Developing e-gov

Agencies need application developers who can see the big picture

The good news is that if you are an application developer with C++, Java or Visual Basic programming skills, you are still very much in demand in the federal marketplace. But don't expect those skills alone to carry you very far. Although core computer programming skills remain the basis for much of the development done in agencies, future jobs will require a lot more.

The overwhelming influence of the Internet and the move to enterprise information technology architectures have put a premium on people who not only have those programming skills, but know how to apply them across a multitude of systems. Today's developers need to know how the code they write will work across the enterprise. "C++ and Java are certainly at the top of our skills requirements for developers, but they also need to have a good core of computer science knowledge on such things as operating systems and architecture design," said Sharon Chapa, manager of software development at Sandia National Laboratories. "They need to know how things fit into the design and development of a system."

Even though agencies are contracting out more of their development work, they still need employees with strong skill sets. The impression that there is less demand for developers within agencies and less pressure to maintain skill levels is incorrect, according to officials at several agencies.

"Our people need skills as good or better than our commercial partners because they oversee the work of hundreds of commercial developers," said a spokes.person for the Defense Information Systems Agency. "We are responsible for software quality, [and] this software is developed with multiple languages in a myriad of software development environments, incorporates commercial software and is delivered in accelerated timeframes."

Because the skills of DISA's own developers must mirror those of its outside developers, "we are constantly upgrading skills to meet what the market delivers," the spokesperson said.

Internally, DISA developers work on personnel, accounting, logistics, task tracking and comptroller functions, so they must have up-to-date database skills. The agency also requires staff members to be well versed in the latest Internet tools, such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), which along with Java is used to convert older applications written in HTML and JavaScript.

But not all the skills that agencies demand are tied to leading-edge application development. Visual Basic and C++, for example, are also used in the upkeep of client/server systems, and there's a constant demand for Cobol developers to deal with the needs of legacy mainframe systems that still underlie the IT infrastructure at many agencies.

But the growing focus on the Internet and the rapid expansion of intranets within agencies are driving much of the government demand for employees with application- development skills.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, the agency's Web site is a top priority. That means IT workers must have skills beyond expertise in just the core development languages, according to Greg Hernandez, NOAA's Webmaster. Developers must also know how to organize a site and make it more attractive and useful to visitors, which means developing applications that take into account such guidelines as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires agencies to make IT systems accessible to people with disabilities.

Officials at the Social Security Administration have a goal of enabling people to process claims and, eventually, conduct all of their transactions with the agency via its Web site. Beyond Web development skills, IT staff members must be skilled in building such transactional services. So expertise in languages such as C, Java and XML will be required, SSA officials say, but so too will knowledge of such tools as Perl, which is used to develop Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts to other applications and enable users to interact with Web sites.

Finding people with those skills, however, is not easy. The dot-com boom may be over, but there's still heavy demand from industry for the same skills that government agencies need.

"Companies still have a huge number of openings for IT people and highly skilled developers," said Maria Schafer, program director in the executive services division of the META Group Inc., an IT research and consulting company. "The categories in demand also keep expanding, so there will be even more pressure in the future."

It's difficult for agencies, which have fixed budgets, to compete for skilled workers when industry salaries have increased an average of more than 40 percent in recent years, according to Schafer. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, for example, has been forced to rely heavily on contract developers because it has been difficult to attract people to staff jobs. "We know the skills we need are out there, but we just can't attract them," said Wes Geweah, the agency's deputy chief information officer. "So the outside contractors do the coding and integration testing, they write the documentation and so on. We use our senior development staff more as system developers." The government is trying to loosen the employment straitjackets. The Office of Personnel Management early this year established higher pay rates for computer and other IT specialists, allowing pay raises of between 7 percent and 33 percent. OPM announced in June a new job family and modern job descriptions for federal IT workers that are expected to help agencies recruit and hire skilled workers. And agencies can now offer recruitment bonuses and other inducements, such as payment of student loans.

Despite that, even government organizations that have the most interesting and challenging work to offer potential employees still find the recruitment challenge daunting.

"We are keeping up with our hiring needs," said Sandia's Chapa, "but just barely."

Officials at many federal agencies say they are using outside contractors more frequently to fill the holes in their developer ranks, and contractors say the need for developers in government could be as much as five times greater than the availability.

"The government is digging itself a real hole as far as attracting talent is concerned," said Henry Ballard, president of the GeoDyn Research Group Inc., an engineering research company that does business in both the commercial and defense sectors. "The flip side is that government probably has all of the expertise it needs for attracting skills if it wanted to take more development in-house, but I just haven't seen that happening so far."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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