Building Mobile Developer Skill Sets: 4 Tips

As more companies become mobile app developers for the first time, here's advice on managing two big challenges.

Ken Parmelee, Technology and Business Development Head, IBM MobileFirst

September 24, 2014

6 Min Read

Companies are scrambling to build mobile apps, creating a gold rush for developers willing to retool their technical skills and adopt a new design mindset. Even nontechnology companies are becoming mobile app developers for the first time to help create new business models and drive new results.

This poses two challenges for enterprises.

First, companies are now building apps for customers from scratch without basic knowledge of the right mobile architecture. As banks, retailers, healthcare providers, and organizations across all industries look at mobile as a primary way to engage directly with customers, businesses must now invest in both the people and the technology to manage their mobile strategy.

Second, as new technology simplifies the development process, younger and younger developers are emerging in the workforce. Today, the average developer has less than two years of experience. As a result, many developers don't have the skills or the institutional knowhow to develop a secure, scalable app that will generate business results. This can create greater risks for organizations -- risks that managers don't often recognize.

[How can Salesforce help your company's mobile app development strategy succeed? Read Platform Helps Companies Build Mobile Apps.]

As companies continue to advance their mobile development strategy, here are four key concepts to keep in mind.

1. Be results-oriented: Focus on transformative apps.
Companies that create transformative apps can build new revenue streams, improve service, increase brand awareness, and even advance industries. The functionality and reliability of mobile apps reflect strongly on the company image -- and organizations that squander user confidence with poorly performing apps sacrifice any edge they might get from mobile.

I've worked with hundreds of companies on their mobile initiatives. I once consulted with a global retailer on an in-store shopping app that cost more than $1 million and took a year to build. The app looked gorgeous. But testing the app for a few minutes revealed a huge usability problem: I could walk into the store, scan items, and add them to my cart -- but I could not view the cart and its contents. A difficult conversation with the CMO followed.

The idea had been that users could build a shopping list, which could then be added to the cart in total or as selected, allowing pre-creation of the list and quick pickup. During the development process, the shopping list was removed from the project, to be added later. Should this have been caught? Most certainly -- but from a quality-assurance point of view, I could scan and buy, so it was missed. With some slight revision, the app was released and now generates nearly 30% of the company's revenue.

The bottom line: Don't burn your development dollars on features that don't add value or improve the user experience. Strong mobile teams are delivering business-changing apps that fundamentally change the way people work.

2. Don't neglect quality app development.
Many projects today are delivered by small, agile teams, enabling rapid delivery of new capabilities. But the technical aspects of app development -- like how apps are scaled and layered security approaches -- are often overlooked. Speed must not mean loss of app quality.

Enterprises that focus on mobile as a strategic differentiator start with the understanding that they need a strong architecture to support the new needs that come with mobile. Unlike development in the past, enterprise mobile apps require sophisticated data management, integration with enterprise systems, security, and use of services like notifications and geolocation.

The good news is that businesses don't need to create a new mobile architecture from scratch. A number of on-premises and cloud development platforms are available to developers.

The key is to learn from those who have gone before you. Take a strategic view with mobile -- hire skilled mobile strategists and developers, focus on changing the processes that inhibit mobile agility, and implement the architecture to enable both the apps and the new processes.

3. Vary skill level across the development team.
Most companies are not yet experienced in delivering mobile at any scale, and many learn mobile the hard way -- by going through multiple failed or low-value projects before they realize the need for a focused strategy. Finding skilled mobile developers is getting easier, but finding those who have implemented integrated enterprise-grade apps is more difficult.

The two most critical hires a company can make to build a mobile team are a mobile strategist and a software engineer. A mobile strategist must be able to bring together the business and technology teams, determine the value of projects, make process change, build teams or find the right partners, and make sure projects are delivered with excellence. A strong software engineer can be the difference between an app that is built once and enhanced over time and an app that must be rebuilt significantly for each release. Software engineers reduce the cost of implementing mobile by designing scalable apps. More importantly, software engineers greatly reduce the risk of security holes, performance issues, and weak functionality, which are the primary reasons people stop using apps.

One of the most compelling success stories I experienced involved an auto parts manufacturing company that was still primarily dealing with a paper-based process. I helped the company recruit an experienced mobile strategist and put together a center of excellence, with sponsorship from both the CIO and the CMO. The cooperation that resulted between IT and the lines of business and marketing enabled the CEO to create truly transformative concepts for mobile. These ideas ranged from using the accelerometer in the iPad to judge braking speed in the company's fleet to initiating direct-to-consumer purchasing.

4. Continue learning new skills.
The "born-on-a-smartphone" generation of developers must keep up with an ever-changing technology landscape. The best approach to navigating this landscape is to focus on continuously developing the team's skill sets. For example, it's critical to have skills that transcend a single ecosystem. Focusing on any one mobile operating system or platform can corner you into an undesirable skill set.

One of the best ways to keep up with change is to engage with mobile groups and meetups. Most mobile-focused groups provide a broad view into technology changes, what startups are doing, and how others are handling change. This can be invaluable in avoiding the issues others have faced.

As you think about how to scale your mobile development team, it is wise to develop relationships with local universities. Many companies have received great benefits by sponsoring simple app delivery projects and training developers through internships, which ultimately creates a funnel of talent for recruiting.

A new generation of developers with creative ideas, combined with experienced software engineers, can fuel a strong mobile engine for companies. Business leaders cannot simply subscribe to the "build it and they will come" philosophy. It's critical that they build the team, the strategy, and the architecture that will create the foundation for mobile success.

If the world wasn't changing, we might continue to view IT purely as a service organization, and ITSM might be the most important focus for IT leaders. But it's not, it isn't and it won't be -- at least not in its present form. Get the Research: Beyond IT Service Management report today (free registration required).

About the Author(s)

Ken Parmelee

Technology and Business Development Head, IBM MobileFirst

Ken Parmelee leads technology and business development for IBM MobileFirst software offerings. Prior to IBM, he was the lead Research Director for Gartner's Mobile and Client Computing Services, covering mobile development, mobile cloud services, mobile security, and mobile strategy.

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