Should I go with Java?
Advice from our expert on the career possibilities in today's hottest language
Knowing the in-demand technologies is the ticket to a prosperous future. But new technologies take time to master. There's no point pursuing today's "hot" technology if it doesn't last. Remember interactive television? Career Advisor tackles Java from the perspective of the computer professional's career development needs. (1,500 words)
I am a programmer with five years experience designing applications in C for the biomedical industry. I enjoy my work, but am looking to get into a more lucrative field, particularly something that deals with the Internet. I have been bombarded with hype about Sun's Java. Is this really a viable language and will it someday be used to do more than run little animations? Are companies currently looking for this type of experience and will they in the future?
Yes, Java is a viable new language and it is carving a lucrative niche in the burgeoning marketplace of the Internet. More importantly, it is generating significant interest and questions among our clients. Although media hype is tiresome and occasionally misleading, Java represents a truly superior technology. This alone is rarely a guarantee of success, but Java also has the necessary backing of some of the biggest players in the industry. The media's attention is not ill-founded, as some 30 companies have licensed the technology, including IBM, Apple, DEC, Adobe, Silicon Graphics, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, and Toshiba, and even Microsoft. From a recruiting standpoint, we at Pencom have watched Internet-related technologies quickly gain value and importance in the marketplace. And with Java, we are seeing the demand rise for a whole new class of programmer.
Java's history: The short version
Several of our clients have recently asked us to provide a basic explanation of how this technology came about. As you may have gleaned from the swirling hype, Java originally began from the seeds of a project named Green, which was started by Sun to create a system of distributed code for household, consumer electronics -- so the microwave could talk to the refrigerator and the coffee machine. Originally, the plan was to use C++, but the Green team needed something simpler and more secure and eventually spawned a new language called Oak -- the predecessor to Java. Oak was built as a lean, mean, secure language for networks and at one point Sun presented it in a bid to build the ill-fated interactive set-top TV box.
Though the bid was lost and Oak was never able to find a home, it just so happened that Mark Andreesen (the creator of Mosaic and currently the Vice President of Technology at Netscape) was at that time putting together the first browser for the World Wide Web. It soon became apparent that this system of distributed code, designed originally for household networks, meshed perfectly with the Web.
Java is much like C++ and, according to most of the engineers that we place in this field, the migration is not very difficult. Although small Java applications, dubbed "applets," can be embedded into HTML files seamlessly, this is no markup language. Java is a serious programming language with the capability of building powerful, stand-alone applications. (The HotJava browser was written in Java.) Its first and most effective uses, however, will undoubtedly be in the form of applets.
While the Web allows users to view all kinds of interesting text and graphics through an easy-to-use graphical interface, Java adds interactivity. These applets, or "live objects," caffeinate the client side with smart forms, spreadsheets that can calculate, and animations. Although the animations and sounds made possible by Java drive much of the hype, the truly useful and profitable uses will be less flashy -- such as tying databases into the Web and building workflow applications a la Lotus Notes. (For a more detailed version of Java's history, see "Java: The inside story", a July, 1995 SunWorld Online feature story.)
A whole new paradigm
As Bill Gates is realizing, Java stands to do more than simply revolutionize the Web. Rather than worry about creating a Net standard, Sun circumvented the whole issue with a platform-independent solution. Java code is first compiled into an architecture-neutral bytecode, which is then made to run by an interpreter built into the browser on the client side. This could very well obviate the need for shrink-wrapped software, made to run on specific operating systems. Conceivably, users could one day download Java word processors and spreadsheets to run on sophisticated Web browsers -- which are quickly beginning to look more like "platforms" than merely "browsers."
What it takes
I can predict safely that Java engineers will appear in Pencom's "Hot Careers List" in the next 12 months. Our recruiters explain to candidates who want to move into this technology that it is important they be:
As you can see from the hundreds of new Web sites coming on-line daily, we are witnessing an explosion of interest in the Web and Java. As major corporations scramble to put up their sites, they will need both seasoned system administrators to set up servers and do the necessary CGI scripting and HTML developers to design the pages and organize the content. At the same time we are indeed seeing a demand for Java.
In terms of managing your career, it is important to understand that while Java will indeed be a "hot," lucrative career path, the demand for this skill set is just beginning to surface. Companies are still figuring out how to use the techology, but recognize that the possibilities are endless. This is similar to the talent demand cycle all new technologies go through. Given this, my personal advice is to begin preparing your Java skills while at your current position:
If you are asking if Java will be hot, if it will gain market share and flourish on the unstoppable Web, I say unequivocally yes. If you are asking if this is the right career path for you, that depends. Are you comfortable with the object oriented paradigm of programming? Are you fascinated with the new medium of the Web and all that it can currently do? Java will boom, if you are interested start exploring it at JavaSoft's Java Home Page. But, as a rule, go with what you like and the money will follow.
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Hype can indeed be frustrating and can cloud the reality of any technology -- remember artificial intelligence and the 500-channel interactive TV. The engineers that we work with report that Java has what it takes to succeed. It was introduced by Sun last May. By August we had signed a deal with Henry Holt & Co. to write a book -- presently being written by our in-house Java specialist Edith Au and to be published this Spring. In November, we announced the formation of our newest division, Pencom Web Services, which is specializing in creating intranet-based, corporate solutions -- in Java, of course.