A Software Developer’s Career

May 2008

By Joe Eltgroth

There’s smoke coming from my monitor!” What? Why are you calling me? Get a fire extinguisher! That’s one of more interesting calls I received on my first job as a software analyst for an internal IT help-desk department.

In the late 1980’s, I had earned a BA in Mathematics in college. I entered the job market looking for a job programming computers. However, many of the entry-level job positions were going to people with computer science degrees and I was beginning to get frustrated. “I should have taken more computer science,” I thought. But then, I was hired as a help-desk analyst.

This position was a great way to start a career in the computer field. In addition to learning tons about hardware, software, and computer networks, I learned that a job in the computer field wasn’t just about “programming alone in a corner.” It was about talking to people, learning how they do their jobs, and designing solutions that solve their business issues. The job turned out to be more fun than I expected, and I learned that I liked working with people.

After being a help-desk analyst for awhile, I started to take on simple programming projects. Back then, I used a fourth-generation language to provide departmental-level applications that allowed for data sharing. It was a rudimentary tool, but it allowed development of simple applications.

Later, I got involved with a project to deliver safety manuals to the engineering organization of a large corporation. We selected Lotus Notes as our preferred platform, and I transitioned from the help desk to Lotus Notes developer. Lotus Notes was a great platform for work-flow applications. With its built-in e-mail and database capability, one could quickly build an application that securely moved a document from person to person in a corporation in order to facilitate work processes.

About five years into my career, I went back to school part-time to earn a masters degree in software design and development. The program focused on engineering techniques for designing, building, deploying and supporting software. Students studied software project management techniques and discussed experiences with people from a wide range of industries. I would recommend this kind of degree for anyone in the software field. This additional education in software development allowed me to move into areas of software development beyond Lotus Notes. I now lead projects, supervise other developers, interview users, gather requirements, design and build systems, and work with users to test and implement systems.

Currently, I use two major platforms in my day-to-day life as a software engineer for a manufacturing company. The first one is still Lotus Notes/Domino from IBM. The second one is the Java and J2EE platform with Oracle’s application server and portal environments. Lotus Notes remains good at what it has always been good at: work-flow applications, less-structured data applications, departmental applications. Generally, with these applications I work with a few users to gather requirements and then create a system usually in less than two weeks. These are fun, quick systems because users see payback quickly for low cost.

J2EE and portal environments, however, are becoming used more and more because they provide developers a way to connect various systems together. For example, one application I built integrates a system written in Lotus Notes, a corporate ERP system, and an Oracle database into an easy-to-use web-browser interface. This kind of application breaks the silos between different areas of the company and allows greater utilization of information assets. Java is also exciting because it is often used by the open source movement. The basic concept of open source software is that someone develops software and provides it to everyone via the Internet. The author gets benefits because others can collaborate to add additional features and make the product high-quality. Examining open source software is a great way to learn new techniques.

During my career, I’ve enjoyed the culture and benefits in the areas in which I’ve worked. At my current company, we dress casually and we have flexible work hours to accommodate our personal lives. We have health, dental, disability and vacation benefits. Additional education in our areas of expertise is provided. For example, all tuition for my master’s degree program was covered, and each year I attend a conference such as Lotusphere or Oracle OpenWorld.

So, my first job as a help-desk analyst launched my career into a variety of software development roles. I’m happy to be working in this industry.

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Cambridge, Mass.