If you have a smartphone (and if you’re in the US, 77% of residents do own one, according to the Pew Research Center), you’re already abundantly aware of applications (“apps” for short), how to fill up your home screen with different versions, and how they all work. But you may not know that there’s a subset of computer and software programmers within the tech community specifically responsible for designing, coding, and maintaining apps.
These professionals, known as application developers, are responsible for every game, social media platform, wellness program, and streaming-video player you download, and as apps continue to multiply, the career outlook for their developers becomes increasingly favorable and lucrative.
Application developers fall into the category of “software developers”, in that they use coding to write programs for computers and mobile devices. However, application developers direct their efforts entirely towards their eponymous apps, writing programs for specific operating systems (like Windows or Mac OS) or specific mobile devices. While desktop apps (like Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office) sill play a major role in the industry, apps downloaded to mobile devices like smartphones make up a larger and faster-changing percentage.
From start to finish, an app developer’s work on a project will involve analyzing research about consumer needs, defining a prospective app to address these matters, using defined parameters and specifications to outline a development plan, building and coding the app, testing and refining the app to address immediate problems, troubleshooting the app once it’s up and running, and making necessary modifications to existing related programs if necessary.
It’s also not uncommon for app developers to create documentation (like charts and spreadsheets) to chronicle their progress for future technicians and developers.
App developers must earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, preferably majoring in computer science or a related field like computer programming, information sciences, or software engineering. Applications for these roles must possess a strong understanding of computer languages; many bachelor’s degree programs in computer science offer these courses as part of the major, and if not, they’re typically included in course catalogs as electives.
In general, this field values viable and measurable work experience over advanced academic credentials. In order to gain this experience, students in computer science programs can take advantage of internships at any number of companies and public institutions; currently, organizations as varied as Comcast, Colgate, Bose, and the Central Intelligence Agency are seeking student interns for app development roles.
For an entry-level or junior app developer position, a master’s degree isn’t required or expected. However, if you hope to rise to senior management or a role within a highly-specialized app development team, a graduate degree in computer science with a focus on internet program development will make you a more competitive candidate, especially when combined with a relevant employment history.
Interested candidates with the necessary undergraduate credentials can apply for junior developer roles at most companies that hire application teams. At most companies, junior developers are expected to focus on learning from the senior members of their teams; most companies that employ developers encourage mentoring relationships and want to invest in the growth of their lower-level staffers. Typical tasks assigned to junior developers include bug fixes, pair programming (working with a senior staffer to code a more complex program feature), and accepting responsibility for smaller, less crucial “tickets” (daily job assignments).
After spending time at the junior level and bolstering your knowledge of code and program processes, you’ll be well-positioned to rise to a mid-level- and, eventually, a senior- development role. These tech professionals handle more complicated aspects of the program, address challenging “tickets”, and take the lead on creating design specs and new app features. Senior developers often have the ability to pitch new apps and choose their own development teams after their projects receive a green light from company leadership.
At this point in tech-based history, apps have become so ubiquitous and so widespread that you’d be hard-pressed to find a company that doesn’t make use of application developers. Of course, massive organizations with their own smartphones like Apple and Google hire on-site developers to create and handle house-designed apps. However, a near-infinite number of companies from all industries, whether directly tech-related or not, also claim downloadable apps in order to gain user traffic in this increasingly mobile-device-oriented society.
If you’re interested in working for a company producing a top-rated app, Digital Trends reports that the most downloaded applications on iOS (the iPhone) currently include YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, while Android counts Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram among its most popular app choices.
Pay rates for application developers depend heavily on seniority and specialized experience; the more pockets of expertise you have and successful apps you’ve worked on, the more competitive you are in a salary-negotiation conversation.
According to Payscale, application developers earn a national average salary of $67,502 annually across all experience levels. However, Payscale also points out that entry-level app developers earn an average of $60,000 per year, mid-career (5-10 years of experience) developers can expect close to $80,000 annually, experienced (10-20 years) developers make $85-90,0000, and late-career developers (20 years and more) earn at least $90,000 as their annual base salary. At all echelons of seniority, developers located in larger cities and established tech hubs can expect higher pay rates; developers in New York City earn approximately 28% of the national salary average, while Chicago and Seattle-based developers bring in 21% of the average.
As with other facets of the tech industry, application development can be more lucrative if you’re employed by a large and well-funded company; for instance, developers at J.P. Morgan earn median salaries of $88,087 per year, significantly above the national average.