with such combinations of skills can move into project management or systems architecture analysis, troubleshooting wireless projects, Davis says.

Wireless projects also bring developers closer to business users, says Winn Stephenson, senior vice president of IT at FedEx. "Wireless applications solve a business need, so you're on the front line, not in the bowels of the shop," he says. Thus, collaborative and listening skills are key. "You must understand what the customer needs in response times," says Davis. "We can develop it, but if the performance is slow, they won't want to live with it."

Last year, developing wireless applications was considered an esoteric art. Potential industry standards such as the Wireless Application Protocol required specialized knowledge and treated wireless programming as unique. Recruiters boasted of snagging six-figure salaries and large signing bonuses for those few individuals who could tackle wireless projects.

In barely the space of a year, all that changed. Wireless applications are now being written with easily learned Java variants and popular Web content development tools.

"Wireless used to be this black-magic area," says Sergei Krupenin, senior product marketing manager at Access Systems America Inc., which creates browsers for wireless devices. "But now it's merging with mainstream Internet technology."

For typical programmers, that means wireless skills are important but no longer bring pots of gold. And job competition in the wireless world is stiff. Most employers say they simply use their current programmers on wireless projects, training them as needed. That's making job openings scarce.

"It's hard to break in cold right now," says Daniel Zucker, director of technology at Fremont, Calif.-based Access Systems America. "Recommendations are critical; who you know is key. Networking is the top method of getting a job."


The consensus among industry experts is that any application developer with solid programming skills, experience with C, C++ or Java and an understanding of TCP/IP can quickly move to wireless programming. Key skills there include Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) and, if it gains popularity, Brew from Qualcomm Inc. in San Diego. Database, application server, messaging and Web services skills in areas such as XML are also valuable.

Experienced programmers say the big transition is learning the difference between ordinary programming and developing applications for wireless devices, which have smaller screens and less memory and processing power than computers. What's also different is that these devices must interoperate with wireless networks that have significant data transfer constraints and inevitable connection losses.


Employers say no particular wireless certifications have yet caught their eye. Most send developers to wireless industry and developer conferences, such as those for J2ME and Bluetooth, for real-world insight.

Many wireless development tool kits are available free on the Web, so a developer could download one and actually write -- and market -- an application via a Web server. "You can be an independent publisher of applications and sell them," says Andy Choi, a senior software engineer at France Telecom R&D in San Francisco.


These days, salaries for wireless application developers aren't significantly different from those of other programmers. They also vary by region.

For example, in Western states such as Utah, salaries could range from $70,000 to $120,000, says Blair Buxton, vice president and chief technology officer at Billerica, Mass.-based McCracken Financial Software Inc. Buxton, a specialist in wireless enterprise applications, works at the Salt Lake City office of the GMAC Commercial Mortgage Corp. subsidiary.

The national median salary for experienced programmers is about $73,000, and it's almost $88,000 for senior software engineers, according to Vancouver, Wash.-based Salaryexpert.com.

Watson (sjwatson@interaccess.com) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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