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How to Become a Mobile App Developer

image for GaudiLab/Shutterstock
GaudiLab/Shutterstock

If there's one evergreen job title for software developers that just keeps getting greener, it's mobile app developer. This IT 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 dubious and irrelevant.

To be a mobile developer, one must possess software development skills and knowledge. You could develop these skills 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.

If you plan to bootstrap into software development, these are some of the basic qualifications you'll need: 

  • Understanding of principles of secure, stable software design
  • Understanding of the software development process and lifecycle, including the design-develop-test-release-maintain cycle, and long-term lifecycle support and maintenance
  • Exposure to and understanding of some development methodology (Agile, Scrum and so forth) and development platforms or environments
  • Knowledge of two or more programming languages, preferably in-demand ones such as SQL, Java, JavaScript, C# or C++, Python, PHP, Ruby on Rails, or iOS, according to Coding Dojo

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.

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

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. According to Techworld, the most popular mobile app development platforms in 2019 include those listed in the following table.

 Appery.io  Buildbox  Kalipso  Shoutem
 Appcelerator  BuildFire  Kony  TheAppBuilder
 AppInstitute  Como  LiveBlox  Unity
 AppMachine  GameSalad  Mobile Roadie  Verivo Software
 AppMakr  GoodBarber  NativeScript  ViziApps
 AppYourself  iBuildApp  OutSystems  Xamarin (Microsoft)
 Appy Pie  Ionic  PhoneGap  Xojo
 BiznessApps  jQuery Mobile  RhoMobile  Zoho Creator

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.) [Read related article: App Maker Software Buying Guide]

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. The next best thing to finding a job and getting paid to learn mobile development, these short and intense learning programs can get developers up to speed in as little as eight to 12 weeks. But they require constant effort, long hours and lots of hard work. The really motivated may be able to bootcamp themselves, so to speak; others may find the structure and access to knowledgeable practitioners worth the price of admission.

These 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 just 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. Not only will such material shorten the learning curve, it will provide ample opportunities to learn by example (and avoid reinventing the wheel).

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. This suggests that 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 kinds of 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 sorts of bennies 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 (salary vs. stock options, long hours vs. interesting work, 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 actual 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 hopefully also the job you want to land.

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