While there was a time when job seekers could afford to be choosy about the roles they took on, which company they worked for and the hours they worked, unfortunately, there's no doubt recession and large-scale redundancies have had an impact on the IT industry, turning the job-scene very much into a buyer's market. As candidates find themselves competing with many others for fewer roles, flexibility will be a key factor on deciding who gets the job.
Although there are definitely jobs available in the market, especially for those with specialist skills and relevant experience, candidates who are willing to show flexibility in their requirements do give themselves an added advantage. Whether it involves taking on a different role than you're used to, working different hours than usual or considering short term rather than longer term contract work, a willingness to adapt to the changing needs of the market could be the one key skill that propels you to the top of a potential employer's list.
Nor does flexibility necessarily involve making sacrifices; one very positive effect of the new jobs market is that it has removed some of the barriers that have stopped candidates putting themselves forward for certain roles in the past. Perceptions about the kind of roles and responsibilities they could get or take on have often caused candidates to take a cautious approach to job-seeking in the past. Now, however, as employers demonstrably place more value on specific skills (rather than generic 'IT skills') and a willingness to understand the wider business context, candidates are in a position to explore avenues that they may not once have considered, whether that involves applying for a different type of role, considering a change in sector or approaching a different kind of organisation.
As long as they remain realistic and willing to negotiate, there are still many opportunities for IT workers in today's market; while knowledge and skills are always important, a change in mindset can be the key factor that makes the difference between finding or keeping a job and not.
When Rasmus Lerdorf announced Personal Home Page Tools 1.0 in June 1995, I doubt that he had enterprise software development in mind. Fourteen years later, the CTO of Zend software, Zeev Suraski, shows me a slide. It has a large area shaded light blue, representing all the part-time or hobbyist users of PHP, and a thin strip of darker blue representing corporate PHP developers or ISVs (independent software vendors) offering PHP applications.
"Those two categories are growing significantly," says Suraski. "In 2006 we're talking about maybe 10% or less of the entire user base, whereas by the end of 2009 Gartner expects it to be about 35%. This changing demographics is a sign of maturity for PHP."
He would say that, of course, because that thin strip is Zend's potential customer base. The company sells a professional IDE for PHP, support services, and the just-released Zend Server which packages PHP along with commonly used companions such as MySQL. There is also an optimizer (technically an op-code cache), a Java connector, and the paid-for version has additional monitoring, debugging and caching components.
It is not just talk though: Zend is flourishing despite the recession - "the Q1 of 2009 has been our strongest quarter ever," says Suraski - and although PHP's enterprise market share is small compared to Java or .NET, it is growing.
What interests me is why this has happened. It is partly thanks to the merits of PHP, its speed and simplicity, and the fact that Java's libraries and to a lesser extent those in .NET are over-engineered for many tasks. More directly important though is that the community using PHP - the large area of non-paying users in Suraski's slide - has created a remarkable pool of resources on the Internet that is available to everyone, business users included. Non-commercial users are those most likely to share their knowledge, unfettered by concerns over business confidentiality or copyright.
I experienced this for myself recently, when I sat down to write a small PHP application. Every problem I encountered was quickly resolved with a Google search, or by looking at the discussion attached to entries in PHP's online documentation.
II don't mean to belittle the extent of online resources available to Java or .NET developers, but would argue that PHP has the edge here.
I also realise that it is no good just doing a search and adopting the first solution that seems to work. Developers need to understand what is being suggested and assess its quality, rather than optimistically pasting in the first block of code that seems to work. If PHP has a weakness, it is that the language does little to help developers write secure, maintainable applications, which may explain why there are so many vulnerable PHP applications out there.
So what about Zend Server? Note that this is not an application server in the WebSphere sense; it is primarily a PHP platform installer and support package, and as such not that different technically from what you can do with a Linux package manager or something like XAMPP.
I tried installing Zend Server on Windows Vista and bravely chose the IIS 7.0 integration rather than Apache. It actually worked smoothly and will be fine for developing PHP applications, though I would normally deploy to Linux, which I gather is a common scenario. That said, the work done by Zend and Microsoft makes PHP on Windows Server a reasonable option as well, and one that makes sense if you need to integrate with .NET, SQL Server or other Windows services.
The real winner here is PHP. Zend is making it business-friendly without damaging its open source ethos, and in doing so providing a great example of how free software can sidle its way into the enterprise.
Gaining experience during a period when the number of readily-available jobs is steadily declining may seem easier said than done, the importance of this seemingly obvious step cannot be overestimated. Although skills and knowledge are very important elements to building a strong CV, an increasing number of employers are looking at practical experience within a relevant field or role as an equally important factor in choosing the right candidate for a job.
For university students or fresh graduates, the process of gaining relevant experience may seem easier as placement schemes can be a good way to get a foot in the door to the IT departments of some great companies. While the pay is rarely significant (and in many cases is non-existent) for these roles, having relevant, real-life experience within a business environment adds considerable value to a CV which will stand candidates in good stead throughout their career.
For those already in jobs, the process may not be as straightforward but can be very rewarding, both from a CV-building perspective but also as a networking exercise. In many cases, employers may be quite willing to let existing employees take ownership of projects or additional responsibilities that would otherwise require them to bring in additional, external resources that they can ill afford. For an employee, this is not only a great way to prove their worth to their current employer but also a chance to build up their credentials for when the next job-hunt begins.