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Maybe the last three startups you work for no longer exist.  Maybe you're one of the thousands whose job at that monolithic "solid" company no longer exists.  Or maybe you're still hanging on as one of four people in what used to be a department of 30.

Regardless of situation, it's time to do something.

As the high-tech industry and the national economy attempt to inch toward recovery, many tech professionals are taking a good hard look at their skills, defining new goals for their future, and using downtime to return to school.

For junior or intermediate Java programmers, the path of least resistance may be to get Java certified through an online training program. These computer-based training programs can certainly help you expand and refine your skills, but Java certification doesn’t necessarily guarantee that new doors of opportunity will suddenly fly open for you.

Any type of technical training adds to your professional cachet, but we have yet to see a hiring manager specifically request that candidates be Java certified or break into a dance of joy to find it on a candidate’s résumé.

What hiring managers do respond to are bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and/or electrical engineering from colleges known for their technical programs.

Going back to school for two to four years may not be feasible for everyone, but unlike employment, education is something that can never be taken away from you.

If you have a solid Java background and are looking to make it stronger, you might want to seek out courses in skills that are currently in demand, such as knowledge of distributed systems, enterprise applications, multithreading, scalability, and security.

For a broader perspective on these questions of technical training, we consulted someone who’s moved throughout technology’s academic and professional worlds.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Harvey Mudd College, Craig Persiko worked at a variety of companies as a programmer, returned to school to get his master’s degree in computer science at NYU, and now teaches programming at City College of San Francisco.

His early exposure to the professional world was an eye-opener. “A lot of professional programmers don’t have formal training, which means there’s a lot of bad code out there,” he said. “I was surprised how many people in the professional world picked up their programming skills on the job.”

Although academia can be somewhat removed from the day-to-day realities of the professional world, Persiko attributes key skills to a formal computer science education.

“The formal study of design skills – planning things before you start coding – and issues of readability and maintainability are very important,” he said. “It’s important not just that the code works, but that it’s easy to understand and maintain.

One area in which the academic world has had to catch up with the professional world is in the use of Java itself. Persiko’s undergraduate training focused on C++.

“As a graduate student at NYU, I was amazed how many students were learning Java to start with, but it really makes sense,” he said. “Java is easier than C++ to learn first. It’s written to be more robust and doesn’t let you make the mistakes you can in C++.”

Persiko sees an increasing acceptance of Java as an academic language. There are still more students learning C++, but the programming courses he teaches are now offered in both C++ and Java.

The student population moving through the academic world has changed as well. While most of his day students are typical college-age students, people attending the evening courses tend to be working adults who’ve worked in some programming-related capacity but are looking for career enhancement.

A lot of them have been recently laid off and some are preparing for an IS management degree. But most of them are not coming from a traditional computer science background.

Enrollment is down for some of the Web design and graphics courses, but is strong and growing for the programming and Unix courses. “The perception that computer science is the hot career to go into has changed,” he said. “It’s a huge transition from a year and a half ago.”

His advice to technical professionals at this juncture? “Examine what you want more of and what you want to improve on. Set your goals and decide exactly what it is that you want to accomplish.”

Noting that not everyone has the time or motivation to embark on a full degree program, Persiko stresses that it’s important to stay focused and take courses that will move you closer to your goals.

“Either way,” he said, “It’s a very good time to go back to school.”

Author Bios
Bill Baloglu is a principal at ObjectFocus (www.ObjectFocus.com), a Java staffing firm in Silicon Valley.  Bill has extensive OO experience and has held software development and senior technical management positions at several Silicon Valley firms.

Billy Palmieri is a seasoned staffing industry executive and a principal at ObjectFocus. His prior position was at Renaissance Worldwide, where he held several senior management positions in the firm’s Silicon Valley operations.

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