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Software as a Service (SaaS) Careers

Opportunities are endless in this emerging field

By John Edwards

Like just about everything else, business software applications are headed to the Internet. Robert Desisto, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based technology research firm Gartner, predicted last year that by 2011, a quarter of new business software will be provided online as a service. That's an impressive figure, considering that the software as a service (SaaS) market has been around for only a few years.

Thanks to the Internet, the days of software being delivered on magnetic or optical media are rapidly dwindling. More businesses are opting instead to have their applications - including accounting, sales, productivity, logistics, manufacturing, and training tools - delivered directly to end users via the Web.

Over the past few years, several factors have combined to make SaaS an increasingly popular choice for a growing number of businesses: Web technologies have matured, applications have grown more standardized, and the lure of lower up-front capital costs, streamlined maintenance, and easier scalability has steadily increased.

SaaS apps also appeal to businesses because they are easier to deploy than conventional software. An application hosted onsite must be carefully tested for server compatibility, performance, and usability. By contrast, deploying a Web-based program typically requires just a few weeks of prep work - mostly spent configuring the software and training users. The SaaS approach also tends to take the hurt out of updating software. With on-demand apps, everybody gets upgraded at the same time, and there's no need to plan a rollout strategy, which can make upgrading cheaper and faster.

Jobs Galore

With nearly all major business application software companies now rushing headlong into SaaS technology, numerous career opportunities are opening up for software developers who know how to create and maintain programs designed for Internet distribution.

Chris Lynch, vice president of engineering at Daptive, a Seattle-based SaaS applications vendor, says Web-delivered software is the way of the future. "Organizations are very quickly realizing that they do not have to own servers, database licenses, and cool rooms in order to be effective in managing their business," he says. "Increasingly, corporate IT is looking at SaaS applications as a way to meet ever expanding business needs and to focus on the IT infrastructure. It gives businesses more flexibility, because it takes away some of their burden."

Lynch states that Daptive actively recruits job candidates with a variety of abilities. "We have many positions for people with IT degrees," he says. "Software developer, software tester, network operations engineer and database administrator are just some of the positions open for people with that background."

Lynch says he likes to hire people who are problem solvers. "IT is something that supports the overall goals of the business, so in addition to specific skills we look for people who have the right attitude about making things happen."

Olivier Chaine is CEO and founder of magnify360, a Los Angeles-based SaaS software provider that offers a platform enabling websites to adapt their presentation and performance in real time to the needs of individual visitors. Chaine says his company hires many different types of IT professionals. "What we look for, especially if someone is a recent college grad or someone with only a few years of experience, is the person's personality and drive," he says. "What is that person most interested and passionate about?"

Chaine notes that many of magnify360's new hires have an engineering background. The company likes to place such individuals into software development positions, believing that their knowledge will help them create better network-savvy software. He notes that on-demand apps also need to adhere to a rapid update schedule, which engineers should be accustomed to meeting. "You can do releases every week, every month," Chaine says. "With traditional software, if you're a fast-paced software company, you might be doing releases every nine months or every year. If you're Microsoft, you're doing it every four to five years."

Morris Panner, CEO of Boston-based SaaS company OpenAir, believes that the SaaS field offers almost boundless opportunities for grads. "Companies in this environment are presenting a fulfilling and long-standing growth path," he says. Panner, who also chairs the Corporate Strategy Executive Council of the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), the principal trade association for the software and digital content industry, expects SaaS growth to continue for the foreseeable future. "It's a deep trend that's going to go on for a long time," he says, "We're developing and deepening this model, watching it take more and more of the market."

While Open Air has so far relied on a core group of senior developers, Panner says that the company's continuing growth will likely soon open the way for more entry-level positions. "Newcomers can gain experience and learn and be put in a position to contribute," he says. "We're always on the lookout for talented people."

Mark Symonds, CEO and president of Plexus Systems, a SaaS vendor located in Auburn Hills, Michigan, says he doesn't see the new technology as all that different from traditional software development. "A lot of the concepts are the same," he says. "Still, people who have taken the time to learn how to develop for this kind of environment are now in demand, and the demand is only going to increase."

Future Outlook

Lynch says that any grad planning a career in business software apps is destined to find himself or herself, sooner or later, working in a SaaS environment. He advises grads to get into the field right now with a full-time or part-time job or by landing an internship. "Jump in," he says. "The experiences that you gain in SaaS now will be very valuable to you for the foreseeable future."

Until something even better comes along, SaaS can be expected to continue its march toward industry domination, says Panner. "The nature of technology is that something new will always come along - something that none of us can even imagine," he says. "But for today, if you look around the horizon, and you look at what's possible, SaaS is a very powerful technology and a very powerful business trend."

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer, and numerous other publications.

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