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How to Become a Mobile App Developer

Ed Tittel and Earl Follis

Mobile app development can be a lucrative career path.

  • Demand for app developers continues to grow at a rapid pace. That’s expected to continue for the rest of the decade.
  • Mobile app development has opportunities for self-taught and formally schooled workers.
  • Salaries for this field vary, from $36,000 to more than $150,000.
  • This article is for professionals considering a career in mobile app development.

If there’s one evergreen job title for software developers that just keeps getting greener, it’s mobile app developer. Android and iOS saw app revenue reach $133 billion in 2021, up 19 percent year over year, according to Business of Apps, so there is plenty of opportunity in the field. The developer role usually refers to somebody who can design, build and/or maintain mobile applications for either Apple’s iOS or the Android platform. There are other mobile OS choices — including Mobile Windows and BlackBerry — but they are increasingly becoming irrelevant.

Essential background for mobile app developers 

Software development is the essential skill for mobile app developers. It can be acquired by earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in computer science or a similar discipline (management information systems, for example). You can further your efforts to master mobile app development by attending one or more of the many coding bootcamp programs springing up to train aspiring developers.

Skills app developers need

For those who plan to bootstrap their way into software development, these are some of the basic qualifications:

  • Developers must understand the principles of secure, stable software design. That means software should be, among other things, functional, efficient, scalable, maintainable and safe from attackers. 
  • Aspiring developers must have a grasp of the software design process and lifecycle. This should include both the short-term release cycle — design-develop-test-release-maintain — and longer term support and maintenance. 
  • It’s helpful to have exposure to and understanding of some development methodology (Agile, Scrum and so forth) and development platforms or environments. These are how corporate software development teams work.
  • It’s also key to have knowledge of two or more programming languages. Consider learning in-demand ones such as SQL, Java, JavaScript, C# or C++, Python, PHP, Ruby on Rails or iOS.

This framework establishes the basis for working as a software developer in general. Next comes the topics, tools and technologies that are specific to mobile development.

Climbing on the mobile bandwagon

Mobile app development is a little different from general software development. Because resources such as memory, compute cycles, storage and bandwidth are scarce and precious on mobile platforms, most significant mobile app development occurs within the context of one mobile development platform or another.

Did You Know?

3D printing is another fast-growing field in technology.

Depending on what platform (Android or iOS, essentially) you prefer, what kind of development work interests you, and where you’d like to work (or rather, for whom you’d like to work), your choices will be likewise constrained. Leading platforms include the following:

  • Alpha Anywhere: This development environment offers no code and low-code options.
  • Appery.io: Businesses use this app development tool because of its focus on extensibility, which means apps can be modified easily and in a short amount of time.
  • Appy Pie: This development environment option doesn’t require coding.
  • Flutter: Brought to you by Google, Flutter enables developers to deploy on Android and iOS through the same code base.
  • Ionic: This platform is well-established and provides you with enterprise-grade cloud and security options.
  • Mendix: This low-code platform is designed to produce apps fast and with fewer resources than competitors.
  • React Native: Users appreciate React Native’s ease of use in a cross-platform development environment. 
  • Unity: This app platform is favored by game creators.
  • Zoho Creator: Many businesses use this platform to simplify and automate functions such as sales management.

Learning a platform takes time, effort and dedication. That said, most solution providers make evaluation or limited-use versions of their platforms available at low or no cost so aspiring developers can learn them. Many also offer low-cost or free self-study materials to help novice developers learn what they’re doing and how to make the best use of such tools. (Look around for massive open online courses on some of these tool sets, such as jQuery/jQuery Mobile.) 

Education and certification for mobile app developers

Specialized training and bootcamps are also available for mobile app development, as well as for the broader audience of software developers of all kinds. More experienced developers looking for a quick leg up in this game might be well served by a local bootcamp that specializes in mobile development topics, tools and languages.

There’s no better way to build skills and knowledge as a developer than by doing development work. These short and intense learning programs can get developers up to speed in as little as eight to 12 weeks — they’re the next best thing to learning mobile development on the job. But they require constant effort, long hours and hard work. The most motivated people may be able to bootcamp themselves, so to speak; others may find the structure and access to knowledgeable practitioners worth the price of admission.

Learning programs also help developers understand a platform’s inner workings and give them a chance to explore development resources in and around that platform. This includes not only help files, examples and training materials, but also developer forums and other online communities that spring up around popular tools and languages. Look for open source and other repositories of shared and freely available sample code. This material will help  shorten the learning curve and provide ample opportunities to learn by example (and avoid reinventing the wheel).

Here are some of the certification programs available: 

  • NuCamp: Over 11 months in duration, NuCamp’s intense program offers training in “the most job-relevant languages” JavaScript and Python, mobile app development and more. The cost is $5,445. Some students can defer costs until they’ve completed the program.
  • App Academy offers a 24-week coding bootcamp. Some students pay with an income share agreement rather than standard tuition. 

Numerous companies and universities offer professional development courses in mobile app development. Graduates can use these programs’ alumni networks to secure jobs.

Tip

Soft skills can also help tech professionals in their job search.

Surveying mobile app development opportunities

Part of zeroing in on a development platform is learning who’s using which platforms, and what other developers have to say about their work and their employers. Spending some time on job boards to see what’s available in your area will help guide your choices. It will also give you an excellent idea of what opportunities are available and how much they pay. Developer forums and online communities can also be valuable sources of intelligence about what various employers are like, what kind of work-life balance they offer, and what benefits and perks come along with those jobs.

You can bounce back and forth between the job boards and online developer communities as you start to understand what you’re getting yourself into. Over time, you should be able to lay out your various choices and use various trade-offs or selection criteria (such as salary vs. stock options, long hours vs. interesting work, and in-office free lunch and break rooms vs. telecommuting) to whittle your options down to a short list. Only then should you start applying for jobs, casting about for interviews, and taking concrete steps toward employment as a mobile developer. Don’t forget to use the online network of acquaintances, mentors and friends you’ll build online to help you get those interviews — and the job you want to land.

How much do mobile app developers make?

Depending on skill level, employer, location and numerous other factors, mobile app developers can make from as little as $36,000 to well over $150,000. According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for mobile developers is a little over $102,000, the equivalent of $49/hour. Specialties such as engineering managers ($164,062) and mobile application architects ($139,166) and Android developer principals ($178,999) make significantly more. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of software developer and quality assurance analyst/tester jobs to climb by 25 percent between 2021 and 2031, much faster than most other professions.

Mobile app development is a booming market

Getting into mobile app development requires a substantial commitment. However, as our phones insinuate themselves ever further into our lives, few other lines of work appear as likely to reward talent.

Additional reporting by Alex Halperin.

Image Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock