Building Custom Software and Apps: What You Need to Succeed

Software demand has skyrocketed for nearly a decade now, but COVID-19 further accelerated the trend by pushing businesses to rapidly develop and adopt technologies for remote work and customer interaction. 

Within businesses of all sizes, this has sparked a need for custom software and applications—a challenging and multifaceted effort that requires developers to take on multiple roles. Successfully building highly customized software and apps hinges not only on a technologist’s technical skills, but “soft skills” such as empathy and communication, as well. 

Harry Brundage, founder of Gadget Software, suggested that, from a technical standpoint, the developer building custom software and apps will need to be comfortable with both front-end (user-facing interfaces) and backend (logic and data flows) development.

From a job-hunting perspective, keeping up with the most recent frameworks increases your odds of qualifying for custom development work. “From a soft skills standpoint, the developer must be good at communicating,” Brundage said. “They need to be able to interview their customer, validate assumptions, and communicate deliverables clearly to avoid frustrations and misunderstandings.”

Developers also need a strong portfolio to stand out in a crowded market. “Many decision makers will look to existing customers and testimonials to establish trust and credibility,” Brundage added. “It’s very important for developers to keep up-to-date portfolios of the work they’ve done, and testimonials that can vouch for their skill-set.”

Being a successful custom app developer will require more than just being a great developer: Project management and communication skills are two other examples of what’s required to successfully build a custom application for a client. 

Infrastructure

Steven Kling, head of product engineering at Appfire, suggests that Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) for custom development has, until recently, lagged behind Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). But as PaaS development frameworks have matured, cloud custom development has reached an inflection point.

Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) solutions like Terraform and AWS Cloud Development Kit (CDK) now provide even the smallest custom developer shops with the ability to express full SaaS infrastructure using popular programming languages.

“Many major cloud product companies are using these platforms to create their own development frameworks that are making embedded, bespoke app development for their product lines a very tangible and cost-effective solution for enterprise and mid-size companies alike,” Kling said. “It has a self-reinforcing effect of enabling and accelerating migration from on-premise to cloud as companies are now able to migrate without giving up their custom solutions.”

Knowledge of frameworks such as the aforementioned AWS CDK and Terraform is key, as well as a solid understanding of the various services needed to deploy and maintain your SaaS backend. Kling noted a new discipline around IaC architectures is developing, centered largely on skill-sets such as serverless and Kubernetes. Mid-level and junior app developers need to be conversant with full-stack frameworks like MEAN and MERN (and their underlying languages), and concepts like JavaScript and NoSQL document databases.

Additional and more esoteric knowledge of support tools like Webpack and test frameworks like Jest are a major plus, especially for those with a commanding understanding of these tools. “It’s quite surprising how much good content and Learning Management Systems (LMS) are now available for free or near-free to anyone at any level these days,” Kling said. “And top vendors like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud offer learning and certification paths that are quite good, as well.”

For those seeking work, Kling would recommend sites like Udemy, which has a wide breadth and depth of course materials. “Perhaps surprisingly, strong foundational skills are at a premium,” he added. “We ask candidate finalists to take a short skills assessment prior to any offer, and this is becoming a standard practice in the industry. I personally helped design ours and we intentionally put in a few native JS, Java and basic conceptual questions along with the questions around contemporary frameworks like React, Node, ExpressJS and the J2EE.”

Many newer developers have learned the abstraction layers well, but don’t understand the underlying languages and concepts. “It’s a strong indication of whether an applicant is a good versus great find,” he continued.

Security Skills are Key

David Gerry, chief revenue officer at NTT Application Security, noted the demand for digital transformation within organizations has skyrocketed, regardless of size or industry, in the past two years.

“To operate in today’s economy, an online business model is a requirement,” he said. “This has resulted in the mass deployment of applications, often without the proper security testing, to support the new hybrid or completely remote workforce.”

In 2022, he suggested, we can expect the repercussions of this mad dash to secure digital transformation to unfold, and the DevOps community to grow faster than ever, with custom app developers who possess security skills highest in demand.

“Product management, design, business analysis, performance testing are all great skills as a custom app developer,” he noted. “However, in today’s threat environment, the most critical skill is either a foundation of security knowledge that can be weaved into the development process or the ability to communicate these needs to the security team.”

With breach exposure via applications on the rise, a solid grasp of automation and security is key for developers who are tasked with building customized software and applications for a particular organization. “Developers are taking on more responsibility than ever before and are under immense pressure to produce top-performing systems rapidly and seamlessly,” he said. “If you are a developer, you are accountable for your application from development to production. Some of this process, however, may not be in your current skill-set.”

Developers should continue to insist on receiving the necessary training and education to develop their skills in both development and security, he advised, which will make them an indispensable part of any team throughout their career.

“Custom app developers should ask potential employers if they have the resources and tools to ease the weight of security testing and searching for potential exposure points so they can maintain the creative freedom needed to innovate,” he added.