Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Software services jobs are on the upswing

Source : Click

Fast Web connections and robust computer networks mean more than quick downloads from YouTube or iTunes. Robust networks are reshaping the distribution and use of software responsible for many businesses' crucial tasks.

Known as software services, the concept is broad and fast-changing, with many companies designing custom software to meet specific demands, both those of clients and in-house.

Examples include hotel reservation systems, software to track and coordinate deliveries, online tools to help a person choose the correct life insurance and remote management of desktop computers.

As a result, software services represents one of the fastest-growing job markets in the technology industry. In 2007, the sector added 82,600 jobs, and similar growth is expected for 2008, according to a report this year by the AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association).

Not only is continued job growth anticipated, but so is the need to shift existing workers into the field.

"It's interesting in whether we look at job growth or job shift," said Steve Lapekas, chief technology officer for Dallas-based Pegasus Solutions Inc.

"For example, IT operations that once housed large financial systems may now source them through software as a service, and they don't have a need for the in-house resources anymore."

It's a change for companies that once developed custom software tools, housed the tools on company-operated servers and maintained the entire system. For workers who managed these operations, it's possible to use many of the same skills when developing software services, Mr. Lapekas said.

Pegasus, with 336 employees in software development, focuses on the hospitality industry. Services include managing hotel reservations, a digital switch handling 2 billion transactions monthly, and a system capable of juggling multiple forms of currency to help reconcile payment.

Job titles within the development structure largely mirror those of traditional software production houses, with responsibilities such as business analyst, software designer and software developer.

"The most desirable skills are initially the technical skills surrounding an application," he said. "Where it does get a little more diverse is that you've put some mechanism of communication between the network and software. Once the server might have been right under your desk, but now it might be 2,000 miles away."

Understanding this difference, and possessing the technical ability to allow for managing these widely distributed networks, is essential, Mr. Lapekas said.

Custom creations

And while many workers might transition from traditional information technology jobs, the sector offers room for job creation, said Bruce Ballengee, chief executive of Pariveda Solutions in Dallas.

The 5-year-old company creates custom software, mostly for business-to-business transactions. A typical product might be an online tool to help independent insurance brokers find the best product for clients, Mr. Ballengee said.

One innovative effort took an artificial intelligence system from a computer game, using it as the core of a networked scheduling and tracking system for a company running a fleet of small fuel tankers.

Compared with traditional information technology jobs, which might use the same skills, the pace at companies such as Pariveda is very different and often beneficial to technology workers just beginning their careers.

"In corporate IT, you tend to do the same thing over and over," Mr. Ballengee said. Someone might build a software tool, deploy it and manage it for as long as four or five years.

But in companies such as Pariveda, which serves a variety of clients, the pace is much faster. Projects typically last six to 18 months. People in software services often develop a broader technical knowledge at a faster pace, said Mr. Ballengee, whose company employs 110 consultants working with clients.

He often recruits from college campuses, seeking those with majors in areas such computer engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. "For someone young in their career, this is a very compelling way to start," he said.

Communication skills

With a focus on creating products suited for a client's specific needs, communication skills are essential for anyone working in the job sector, Mr. Ballengee said.

"That's where the growth of our industry is," said Clare Freeman, executive director of the Texas Council of the AeA. "If you have experience working with customers, that really makes you a desirable candidate for the software services sector."

Many businesses also recognize the need to focus efforts on software as a service, including giants such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, Ms. Freeman said.

"All of the old-line manufacturing companies are now making profits from software services," she said.

Dell, based in Round Rock, Texas, is emphasizing software services such as remote management of desktop business computers and e-mail. Similarly, Hewlett-Packard is spending $13.9 billion to acquire Plano-based Electronic Data Systems Corp., one of the earliest and most established players in software services and technology outsourcing.

Whether international behemoths or midsize players, the emphasis on software services means jobs, Ms. Freeman said.

In the 2008 Cyberstate report released by the AeA, job projections for software services rely on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' broad definition of the category, which includes software publishers, computer systems design, programming services and facilities management.

And Texas – ranked second overall behind California in high-tech employment – ranked high in many software services categories. Within software publishing, Texas, with 17,376 jobs, was behind only Massachusetts, California and Washington. In computer system design and related systems, the state, with 84,431 jobs, was third behind California and Virginia.

According to this report, software services employees earned higher average wages – $87,800 – than their counterparts in tech manufacturing, whose average earnings were $82,500.