Like so many Americans in recent years, Jeff Belser knows what it’s like to get laid off. The 28-year-old was working as a product manager for a small education technology consultancy in Columbus, Ohio, but lost his job in January 2013.
A key decision, however, kept Belser from joining the ranks of the millions grappling with long-term unemployment: He hitched his future to the screaming-hot technology sector. Belser picked up and moved to Chicago with his girlfriend so he could enroll in Dev Bootcamp, one of the multitude of software developer training camps that have sprung up in recent years to help teach people how to code and, ideally, land a job as a software engineer.
Just over three months later, when the course wrapped up, he had four or five companies fighting for his services, he recalls. And he’s not alone. A bevy of coding courses — both virtual and in person — brag of being able to place the vast majority of their graduates in junior-level software engineers straight out of 8- or 12-week courses. In the San Francisco Bay Area these days, the salary for that sort of “junior-level” gig can reach into the low six figures.
While job growth remains anemic, the tech industry is exploding, minting new millionaires, it seems, every week.
“For me, it was a complete 180,” says Belser, who now works as a software engineer at Instructure, which builds education software and has raised more than $50 million in investment. In techie terms, Belser is a front-end engineer: He designs and writes the code that shapes how users view and interact with a program on their computer or mobile device. For example, he just helped build a piece of software for an online course that allows those who are blind or sight-impaired to interact with the lessons and take the course.
It’s one of the great ironies of our time that even as America’s economic recovery pokes along and job growth remains anemic, the tech industry is exploding, minting new millionaires, it seems, every week. That’s gotten plenty of people in the business world warning of another bubble, like the Web 1.0 version that popped unceremoniously just over a decade ago. And it’s certainly a risk again today. But in the meantime, it’s boom time, especially if you happen to be a software engineer, like Belser.
The proliferation of app makers, social sites and cloud-storage facilities has sent the demand for software engineers soaring, particularly in places like Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the U.S.
According to a report from the tech sector recruiting firm Riviera Partners, average software engineer salaries in the San Francisco Bay Area were up 4 percent in 2013 over 2012, and 9 percent in the fourth quarter of the year. On average, junior positions in front-end and back-end software coding reached just over $100,000 in the area in 2013, Riviera found. Software engineers overall earned an average of $124,000 last year.
Back-end engineers — those who do the heavy-duty coding to construct a website’s architecture and its connections to servers, databases and other elements that make sites run — remain the most requested of any position that Riviera measured. They were followed by mobile developers, who specialize in designing software that works on mobile devices. Front-end developers rounded out the top three.
The supply of engineers that specialize in these skills has yet to catch up with the surging demand.
But those closely watching the market for software engineers — employers, recruiters and trainers — say there seems to be particularly fierce competition for front-end developers going on at the moment, simply because the supply of engineers that specialize in these skills has yet to catch up with the surging demand.
Anthony Phillips, the founder and CEO of Hack Reactor, which bills itself as an “elite” training program for wannabe software developers based in San Francisco, says he was surprised by the interest in front-end developers, in particular, when his company started offering its first 12-week courses in 2012. On Hack Reactor’s first hiring day, a third of its students got job offers, largely for front-end jobs. As Phillips points out, these were “six-figure jobs after a five-minute interview!”
Overall, the program claims a 99 percent graduate hiring rate and average starting salary of $105,000.
Phillips surmises that the demand comes from changing consumer expectations about their online experience and the usability of websites. With smartphones growing more and more ubiquitous, people want something that is “more application-like,” he says, with a fluency that enables them to smoothly navigate between different views and functions, all in one slick package.
It just tickled my brain in a good way.
“The challenge on the front-end stuff, and where a lot of of the back-end engineers fall short, is it does take that artistic eye,” says Nick Ellis, a technology entrepreneur in San Francisco who founded the mobile job-hunting company Job Rooster. Ellis likens back-end engineers to the “architects” of a building, while front-end engineers are more like the “interior designers.”
That’s what attracted Belser to the front-end languages — a former designer at a company that put together museum exhibits, he knew going into the boot camp that those were the skills he wanted to acquire.
“I think it just tickled my brain in a good way. I liked the idea that there was a technical side that involves performance and testing and maintainabilty and all the kinds of things that go into engineering,” he says. “But then there’s the side … that’s about people and emotions and feelings and usability.”
The other trend at play is that back-end developers, who are deep in the weeds of computer code, have made some pretty significant advancements in the past decade in automating and standardizing the way sites and now apps can be set up. Now, with the help of companies like Firebase and Meteor and Phonegap, people with far more limited coding skills can build apps, while Amazon offers server space that can be up and running with your website in a couple of hours.
“We’re able to do a lot of the back-end stuff with front-end technology,” says Zach Sims, co-founder of the free online coding tutorial site Code Academy, which has led to “a surge in popularity of front-end languages.”
But it doesn’t mean the really technical back-end skills and coding languages like Ruby and Python are going to be obsolete anytime soon. “It depends on what exactly it is you’re building,” says Sims. “There are different parts of back-end technologies that aren’t as necessary.” But, he says, back-end engineering is still critical for complicated software in services like, say, WhatsApp, the mobile texting app that Facebook just bought for $19 billion, which have huge numbers of people and messages and servers all operating at the same time.
Given that, Sims sees the job opportunities for software engineers stretching across the spectrum.
For Belser, the decision on to pursue a particular type of software engineering job had more to do with his personal interests than how many employers were going to be pounding down his door. But he adds, “I would say that it was definitely apparent that there was a demand.” That’s an understatement.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Jeff Belser’s last name and also his prior employment with an education technology consultancy.
Why you should care
Thinking of a career switch? People are taking 12-week-long, boot-camp-style coding courses and getting snapped up by tech companies left and right.