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Upwardly mobile

Published on Friday, 19 Apr 2013
Even a mobile app such as this one, which turns a phone into a glow stick, can make a success of its developer.
Photo: Sam Tsang
Jacqueline Chong
Edwin Mak

The call is going out for innovative app developers

When the iPhone App Store launched in 2008, only 800 apps were available. Now, almost five years later, the store offers over 800,000 apps. In turn, Apple has paid over US$7 billion to app developers.

Mobile apps have turned the IT industry into a space where IT professionals young and old can make their mark. One of the best examples is London teenager Nick D’Aloisio, who made headlines earlier this year when Summly, a mobile app he developed that searches for news snippets and edits them to make them better suited for mobile devices, was sold to Yahoo for a reported US$30 million.

“There is no longer a monopoly in the IT industry,” says Tam Kar-yan, chair professor of information systems, business statistics and operations management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “The market has changed and young people can now get into the business by developing user-friendly, popular free apps, which companies are always on the lookout for.”

The mobile-development industry has been growing ever since the day smartphones were introduced. Technology research and advisory firm Gartner predict that in 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs to become the most popular devices used to access the internet.

The business potential of mobile development has prompted many new start-ups in Hong Kong to develop and market their mobile apps. Over the past decade, some of these startups have matured and become market leaders.

Green Tomato, a Hong Kong-based mobile technology specialist, created the award-winning mobile apps Hong Kong Movie and TalkBox Voice Messenger. Its recent collaboration project with Orbis Hong Kong – the Orbis Moonwalker iPhone app – was also commended at the Hong Kong ICT Awards 2013 for its outstanding social media marketing efforts and implementation of innovative location-based mobile technology. The app won the Best Mobile Apps (Mobile Marketing) Gold Award, Best Location-Based Application Special Mention Award, and received the Best Grand Award in Best Mobile App category.

Jacqueline Chong, chief marketing officer at Green Tomato, says a workplace that encourages creativity is important for their staff.

“We have an open office and a flat organisational structure where it is okay to disagree with others – even with the leaders – so we can come up with better ideas,” she says. “We don’t have a formal knowledge-exchange system, but our staff love to share ideas, so we are pretty noisy in the office.”

The company has grown to more than 100 staff since it was established with just a handful of people in 2003. Most staff members who have been at the company since its early years have been promoted from developers to managers. “Although the skill sets required for app development have changed over the years, the experience in handling technical projects is treasured here,” Chong says.

In today’s mobile-development industry, people who are self-motivated and able to learn new things on their own have a distinct advantage when it comes to hiring.

“In order to avoid being eliminated by new technologies, we place a lot of stress on continuous learning,” says Edwin Mak, project manager at Zensis, a mobile-app development firm and provider of mobile-network-related server solutions.

He adds that IT professionals, especially mobile-app developers, have to constantly learn new things and be prepared for the rise and fall of any technology. “Our staff who used to work with the Symbian operating system had to learn to work with the Windows Mobile operating system when Nokia decided to make the switch for its smartphones,” he says.

The 19 employees at Zensis are all active mobile-app users. “You are more motivated to improve technically if you can see your work from the users’ point of view,” Mak says.

He points out, however, that with the mobile-app industry constantly changing, it is very hard to find experienced senior developers. “Instead we look for candidates who are knowledgeable in programming and can demonstrate good logical thinking,” he says.

Mak suggests that those who are just starting out in mobile-app development study software development kits (SDKs) and learn from development tools that can be downloaded from a number of official websites.

Chong adds that employers’ are gradually expecting candidates to be cross-disciplinary. “We look for developers who can teach themselves to handle cross-platform projects, solve problems and become cross-disciplinary,” she says. “Some people we interview still think IT merely plays a supporting role in a company. This should not be the case as technology is meant to change the world.”

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