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What are the most promising industries for a software engineer?
November 24, 2008 1:07 PM   Subscribe

CareerFilter: I will be finishing my BS in Computer Science in 2-3 years. What industries will likely offer the best earnings potential and interesting work to a software engineer, and how do I improve my attractiveness as a potential hire to those industries?

My question is similar to this one, but I'm specifically interested in identifying industries that are desirable to software engineers in terms of pay, growth potential, and challenging work. I don't have a fixed definition of "interesting," but at a minimum it would mean solving problems more complicated than connecting web forms to databases. (I find games programming interesting as a hobby, but as a career I can't reconcile the long hours and the low pay.)

1) What industries should I consider? At this point I'm open to pretty much anything: finance, defense, health care, anything else I may not have considered.

2) For a given industry, what minor and/or electives should I consider to be a strong candidate? Statistics, economics, systems design, information security, Standard Chinese, _________? If it's not premature, what should I be thinking about in terms of my Master's?

3) Possible complication: I would like to spend a few years working in East Asia, most likely China or Japan. I would be willing to accept reduced earnings for a few years as a fair trade-off for this type of opportunity, as long as I would be gaining relevant experience that would make me a strong candidate for higher-paying positions when I return to the states. What would be the best way to prepare for this, and how would this affect answers to the above questions?

Some possibly relevant details: I'm 29 and going back to school after several years away. I have a junior degree in liberal arts (oops). I've done programming as a hobby most of my life, but I work in an unrelated field. I am willing to work long hours as long as I'm well compensated for it (exception for opportunities in East Asia, as noted). I do well in high-stress environments but don't need pressure to feel satisfied as long as I find my work interesting. I'm willing to relocate to pretty much anywhere but will not be able to do so for about three years (hopefully by the time I graduate). I have some experience in corporate training and technical writing but have no formal education in those areas.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions or advice!
posted by [user was fined for this post] to Work & Money (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Standard Chinese

I've personally profited immensely from the 2 years of Japanese I took in school.

I'm taking Mandarin now at a City College and am finding it's not quite as "cool" -- Japanese is a very "feature-rich" (grammar-wise) language, while Chinese is more free flow and (at this level at least) rather bare-bones on the grammatical level.

I got a CS degree in 1992 and headed straight off to Japan. Without near-native abilities to speak the language IMO & IME it is very difficult if not impossible to land a "good" job. But that's what English teaching is for, to get your feet on the ground and acculturated over a year or three. By mid-1995 I had landed the programming job I was looking for. This was immediately pre-web boom so perhaps jobs are more available now. For the size of Japan's GDP they sure don't have much of a hiring base so I would think the opportunities are there for foreigners to find employers.

China these days may be a different kettle of fish. There AFAICT the labor/work balance is inverted, with plenty of graduates entering into a growing but still developing economy. I haven't been west of Seoul so I don't know much about China but I do know that their wages are about 1/10th (in dollar terms) of Japan's, so saving or meeting expenses in USD may be difficult.

As for the kinds of jobs out there . . . this is something for you to find out. While in school you should be doing all kinds of homebrew projects (AJAX / Ruby on Rails / C# 3.0 / PHP / Android / iPhone) to round out your skills and find out your mettle and interests.

As for classes to take, make sure you take statistics, that was a great class, both the Math and the Queueing theory I had to take (took that class with Allen Adham and he went on to found Blizzard LOL).

Screw economics. You should focus on classes and an education that you CAN'T get from reading wikipedia articles.

Masters? You won't need that to be a worker bee unless you want to work for Gazoogle.
posted by troy at 1:26 PM on November 24, 2008


I don't have a fixed definition of "interesting," but at a minimum it would mean solving problems more complicated than connecting web forms to databases.

I don't know much about the academic side of CS, but that might be more your speed if you want to work on innovative/unique stuff. If you're writing code for a big company, most of the work will be relatively standard, proven types of applications. The pro side of sticking to the more boring types of projects is that you have a lot more options for the locations and types of jobs that you can get.

What industries should I consider? At this point I'm open to pretty much anything: finance, defense, health care, anything else I may not have considered.

