Six Reasons Why The Shortage Of UI Engineers Is Going To Get Worse

It’s hard to find a good UI Engineer.

That’s the conversation I’ve had with several people in the Bay Area. Great front-end engineers are hard to find, and the ones available get multiple offers. This, in a time when many people are having problems finding jobs, you would think that developers would be looking into UI as a career path.

But it’s not so easy to be one because of the needed skillset — it’s this odd combination of solid development skills, decent UX skills, and being able to slice and dice PSDs in minutes instead of hours. I’ve resorted to training people to do proper HTML and CSS instead of hiring engineers, just because of the bad habits many engineers have developed over time.

True UI engineers are almost art forgers with one specific addition: they have to understand how something works so it’s elegant and useful.

The skills required to do great User Experience applications need an attention to detail that comes only with craftsmanship of a great product and understanding the local culture.

UI Engineers are worth their weight in gold. In most organizations, they are the gatekeepers (Joel On Software had a whole article on this). They are the final word on how something gets implemented, and the best ones truly add to a product.

My prediction:

The need for good front-end engineers is going to eclipse the need for back-end engineers. Common backend tasks can easily be done by resources not here (read: India and nearshore). The skills required to do great User Experience applications need an attention to detail that comes only with craftsmanship of a great product and understanding the local culture. One owner of an outsource development firm all but admitted that it was better for him to get the UX work done here than having his engineers do it.

Or, to put it another way — would you outsource your marketing copy to someone in China?

Why the shortage shall persist

Attention Paid to User Experience

One of the nice things about being in User Experience now is that companies are finally getting it. They know they need a solid user experience to make it in the marketplace, and that requires great User Experience professionals. The most useful person for a user experience professional is a UI Engineer than can translate wireframes and visual designs into engaging experiences.

The best UI Engineers I work with, turn the working experience into a true collaboration. In the end, you get a solution that’s great for the user.

HTML 5

The kind of new but not really technology, if promised, will provide more functionality and the ability to do more cool things with HTML that you currently have to do through graphics. No more rounded corners, drop-shadows or other funky work-arounds through jQuery and wacky CSS, providing not only faster downloads, but faster development times.

jQuery

Sure, it’s a framework to make things easier, but solid knowledge of jQuery requires almost as much knowledge about Javascript as Javascript itself. There has to be solid knowledge of how it should be used (as opposed to the way most UI Engineers use it today) and how to create great user experiences that use jQuery right. It’s just not about the Lightbox, it’s about all kinds of user experiences.

AJAX

Who needs a backend engineer, when you can do most of the work using REST and AJAX calls? The MySpace platform is a great example: many of the calls to retrieve data could be done purely through Javascript. Browsers are getting better about standardized Javascript (and as soon as Internet Explorer 6 is out of the picture, there will be a party). So AJAX is becoming the language du jour for a lot of web experience.

How do you search through a flight? Kayak, which has a display engine that updates on the fly.

How do you search Google? Google Instant. This is the wave of the future.

Mobile Applications

Say what you want about the iPhone, sometime next year the Android OS is going to surpass it. Native apps are cool, but aren’t really cross-platform on mobile. So the quicker go-to-market approach would be a combination of native and HTML. That means engineers that can create engaging experiences with crazy specifications by UX professionals.

If you have a solid UI Engineer, you could test product concepts across multiple phones easy without investing a ton of development time in a native application.

Commodization of the Backend Engineer

When a lot of the calls to data are done through Javascript, you eliminate some of the need for a backend engineer. More goes out the door when scalability goes to the cloud, allowing companies to scale web applications quicker and don’t require teams of developers working on how to optimize the code just a bit faster.

Lastly, development costs have dropped because of the number of technology frameworks that allow developers to bring products to market faster.

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