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How to Become a Mobile App Developer

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Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

If there's one evergreen job title for software developers that just keeps getting greener and greener, it would be mobile app developer. This 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 platform choices – including Mobile Windows, BlackBerry, Psion and Symbian – but between those two big dogs, they account for 99.3 percent of the marketplace, according to Statista.

To be a mobile developer, one must possess software development skills and knowledge. This could be well served by pursuing and earning an associate's or bachelor's degree in computer science or some similar discipline (management information systems, for example). It could also be served by attending one or more of the many coding bootcamp programs springing up to train aspiring developers and turn them into practicing ones. However, if you plan to bootstrap into software development, basic development skills you'll need to master include the following:

  • Principles of secure, stable software design
  • An 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 establishes the basis for working as a software developer in general. Next come specifically mobile topics, tools and technologies.

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 some 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 late 2016 included those listed here.

Appery.io

Como

Mobile Roadie

Accelerator

Dojo Mobile

Pega AMP

AppInstitute

GameSalad

SAP

AppMachine

Good Barber

Sencha

AppMakr

jQuery Mobile

TheAppBuilder

AppYourself

Kalipso Studio

Verivo Software

Appy Pie

Kony

Xamarin (Microsoft)

Bizness Apps

LiveBlox

 

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 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: 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 finding 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. Short of finding a job and getting paid to learn mobile development, these short and intense learning programs can help developers get up to speed in at little as 8-12 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 already versed in mobile app development worth the price of admission.

Learning a platform will also help developers understand its inner workings and give them a chance to explore development resources in and around it. This includes not just help files, examples and training materials, but also developer forums and other online communities that spring up around various tools and languages. Look for open source and other repositories of shared and freely available 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 the process of zeroing in on a development platform is learning who's using which ones, and what other developers have to say about their work and their employers. On the one hand, this suggests that spending some time on the job boards to see what's out there 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 a valuable source 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 for some time 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 tradeoffs 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 casting about for interviews and take any actual steps toward finding employment as a mobile developer. And 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 occupy.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.