Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Got the app-titude

BlackBerry’s Alan Wong is reprogramming the world of apps

With the rapid development of the smartphone app industry, a new career path – application development consulting – is emerging in major technology companies.

BlackBerry’s Alan Wong, an application development consultant, is proof of the potential of such a career. A diehard computer gamer, he joined the mobile phone giant in 2009 after graduating from university to pursue a career in IT.

“I was a computer science major at the University of Waterloo in Canada and my initial plan was to work in North America,” he says. “After graduating, I returned to Hong Kong for a holiday, but my mother urged me to look for a job. In the end, I decided to stay because of the offer from BlackBerry.”

Wong first encountered the writing of mobile phone apps at university. In his final-year project, he created a program to record a person’s heartbeat. The program automatically dialed 911 if its user’s heartbeat fell below a certain level.

The emergence of app development consulting is a result of the rising number of app developers. “As more developers entered the market, technology companies like BlackBerry wanted to manage the work of developers better and began building app development consulting teams,” Wong says. “BlackBerry’s team has grown by leaps and bounds. It started with three people when I first joined, and today we have 15 overseeing the Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland markets.”

App development consultants are techno-savvy individuals familiar with programming. “My job is to interact with app developers and help them provide high-quality apps for the BlackBerry platform,” Wong says. “To do that, I need to know about writing codes and programs. I provide support and guidance to mobile developers to help integrate their applications onto the BlackBerry platform. I also work with major apps on other platforms to try to make them available [on ours].”

Although app development consultants spend most of their time handling the technical issues that revolve around app development, there is also a human aspect to the job. Wong regularly travels overseas to attend technology conferences and promote the BlackBerry app platform.

“I remember following a colleague on a trip to India, two weeks after joining the company,” he says. “But there was a problem with his visa and I was left alone in India to represent the company at a conference. I was under huge pressure. The initial idea was for me to learn on the job, but I had to get it done myself. It was challenging, but also a great learning experience.”

While app development for mobile phones is a relatively new branch of IT, the concept is not new. “Desktop computer programmers have long been writing apps,” Wong says. “Smartphones are just a new channel for developers them to showcase their talent.”

App developers make money by selling apps on different platforms and helping businesses develop apps themselves. Wong, meanwhile, foresees the industry growing significantly in future. “At the moment the focus is on smartphones,” he says. “I predict the business will become more diverse. Various devices, including tablet computers and televisions, are already showing rising demand. Developers should not limit themselves to creating apps for smartphones.”

Wong has discovered that a successful app requires constant improvement to give users a fresh look. “App developers need to add new elements to their products to give users the incentive to keep using them,” he says. “The popular game app, Candy Crush, is a good example. Although it is a simple tile-matching game, it has various levels and keeps players amused by introducing new features.”

Wong says that incubation programmes are an important factor in nurturing app development talent. “The app business has low start-up costs compared to other businesses,” he says. “In the US, there are a lot of programmes and they are the key driving force behind the industry. Currently the Hong Kong Science Park and Cyberport have incubation projects that help app developers set up businesses. I hope to see more such programmes in Hong Kong.”

With such a huge number of apps existing on a number of different platforms, it is not always easy for users to choose the best ones. Wong’s advice is not to judge an app from its ranking. “Sometimes, businesses will pay the app platforms to push up the ranking,” he says. “A more reliable way to search for serviceable apps is to look at certifications. BlackBerry has a system where app experts grade the user experience after trying it out. These are much fairer judgments.”

In his free time, Wong develops apps on his own. “The apps that I create [in my spare time] are personalised,” he says. “I don’t think they are good enough to put on a platform for open download. For example, I have created an app that helps me prioritise the e-mails I want to send.”

Although Wong’s work does not require him to develop apps, he is passionate about creating them and hopes to get involved one day. “My job allows me to gain insights on app development,” he says. “In the future I want to be a developer. My goal is to develop apps that can benefit people on a daily basis.”


Wong’s take on how mobile apps have changed our world

BORDER-BREAKING “Apps take communication to a new level. People can text, talk and video-conference with one another across continents at a low cost.”
MIND-EXPANDING “The transfer of knowledge has never been so convenient, with apps helping people to do everything from learn languages to keep fit.”
WORK-LIGHTENING “Apps make corporate operations smoother. Repetitive jobs such as data entry can be done with apps.”
TASK-FACILITATING “Corporate communication is more efficient. Supervisors can perform functions such as approving staff applications on mobile phones.”
DOWNTIME-DOMINATING “Game playing has never been so popular. People play games whenever they have free time.”