From your description it sounds like you may want to look for industries that write a lot of in-house code. You've mentioned several of the big ones already, but don't forget pure software companies. Another big one is manufacturing, especially if you're interested in writing embedded systems code. Note that having skills in a particular industry can be a liability sometimes. A lot of programmers who went into the finance industry, for example, are having a hard time finding work that uses their skills given the huge downturn in the finance industry lately. Again, the non-industry-specific stuff tends to be more boring, but it's easier to find work.

For a given industry, what minor and/or electives should I consider to be a strong candidate?

If you're looking for an entry level programming job, most of that won't really matter. In my opinion you're better off choosing a minor and electives in things you are actually interested in, rather than things that you think will help you get a job. Basically, the main question a company will ask themselves when you are applying is "Will this applicant be able perform better than the other candidates, and if so how long will it take him/her to get up to speed?" So you'll want to be able to show that you're smart enough to pick things up quickly, and that you've done a lot of similar things to what you'll be doing in the job.

While in school you should be doing all kinds of homebrew projects (AJAX / Ruby on Rails / C# 3.0 / PHP / Android / iPhone) to round out your skills and find out your mettle and interests.

This is a good idea in general, but I would emphasize getting really solid skills in one specific language or platform. If you are jack of all programming languages and a master of none, you'll have a hard time competing for jobs against someone who eats, breathes, and sleeps Ruby on Rails code if you're applying for a Rails job.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:53 PM on November 24, 2008


Robotics! Robotics is a rapidly growing industry, requires good CS people, and is generally awesome. There are plenty of Asian robotics companies (especially in South Korea and Japan), but many US companies do manufacturing offshore and I know several roboticist friends who have been able to take advantage of their Mandarin.

C++ will be your friend, and there are plenty of robotics kits out there (see: LEGO Mindstorms, iRobot Create, etc) that you can play around with. Sensor integration and autonomy are the key skills you want to work on.
posted by olinerd at 2:14 PM on November 24, 2008


Two words: defense contracting. I really think that it beats any other field in terms of salary, resiliency to outsourcing, and providing challenging and interesting work (and possibly even lets certain people believe that they're helping to make the world a better place). There's tons of downsides too, which I'm happy to describe if you want more info, but if you're interested in money and job security, get thee security clearance.
posted by gsteff at 4:37 PM on November 24, 2008


Projects, projects, projects. Unless you've produced code that someone else has used, I don't even want to talk to you. Luckily, in these days of Sourceforge, etc. it's not hard to find something useful to work on.

Personally, I love coding on embedded systems. Networking mostly, but anywhere CPU is tight and the hardware manual is six inches thick makes me feel all warm and cozy.

Still, if I wanted to make flipping great wodges of cash I would suck it up and go join the finance industry. Who knows? In three years there may actually BE a finance industry again...
posted by tkolar at 6:52 PM on November 24, 2008


Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

troy: You've confirmed my impressions about Japan being in need of more people with strong technical skills. I do want to spend some time in China, but I think the best plan may be to select Japan as my "base of operations" and make short trips to China as time and money permit.

burnmp3s: I did wonder about academia. It's a world I know very little about (except from a student's perspective). You make a good point about availability of jobs; it's something to consider in the current climate.

olinerd: Robotics is a definite interest (I love my Mindstorms), and I know it's a big industry in Japan. I'm surprised I didn't have it in mind when I composed the question; I think my brain compartmentalizes robots into "cool hobby" and "too fun to be real work," but of course this is not at all the case in reality. I will look into it further. Good suggestion--thanks!

gsteff: I've strongly considered defense work for the reasons you mention, and there's nothing in my past that should prevent me from qualifying for a top clearance. But I know very little about the downsides and would be grateful to learn more. Feel free to MeFi Mail me if you prefer it to posting here.

tkolar: Good point about experience with code that people actually use. I've given serious thought to starting a microISV business (my original intention was casual games, but I may pick something that would better showcase my abilities to potential employers). If not, there's always Sourceforge as you point out.

These are all very helpful. Thanks again to everyone.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 8:47 AM on November 25, 2008


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